Friday, November 24, 2006

Thought's about Steven Spielberg's "Munich"

I watched Steven Spielberg's film "Munich" last night. Thoughts about the movie will accumulate here for the next few hours. Spoilers to the movie will almost certainly follow so be warned.
  • A striking thing about the film is the awkward way in which the Munich massacre is incorporated into the film. The events are portrayed on camera in a series of episodes throughout the film but are also accompanied in the opening minutes of the film by a series of shots that establish the massacre as a media event. Some of these shots are of people -- the main characters, representative "men on the street", or the wives of the athletes who were killed -- watching the television coverage of the event on television. Other shots deal heavily with the media presence surrounding the event in a vaguely negative way: the standard media feeding frenzy that carelessly telegraphs important information to the enemy is well depicted.

    The impression that this gives me is of a director invoking what we today might call the "Cindy Sheehan effect". That is, the director underscores how you, the typical viewer of the film, have no right to criticize the actions of those principally suffering from the events of the film due to their absolutely superior moral authority. Which is to say that these scenes, and whatever critique of the broadcast news media we might construe from them, are basically a waste of screentime.

  • Another aspect of this depiction of the Munich massacre is that episodes from the enactment of the massacre are sometimes intercut with actions by the Israeli agent Avner who is trying to track down and assassinate those who planned the massacre. For example, near the end of the film, the film interlaces scenes of Avner having sex with his wife with scenes from the climax of the massacre. The effect seems to imply that Avner is principally traumatized by the massacre itself than his actions taken in response to it. Given all of the time, effort, expense, emotion, and casulties that Avner had invested in his hunt for the terror-planners, this juxtaposition makes practically no sense!

    The best explanation I have for this is that it implies that Avner realizes that the Munich massacre has not been fully avenged and that it is his principal duty to avenge it, but that he knows that he is running away from carrying out that duty.

  • Perhaps the best line of dialogue in the film is given to Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, who says "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Remember that this is in the context of her ordering an assassination squad be formed to kill the 11 principle planners of the massacre. What makes that such a great line is that it leaves so much unsaid about exactly which values Golda Meir feels she is compromising. Is she trying to rationalize the murder of Palestinian terror plotters that should really be captured and put on trial? Or has that decision been made and she instead trying to rationalize sending a team of otherwise good men to execute a mission that she knows is something of a suicide mission? Or has even that decision been made and she is instead trying to rationalize the collateral damage that might arise, for example, from her assassination squad becoming a freelance "murder for hire" team?

    Every post-massacre event in the movie ultimately touches on this single line of dialogue. How many of the post-massacre events of the movie did Golda Meir forsee as resulting from her decision? And which of these events forseen -- and perhaps casulties forseen -- was she willing to consider acceptable risks?

  • Another thing to admire about the film is the ease with which the assassination squad's French contacts (who are some kind of anarchists) manipulate them. After Avner assembles his assassination team, the first thing he does is hook up with various European underground types to try and get information about where the terror-planners are located. Eventually Avner stumbles onto some kind of French anarchist group, represented by a man named "Louis", that is "ideologically promiscuous" and willing to locate anyone for a price.

    The other members of the assassination squad at first seem at first to distrust Avner's French connection. The head of the Anarchist group, Louis' father (who insists that he be called "Papa"), apparently picks up on this discontent and with a very shrewd move apparently wins Avner's trust by inviting him to a family dinner at his expansive country chateau (ala "The Godfather"). After the dinner, all doubts about the French anarchists disappear for the rest of the film even though it's pretty obvious that the French anarchists are trying to get Avner and his men killed (that Avner doesn't break contact with or kill Louis after Louis sticks Avner's Jewish assassins in the same "safe house" as a group of Palestinian gang-bangers is a total mystery). In the end, Papa's dinner has worked almost embarressingly well in buying Avner's loyalty: Louis has to flat out say "Yes, we have been selling you out to your enemies." to try and get Avner to believe it.

  • "Munich" also has plenty of gore, graphic violence, full frontal male and female nudity, and combinations of all three at once. Hollywood rule of thumb: a movie that shows a naked woman having sex with a man is rated NC-17, but a movie that shows a naked woman getting shot in the breasts with a machine gun is rated R.

  • By the way, in case you didn't know this already, whenever every spy in Europe is out to get you, the first place they'll look is where you live. Every moviegoer in America knows this, but two member's of Avner's team didn't.


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