A Muddled Munich
Dir: Steven Spielberg
If only Spielberg could use his powers for good. Munich is one of his ‘Important Films.’ War of the Worlds, released in the summer of 2005, was one of his ‘Fun Films.’ Munich was promoted as the most important film of the year (2005) – grand claims indeed, and certainly one that damages the viewing of Munich, because its muddled structure and lack of cohesive vision destroy any of its so-called importance.The central character, played well by Eric Bana, is enlisted (unofficially) to seek and kill those Palestinians responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. This is a revenge film, but one where the killers find no solace in their acts. The revenge is messy and just as destructive as the initial acts that sparked it, but it also gives Spielberg a chance to indulge in creating some terrific suspense set-pieces.
However, it is in the depiction of the retaliatory killings that the morality of the film becomes confused. Spielberg chooses to depict the Munich terrorist acts in bits and pieces (though graphic, they are nothing compared to the scenes of violence in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), and then uses them to justify each killing that Bana and his Mossad team conduct. So what we have is a film that highlights the futility of violence, yet also condones the violence of the retaliators at every turn. I’m not sure if these were the feelings I was supposed to come away with.
I think it would have been better to show the Munich killings at the beginning of the film, and leave it at that. This would have helped the film’s thesis of violence only leads to more violence, and avenging past wrongs only makes things worse.
And besides, and this is being really picky, Bana’s flashbacks would not be to the actual events anyway, as his character didn’t witness anything first hand save what he saw live on television. (It’s the same problem as in the opening to Saving Private Ryan, the camera closes in on an elderly man who we later learn is Ryan, but the flashback tells us the story more or less from Tom Hanks’ perspective. Ryan wasn’t involved with the D-Day invasion, therefore, everything in the film is his imagined version of D-Day, albeit an historically accurate imagining.) But, I digress.
Munich completely falls apart in its climax (no pun intended) – Spielberg brings sex and violence to a new level, or perhaps he cranks it down a notch. I almost burst out laughing watching the sweat cascade from Bana’s torso as he made love to his wife while images of the Munich massacre invaded his thoughts. It felt like a freakin’ Gatorade commercial! I don’t know what they were thinking.
There’s an interesting discussion of this scene on Roger Ebert’s blog. Some seem to like it, and compare it with how some people felt after 9/11; they just couldn’t get the pictures out of their heads. Had Munich done it in a more subtle way, then perhaps it would have seemed less absurd.
What is so frustrating about Munich is how interesting a film it is to watch. Spielberg’s visual flair is as potent as it was 30 years ago. And the free-wheeling camerawork, the use of sound, especially in the suspense sequences, is quite powerful. Thus I return to wishing Spielberg would use his directorial powers for good. If he has a good script, style and substance can work hand in hand to produce amazing things; but, too often, he settles for half-baked scripts, and, too often, we get a lot of lousy Spielberg movies.
Perhaps Spielberg, along with his writers, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, wanted the film to be as muddled as the Middle East conflict itself. If so, then they have succeeded. It seems the Middle East is as difficult a nut to crack for Hollywood, as it is for politicians. George Jones, the writer of the book Vengeance, upon which Munich is based, wrote an interesting article in Macleans about his book, and the film. He sums up his article by saying:
“After the film opens, someone tells me that Spielberg shouldn’t get an Oscar for not solving the problems of the Middle East. I agree. Spielberg should get an Oscar for making Munich, the gritty Hollywood flick. For not solving the problems of the Middle East, he should get a Nobel Peace Prize, like everyone else.”
Spielberg has been quoted as saying his film is “a prayer for peace” – and far be it for me to disagree with Mr. Spielberg – but can a film that takes so much delight in showing violence on screen really be about promoting peace?
This morning as I read the news, the headlines are once again focused on the Middle East. Israeli tanks are moving into Gaza for the first time in over a year, and bridges and training camps have been bombed. I can’t fault Spielberg for wanting to make a film about the complex problems that plague the region, I just wish he had made a better one, or at least, a less muddled one.llewopemearg