From the Archive: Munich

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Image take from the invaluable CineMaterial

I find it a little remarkable that I have no reviews of Steven Spielberg films from the time I cohosted the movie review show on college radio station WWSP-90FM. During the time our program was airing weekly, the prolific filmmaker signed his name to exactly one directorial effort: Hook, released in 1991. Given when it landed on the release calendar, it’s possible we didn’t even cover it on the show. (A December 11th release date means we could have already been off in correlation to the school’s winter break). Instead, in order to populate the “From the Archive” feature with a Spielberg film in symmetry with the release of his latest, I need to look an early stretch of my web-placed review writing, when I was still very much in the process of rediscovering my voice. 

I don’t give a damn about Steven Spielberg’s political views on Israel.

The director has spent the past several weeks seeing his name get furiously scrawled across op-ed pages in connection with his new movie Munich, which finds a starting point with the cold-blooded killing of eleven Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September at the 1972 Olympics. The bulk of the film dramatizes the efforts of a crew of Israeli operatives who conduct a clandestine mission of vengeance, hunting and assassinating those individuals connected to the “Munich massacre.” Spielberg has faced criticism from all sides as frothing pundits look into the Rorschach test of the film and come away convinced that they’ve seen whatever will anger them the most. The film is too pro-Israel, or not pro-Israel enough, or too soft to take a stand one way or another on the conflict.

The reason that I don’t care is that Spielberg’s views, whatever they might be, are beside the point. No, they’re so far removed from the point that they’re in a completely different theater in the multiplex. Perhaps enjoying themselves by watching Steve Martin pretend he can waterski. Oh, Steve Martin, you befuddled, monstrously potent middle-aged dad!

Spielberg’s new film, it seems to me, has little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly viewpoints are expressed and examined, and details of the conflict get a sufficient airing, but, in many ways, this movie could have been made about any ongoing, bloody war of wills. Spielberg is not trying to make a film that offers a detailed analysis of a particular region’s difficulties, providing judgments or solutions for the geopolitical skirmishes of the day. He is getting at something more general, and maybe more important. He uses this piece of history and this unsolvable, unending battle as a means to comment on the futility of violent acts. Spielberg’s thesis is stated repeatedly in the smart screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth: the back-and-forth retribution does not lead to any sort of ending, certainly not one with any sense of peace. Eventually, the war will no longer be about land or freedom or whatever provoked it in the first place. It will be about nothing more than punishing the other side for all the punishment that they themselves have delivered, and clinging to the myth of moral superiority to preserve some self-justification and keep the turbine of stone-cold retaliation spinning.

This is a movie, not a doctoral thesis, so there are some components distinct to the form worth considering. On that front, Spielberg is the most sure-footed he’s been since the last time he had to make space on his shelf for a shiny new Oscar. He constructs the film with watchmaker precision; comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock have been plentiful and apt. There’s real tension here, in the machinery of the assassinations and also in the moral arguments between the principle characters. It may seem a talky film to some, but hearing intelligent conversation delivered with passion is one of the reasons that I go to the movies. The entire cast is quite strong, especially Ciaran Hinds (that’s Julius Caeser to you) as a member of the Israeli crew who is clinging to his humanity through steadfastly insisting upon examining the moral quandary inherent to the task he’s taken on.

Munich may not be the best name for the film. It’s not really about the specific incident from 1972. That is just a starting point, an instigation, and a spectre that haunts the Israeli operatives, a reminder that they themselves can be transformed from assassins to targets as quickly as a trigger can be pulled. If only the film could have borrowed the title of David Cronenberg’s 2005 release. Spielberg gives us a history of violence, alright. And reminds us of the cold, hard truth that it’s a history that will not likely reach a happy endpoint.

We don’t know the meaning of fear, we play every minute by ear

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Amazingly for a director who used to routinely face a barrage of critical darts for a supposed inability to progress past the childish stuff of frothy fantasy, Steven Spielberg has become one of the most dependable cinematic chroniclers of the planet’s tumultuous history. Across the last decade, with the odd exceptions of a misguided Indiana Jones sequel and a diversion into computer animation, Spielberg has been filming in the past. That’s not an entirely newfound preoccupation, of course. Even before Munich, which I’m using as the dividing line ahead of this era of Spileberg’s filmmaking, Spielberg kept cycling back to historical material to shape his onscreen fictions. The two Best Directing Academy Awards on his shelf — and how bizarre to think his lack of Oscar attention was borderline scandalous at one point — are both for films set during World War II, after all. Increasingly, though, even as he signs on to very different projects, it seems Spielberg is at his most clearly engaged when finding some piece of the American past that can help his contextualize his misgivings about the present.

His latest, Bridge of Spies, begins with the introduction of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a fairly unassuming man in Brooklyn during the chilliest phase of the Cold War. The mundane disposition isn’t a front, but it’s helpful for Rudolf’s main occupation: spying on the United States for the Russians. When he’s captured, the concern to give the appearance of a fair trial leads to the recruitment of defense attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who’s primarily working with tax law but has some relevant, upstanding professional history working at the Nuremberg Trials. James is supposed to put on a good show, but he’s committed to seeing through his task with the full weight of honest practice of the law, despite obvious disinclination of those running to system to honor his fully grounded complaints about abuses of process. This is when the film is at its most pointed, drawing a straight line from the destructive disregards of the liberty and protections that are purported to the be the foundation needing protection and similar infraction happening today in the name of the so-called War on Terror. It helps that the flinty, understated performance of Rylance is the best attribute of Bridge of Spies.

Spielberg has basically clumped two films together, and they don’t actually cohere all that well. After the first portion of the film concerns itself with James’s defense of Rudolf, in the face of overwhelming animosity among the general populace, the second chunk is immersed in the fitful amateur diplomacy of Donovan, at the unofficial behest of the U.S. government, as he negotiates a trade of Rudolf for a pair of U.S. citizens held on the wrong side of the rapidly developing Berlin Wall. This is a film made by and for the Spielberg that evidently reads John le Carré novels on long plane flights, all enamored with the musty, minor details of flawed men playing at geopolitical intrigue. It’s adequate but not all that engaging, with Spielberg’s usual deft touch turning a little clumsy as he drags out sequences with foregone conclusions, achieving added length rather than the intended suspense. He has an especially unfortunate storytelling tic of linking scenes with ham-fisted visual signifiers, such as cutting from a courtroom command of “All rise” to schoolchildren springing to the their feet for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bridge of Spies offers worthy contributions to the distracted discourse over the pathways currently followed by the nation. Unfortunately, it does so in a manner that is drab and even occasionally clumsy, showing markedly little evidence of Spielberg’s duly vaunted narrative command or his underappreciated creative daring, even as his compunction to add heavy punctuation to key scenes remains firmly in place. Sadly, that last quality is only accentuated by the thickly manipulative score of Thomas Newman, engaged in the perhaps impossible task of stepping in as the first person to try to replace John Williams, Spielberg’s musical collaborator for practically his entire career. It’s just one more heavy chip in the veneer of the piece that contributes to the diminishment of Bridge of Spies from shrewdly rewarding art to merely a decent movie.

From the Archive: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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With all my papers still packed up for transit, I’m still relying on my former online home for this weekly dive into the archive. And we’ll use this week’s release schedule to help narrow down what’s selected. The first portion of this review is probably one of the most personal things I’ve ever put to digital paper. Which isn’t saying much, I know. Still, that’s about as close as I come to cracking myself open. 

I thought I might feel unduly strong emotions watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The prior installments of the Steven Spielberg-directed film series loom large in my moviegoing history. It will surprise no one who clicks around this Webspace that I was a big movie fan as a kid, finding trips to the theater to be daunting and, yes, magical. Since the ever-shifting duo that represented my parents was, at best, indifferent to these desires, the task of providing my occasional cinematic excursions fell to my generous grandfather. This despite the fact that he didn’t especially care for movies. He had a generational fondness for westerns, but didn’t seek them out–in active release or the convenience of Saturday afternoon cable showings–but otherwise nothing fictional carried much appeal for the pragmatic carpenter. I can’t imagine how uninteresting the Disney fluff, Bugs Bunny compilations and Charlie Brown features he endured for me must have been to him.

I was eleven-years-old when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released and it seemed I had the first film I actively wanted to see that he may actually enjoy. Months after it first whipcracked into theaters, we saw it together and my suspicions proved correct. From then on, I fervently watched Siskel and Ebert through their various television derivations (they were still on PBS when Raiders was released), trying to glean what other new features might make for a good moviegoing trip for us. The one thing that was always certain was our attendance at the Indiana Jones sequels. Temple of Doom we saw immediately, and I made a special trip back from the city I was attending college so we could see Last Crusade together. These films, made for the masses, were ours, the one creation that the media-obsessed boy and the man who was more grounded in the world could dependably come together and enjoy in the dark of the theater.

My grandfather died fifteen years ago. Now, here finally is the fourth film and the prospect of seeing it without him at my side has been strange at, and times, unbearably sad. The first time I saw the trailer for Crystal Skull, I actually got choked up a bit. I wasn’t at all confident that I could see it without some overwhelming feelings, a constant sense of who was missing. My speculation proved unfounded. It was not a particularly emotional experience. It was just a movie. And not a very good one at that.

Nineteen years after Indiana Jones concluded an adventure by literally riding into the sunset, seemingly a perfect close for a film series wonderfully enamored with the charms of traditional Hollywood legend and thrillmaking, the remaining chief collaborators of the original trilogy have reassembled. The film takes place in 1957, allowing Dr. Jones to be an age befitting the fact that star Harrison Ford’s 65th birthday has come and gone (he’s around the age my grandfather was when we watched Last Crusade together). The plot will be plenty familiar to anyone whose seen a prior outing or any of the myriad of films in recent years that owe a debt to Indy films. There is a mysterious, legendary object that opposing forces are racing to acquire, great power promised to the possessor. There are puzzles to solve and great distances to cross in order to pinball around exotic locales enhanced by busy CGI. Granted, there’s no reason to reinvent the structure at this point, so it becomes a question of style and execution.

Steven Spielberg remains a director of consummate skill. His ability to structure shots and choreograph scenes is nearly without peer, especially in the deceptively simple sequences. The film begins with an extended scene involving hot rodding teenagers coming upon a caravan of military vehicles, a deceptively mundane sequence compared to the cliffhanger derring do that dominates the film. In Spielberg’s hands, however, it’s a tutorial in the mechanics of filmmaking. Simple establishing shots are artfully created, visually interesting without being stiff compositions, demonstrating the care that can go into every frame. Spielberg’s deftness with action sequences remains. There’s nothing here that with enter into the pantheon of great scenes, but at a time when over-edited hash is the rule, Spielberg’s clarity is notable.

The script, on the other hand, is tepid water. Supposedly the lengthy development of the film was largely the result of Spielberg, Ford and producer George Lucas’s inability to find a script they agreed was worthy. If this is truly the result of that quest of high discernment, some of the screenplays relegated to the recycling bin must have been unbearably bad. While the particulars of the central plot has its own issues, the real problem is the weakness of the characterizations. While the film brings back Karen Allen to play Marion Ravenwood, absent since Raiders, there’s no resonance to the comeback. There’s some welcome snappiness to her interplay to Ford, but the characters don’t connect in the way the story requires. To whatever degree we believe in their reunion, it’s only because of affection for the first film, not because there’s anything compelling on screen. It’s not storytelling. It’s simply an exercise in nostalgia.

That’s damaging to the old characters, devastating to the new. Ray Winstone, Shia LaBeouf and Jim Broadbent are all solid enough, but there’s nothing to their characters beyond maybe a whiff of archetype. John Hurt engages in little more than unkempt ranting, which is becoming a new specialty of his, it seems. Then there’s Cate Blanchett as a villainous Russian officer. Initially, it’s highly amusing to see the grandly gifted performer having fun with snarling lines and a moose-und-sqvirrel accent. When it becomes apparent that Spielberg’s post-Schindler’s List aversion to populating these films with cardboard Nazi bad guys hasn’t inspired him to build the Russkie bad guys out of a more multi-faceted substance, the joke wears thin quickly. Rather than enjoying Blanchett’s performance, I found myself thinking about the wasted opportunity. Why hire one of the most compelling actors around and then give her nothing to do but match an accent with her wig?

Wasted opportunities abound in this Indiana Jones. It’s not strictly a comparison with what’s come before that makes it all feel flat. If anything, those old memories bolster this film to a better standing than it deserves on its own merits.

Top Ten Movies of 2012 — Number Ten

As if Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t already deserve countless plaudits for his transformative performance as the sixteenth President of the United States in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it seems his reluctance to take on the role–noting that reluctance to take on a role is hardly an uncommon situation when it comes to Day-Lewis–helped the director find his way to a version of the project that is somewhat unexpected for him. Rather than a conventional biopic, meticulously and tirelessly tracing the historical figure’s path to greatness, the film focuses sharply on a brief period of time as Lincoln works to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, officially abolishing slavery in the country, ahead of the conclusion of the Civil War. There is a tightly controlled examination of the art and ugliness of American politics in Tony Kushner’s screenplay, penned after previous attempts by well-respected writers were discarded, at least in part because they failed to convince Day-Lewis to come aboard the project. The concentrations on the mechanics of lawmaking divert Spielberg from attempts to overly mythologize Lincoln or build showy sweep into the film, resulting in a work that has historical heft and a timelessness that will endure for as long as people need to fight for their freedoms, often in the face of abject bigotry. Sadly, that probably means it will be timeless for ages to come.

Everything sticks until it goes away

In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis moves on from acting to alchemy. The two-time Oscar-winner is hardly prolific (he’s made only ten films since collecting that first Academy Award, for My Left Foot, a film now twenty-three years old), but he seems more and more dedicated to making certain every outing counts. The level of commitment he brings to his performances has the feel of legend about it, which would risk becoming tiresome if the acting wasn’t often purely astounding, tapping into deeper reservoirs of unfathomable talent and craft. Just as his turns as Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and then Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood each seemed to casually but decisively redefine the parameters of what could be achieved in acting, so too does his latest performance offer a head-spinning new peak. As no less iconic a figure as Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis utterly disappears into the role, utilizing facets of the man that are so well-established they’re practically tropes, but somehow avoiding cliches altogether to bring his inner humanity to the fore. This is an United States President with no shortage of depictions over the years, but this portrait is so indelible it seems likely to become the cultural stand-in for Lincoln for generations to come. I’m halfway convinced the contents of my household penny jar is filled with mintings of the Irish actor’s profile.

If an issue can arise with a performance as strong as that given by Day-Lewis, it’s the inability of the other actors, even extremely gifted ones, to measure up. Undoubtedly enticed by the prospect of working with Spielberg on a weighty historical epic, the cast list is ridiculously stocked. Concentrating solely on other Oscar winners and nominees, the film features Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes and Jackie Earle Haley, many of them in fairly brief roles, screen time obviously less of a concern than the reflected prestige of the project. With the exception of Jones, who is the beneficiary of perfect casting as powerhouse abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, almost everyone wilts a little in the scenes with Day-Lewis. That may enhance the imposing nature of the presidency, but it also undercuts, in a dramatic sense, the folksy approachability that is regularly asserted as one of the hallmarks of Lincoln’s appeal to the people.

Maybe the most fascinating thing about the structure of the film is that it is largely concerned with a brief span of Lincoln’s presidency, shortly after his reelection, when he pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution ahead of the completion of the Civil War, convinced it was vitally important to confirm the illegality of slavery within the nation’s most sacred document. Rather than a lengthy (and likely tedious) trudge through Lincoln’s life, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner reveal the man, and hint at the life that shaped him, through studious examination of all of the conflicts, cajoling and convincing that took place around this single piece of legislation. Lincoln presents the fascinating dueling thesis that politics is relentlessly ugly and also incredibly vital. The members of the House of Representatives go at each other with a level of rhetorical vitriol that proves recent laments about unprecedented corrosiveness in political discourse are short on historical perspective, and yet the outcomes change lives, in this case for the necessary better.

For much of the film, Spielberg shows an admirable restraint, concentrating on the mechanics of the political give-and-take and allowing quiet, telling moments to emerge at a blessedly unhurried pace. Yet, he can’t quite totally shed the inclination towards emotional pushiness that has stirred his detractors throughout his long career. Pleasurable as it is to watch strikingly unfussy scenes in which Day-Lewis’s Lincoln raises his conflicted allies to action with firm moral force or amuses himself in a tense situation with a bawdy anecdote, there are also those moments, thankfully rare, when the movie collapses into manipulative malarkey. Whether first found in the script or on Spielberg’s storyboards, there should have been a mutual decision to excise the scene in which a black White House employee feels strangely, sentimentally compelled to watch Lincoln the whole time he makes the long walk out of the building to join his wife at the theater. Its blatant mawkishness is bad enough, but it looks even worse held up against the lean seriousness of the rest of film.

Overall, though, Spielberg has a sure hand, dropping the pomposity that fatally marred last year’s War Horse. It’s as if the director is as enthralled by his lead actor as anyone else. He’s there to capture the transformation he sees before him, and is sure too much visual or tonal manipulation will obscure the towering achievement on the other end of the lens. Day-Lewis’s performance is so strong it’s conceivable it could even alter the approach of a director as strong and seasoned as Spielberg.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Eighteen

#18 — Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
First, a consideration of the pleasure and reward of a perfectly chosen line of dialogue. One of the most famed elements of Steven Spielberg’s sophomore feature film, Jaws, is the way that the technical limitations of the robotic shark during production caused the director to keep the creature that drives all the action hidden from view for an extended stretch of time. When the shark is finally revealed, springing from the water while the small town police chief played by Roy Scheider is tossing chum into the waves in an attempt to lure it to the surface, it is massive and fearsome. Nearly four decades of being inured to the impact of special effects roaring into the frame haven’t dulled the impact of that moment, the harsh suddenness of the inhuman antagonist breaking the surface of the water with a gaping maw and dead eyes. When Scheider’s Brody backs rigidly, fearfully into the cabin of the Orca, the ship he’s on with two other de facto shark hunters, he mutters, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” Not “we’re” as it’s often misquoted, but “you’re,” as if he himself isn’t also residing on the inadequately sized vessel in question. Beyond being the ideal humorous cap on the moment, the line also signals the intensity of Brody’s reaction by how quickly he’s imagined himself back on the safety of land. If the boat goes down, he’s in as much trouble as anyone, but at that second, he’s decided it’s someone else’s problem.

Adapted from Peter Benchley’s 1973 best-selling novel with a screenplay credited to the author along with sitcom writer Carl Gottlieb, Jaws is a brilliant water-logged potboiler, setting up simple conflicts and exploiting them masterfully. Amity Island is a community so reliant on summer tourism that the ruling politicians try to explain away the danger of a series of shark attacks. Anything to avoid a panic on the Fourth of July. Brody, the police chief who naturally has an aversion to water, winds up relying on the assistance of a couple of mismatched new cohorts–a grizzled seaman named Quint (Robert Shaw) and a marine biologist named Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)–as he tries to hunt down this underwater beast who’s widdling down the population. A rousing entertainment, the film is a headlong thrill that still has the wisdom to occasionally slow down just long enough to let its central characters drunkenly bond over previous misadventures.

Spielberg was still a relative novice, making his incredible narrative assurance all the more remarkable. The director had an apparent inborn skill at expertly framing images and assembling footage in a manner that moved a story forward as assuredly as a shark through the water. Every technical aspect of the film is exemplary, but nothing is more vital than the music score by John Williams, using a handful of notes to convey astonishing menace at a level that eludes entire films. Williams had already worked on Spielberg’s previous film, The Sugarland Express, but its not hard to fathom how the composer’s work on Jaws marked him as an entirely necessary collaborator for the rest of Spielberg’s career. Jaws had a deeply troubled shoot–phrasing that can often be attached to films that spend a lot of time shooting on and around water–so it only makes sense that the exceptional quality and associated box office success of the finished product taught Spielberg to fully, properly appreciate the importance of guided all the pieces to fall snugly into place.

Jaws is typically named as the film that changed the Hollywood business model, creating a fervor for ready-made blockbusters that soils the production slate to this day. I think that other features that followed more properly bear that burden, but Jaws has a clearer, more valuable legacy. It taught a young director who was surely doubting himself as the production raced beyond its planned schedule, that his abilities could take raw material and turn it into true cinematic wonders.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Six

#26 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
In 1990, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert took a break from flinging their thumbs around in judgment and created a television special called The Future of the Movies which included lengthy interviews with Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. At one point, Spielberg was asked to name the single shot from all his movies that exemplified who he was as a filmmaker, the one image that could be pulled out and held up to convey the defining characteristics of his artistic philosophy, temperament and vision. It seems a nearly impossible task (Scorsese demurred on the same question so a compromise was reached in which he named a single shot from Raging Bull), but Spielberg had a good answer at the ready: the moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the young boy played by Cary Guffey opens the front door of his house to look out at the maelstrom of golden light that signaled the space aliens that drove the plot were closing in on the rural home.

I don’t recall Spielberg’s specific reasoning, but it surely had something to do with the offhand, childlike daring required to open that door in the first place and the reward of something astonishing on the other side. At least, I suspect those are the qualities that most would name in trying to define that makes that a quintessential Spielberg shot. I think that’s true enough, but it also misses the greater point, the contradictory tone of menace to those shiny lights. The vivid hue that washes in from outside is beautiful, but it also signals danger. Their warm radiance will scorch and leave a mark. His prior film, Jaws, may have redefined the parameters and large goals of the movie business with its slickness and style, but all those pleased crowds didn’t change its fundamental identity as a film about a monstrous creature from the deep that spends its timing biting humans into small pieces. It is first and foremost a horror film. Just ask the Kintner boy.

And Close Encounters, despite its final message of interstellar benevolence, is primarily about dread and obsession. The mundane suburban dad played by Richard Dreyfuss, a character that is arguably the clearest surrogate for Spielberg himself among the director’s many works, is driven beyond distraction by his initial glancing interaction with the aliens, basically beckoned forward to meet them by a strange image in his head, a flattop mountain with deep lines running down it as if the whole thing has been shaped by a rake. His single-minded behavior pushes his family away, and the only solace he can find is with the other wandering souls who have been reshaped by their fervent belief in these UFOs.

A major part of the greatness of the film is its fiercely empathetic depiction of the ways in which the solitude of personal conviction to a singular cause, event or activity is both a reward and a tragedy. The only time in his career that Spielberg was listed as the sole screenwriter (although no fewer than four others have their uncredited fingerprints on the script) is fittingly probably his most personal film. Not only does it represent the part of him that never stopped watching the skies, but in its unreserved appreciation for those who stand outside of the norm, committing to notions and hopes too fanciful to believe. Like a kid growing up in Arizona who spent his time immersed in the world of movies, somehow certain he’d join the ranks of John Ford and Howard Hawks someday. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a gripping demonstration that opening those mysterious doors that lead to an exciting but unsettled future can be worrisome and scary, but it’s just as likely to be splendidly gratifying.