Friday, January 06, 2006

Spielberg shows his darker side

For decades, detractors of Spielberg have proclaimed that he favors Hollywood happy endings too heavily. They peg his films as too “sweet”, too “saccahrin”; films that lack the guts to be raw and dark. Certain critics feel that even his more serious historical films such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan can still ultimately be reduced into sentimental anthems about the milk of human kindness.

But if ever there was a Spielberg film to counter these philosophies on his style of film making it was Munich.

Munich’s was a fictionalized story based around an actual event. The film begins with the slaying of Israeli athletes which occurred during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany. The Palestinian terrorist group which committed the act lost some men during the operation, but many of the masterminds behind the crime escaped without punishment. Munich tells the story of Avner, an Israeli man who works for the government as a Mossad agent, and is called upon by his country to undergo a very special, very secret mission. Avner, is assigned to assasinate all those who orchestrated the massacre of the athletes, with the help of four other men.

The film starts with a frenetic millieu. Speilberg intercuts between what appears to be actual archinval news footage of the incident, and scenes that he shot with actors playing reporters. We also see the moment where the terrorist group is helped into the Olympic village by unknowing American athletes, in what is perhaps meant to be ironic commentary of the role that the U.S. has played in Israeli – Palestinian relations. We see the brutal and bloody entry of Black September (the terrorist group) into the sleeping quarters of the Israeli athletes, and more intercutting occurs, before we can piece together the sequence of events on that fateful night. We also see snippets of families, both Israli and Palestinian, as they remain glued to the Television watching the events unfold, each praying and hoping that their loved ones will return home unharmed.

At the start of the film, the audience naturally feels a sense of horror at the crimes that were committed in Munich against innocent atheletes who had no part in the political going ons of the day. We hear the solemn speech made by Lynn Cohen’s character, Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel, in which she says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” We see the resolve in Eric Bana’s eyes (as his character Avner) as he takes on this onimous mission of vengance. A mission that will not only avail his nation, and prove that his, are a people to be reckoned with, but one which might somehow assuage the aching wound that was incurred upon all Israeli’s that fateful summer night in Munich.

Avner’s team is an interesting group. There is Carl, (who was played by Ciaran Hinds), the oldest of the group, probably in his mid 50’s, he was in charge of “clean-up” after an execution. He made sure no incriminating evidence was left behind and the like. Then there was Robert, (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), a baby faced engineer, who had been assigned as the explosives expert of the group –a bomb maker, despite the fact he had originally joined Mossad, for his skill and desire to disarm bombs. Hans, (played by Hanns Zischler), perhaps the quietest member of the group, dealt in “papers and documents” creating false passports, visas, and any other paper work that might me necessary. The most colorful member of the group was Steve (portrayed by Daniel Craig –our next James Bond), a self-proclaimed Zionist who dressed like he was on his way to the disco, and would never waver on a mission.

With the help of an intelligent script by playwright Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame), Spielberg developed a muted yet significant rapport between the members of this little motley crew. Avner, as a team leader, was also a adept cook, and had a wonderfully quirky habit of obsessively cooking dish upon dish, which was a unique trait that developed his character further. His constant outpouring of food created a sort of symbolic binding material, that brought his team together. This was appropriate since he was their leader, but it was definitely an unusual method considering they were a band of traveling assasins.

The film consistently touches upon the irrefutable moral conundrums of murder. Beyond the topics of Israeli versus Palestinian, the film digs deep to ask the question, can the killing of a person ever be completely justified? Speilberg and Kushner took care to humanize each and every one of the victims that Avner and his men take out. We see one man thoughtfully requested grocery items from a bakery. Another speaking softly to his young daughter, (the young girl is almost killed by the explosive set for her father, when she rushes back into the apartment to collect something she had forgotten.) In another instance, one of the unknowing targets tries to make small talk with Avner about the boisterous couple adjacent to his hotel room. These small moments succeed in showing an understated humanity in the targeted men, without being overly sentimental or unrealistic. It is intriguing to observe the way that Avner and his men change over the course of their tenure as guns for hire. In the beginning they were so cautious about making sure that no family member of the accused got caught in the crossfire of their mission, and that no innocent blood be shed. But as time went on, they took less precautions and simply accepted that there would be other casualties now and again. In the latter half of the film, Carl (the clean-up guy) is killed by a female assasin, who though not directly affiliated with Black September (the terrorist group), was probably hired by someone on their side. There is a particularly brutal scene where Avner, Hans and Steve go to Belgium to find this woman, and shoot her in her home, while she is wearing nothing but a slim robe. As she lays dead in a chair, her nude body sprawled grotesquely, Avner reaches out to cover her up, but Hans stops him. Later on Hans expresses his regret over doing so, and it is implied that he kills himself later that evening.

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine years ago about Speilberg’s A.I.. We were discussing the opening scene where William Hurt’s character is giving a lecture to some associates about the sentient artificial intelligent beings he has created. He tells a female robot to remove her clothing, and she begins to do so (thereby proving that as a mechanical construct she lacked human modesty and humility) –but Hurt stops her before she could get past the second button of her blouse. Despite the bizarre ending of A.I., I have actually always been pretty fond of the film, though I’m aware that many have panned it. My friend made the point that if Stanley Kubrick had directed the film (as was originally intended), the female android would have stripped herself bare, and the audience would have felt the discomfort of those in the room with her as it radiated off the screen. My friend thought that since Speilberg was such a “family-friendly” director, he would never make such a provocative move, and stopped the moment before it could even get started. In contrast, I think Munich shows that Speilberg is truly not afraid to go to dark and uncomfortable places, and does so when he feels it’s right.

People commented on the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan because of the way it violently real depiction of the storming of the beaches at Normany. Yet as brutal as that was, there was something far more ferocius about this film. As the story reveals itself, Avner’s reticence to kill slips away, and his mind becomes clouded with the emotional and mental fallout of all that he has done. He begins to become paranoid that people are trying to kill him, and has dreams of horrible bloodshed. There is a running nightmare that haunts him both day and night, where it appears some Palestinian terrorists have hijacked an Israeli plane. They move the passengers off the plane and into a helicopter, and then they are ambushed by what appear to be Israli forces. The terrorists are killed, and the captors are killed as well, and everything is awash is a horrible glare of blood and splattering flesh. It is grimmer than the beaches at Normandy, because at least in that instance there was a sense of purpose and duty, and the knowledge that everything (somewhat) comes out alright in the end. Yes, millions of lives were lost during WWII and the Holocaust, but in the end good prevailed over evil and peace was eventually met. There is no such calming reality to resort to after watching Munich. The killing and fighting that exists now seems just as volatile as it did over thirty years ago. Munich is particularly poignant because of its current relavency, and what makes it such a intricate film is that it resonates on varoius levels. Not only as a reminder of how little things have changed since ’72, but also as a commentary on the nature of preserving one’s nation, and the inevitable moral foibles of killing other humans, no matter what the reason. There is a very moving scene in the latter half of the film, where Robert, the soft spoken bomb-maker tells Avner that he can no longer continue with them on their mission, and must take a leave of absence. His eyes water as he tells Avner that though he is supposed to be fighting for his beloved country Israel and its people, the actions he has been taking compromise his very identity and soul. He confesses that he fears that if he continues down the path he has been travelling on, he will loose his Jewish self and his soul. In its essence, this film is very much a basic fable about men who become the monsters that they were chasing, and it posits the question of how to reconcile and deal with one’s enemies.

Munich was artfully shot and edited, the performances of its actors were consummate, and it had a finely written script. But it was no easy pill to swallow; at a running time of almost two and a half hours, it was a engulfing journey that bordered on tedious at times because of all the names and facts being thrown out at once. There was a lot of storylines going on at once; the whole sub-plot involving Louis and his father, and their French family run business which proveded information to Avner from suspicious orgins. There was the sub-plot of Avner’s wife Daphna, and the baby daughter who he has barely been a father too. It is definitely the sort of film that requires multiple viewings.

A couple of days after I saw Munich, one of my brothers was watching Speilberg’s reamke of War of the Worlds, which was recently released on DVD. As I sat and watched the devestation and the desperation wrecked upon humans by the aliens, I couldn’t help but draw a link to the final scenes of Munich where Avner is tormented with images of a gruesome hostage scenario, unable to lie peacefully in bed with his wife. Despite the fact that Speilberg remained faithful to the original ending of WOTW, some felt he cheaped out with such a “happy” ending, especially since Robbie (the teenage son) emerged from his grandparent’s home unharmed. But go back and watch it again, --up until this point, Speilberg has created a landscape of despair, where your neighbor is more likely to try and steal your car than help your daughter. It shows a certain bleak outlook of mankind that I think was echoed in Munich. And yet it is unfortunate that even aliens from outer space seem easier to conquer than the conflicts that exist between peoples here on our earth.


Anonymous DoorFrame said...

"There is a running nightmare that haunts him both day and night, where it appears some Palestinian terrorists have hijacked an Israeli plane."

It's possible that I missed this entirely, but weren't those "nightmare" scenes just the continuation of the Olympics story? The kidnappers and the kidnappees were all killed at the airport, I'm pretty sure we were watching Avner agnoize over those killings rather than a fictionalized hostage situation.

9:50 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Is that what it was? It was kind of unclear to me to be honest --I am not intimately familiar with the way the hostage situation played out, --I thought they were all killed in their sleeping quarters, but it sounds like you are right. Whoops.

9:54 PM  

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