Dec 31, 2005

Munich: or Spielberg Grows Up, Kind Of

I have to respect a movie that has managed to piss off both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian mishegoss. Some Palestinians are complaining that Munich's sympathies are more with the Israelis (what did they expect?); on the other hand, some formerly ultra-secret Mossad agents, even more secret than Maxwell Smart, have argued that the movie fudges the facts and that's not the way they did things (pray tell: just how do you do things at the Mossad?). All the carping is a fitting tribute to a movie that tries too hard to appease everybody. Good luck with that one, Steve-o!
Munich is a really interesting mishmash. On the one hand, it has the directorial powers of one Steven Spielberg, a prodigy at filmmaking, who could not stop being entertaining and just plain freaking dazzling if a court order asked him to. On the other hand, the film was written by Tony Kushner, a playwright who likes to whip himself into a frenzy about big, hairy moral issues, and Eric Roth, the man responsible for serious-minded Hollywood spectacles like The Insider (Russell Crowe vs. Big Tobacco), Ali and the inexcusable Forrest Gump. This means that Munich is weirder than a mole enchilada with hummous and whipped cream on top.
The Spielbergian magic is there in all its gripping glory, with sequences so beautifully staged, so tight with tension that they are not only a marvel, but, as in Spielberg's best work, they refuse to leave your mind long after you've left the theater. Sometimes he gets carried away and Munich feels like a spunkier, nastier version of a James Bond flick. Give him four guys with explosives and guns and watch him unleash spectacularly controlled mayhem. Yet true to form, he cannot ever let a movie happen without a completely gratuitous subplot about a father and son (it's his Rosebud), and he certainly cannot have a movie without heaping amounts of schmaltz.
Still, Munich has the best writing ever seen in a Spielberg film. The movie illustrates with many intelligent twists the utter pointlessness of avenging murder with murder. As the plot unfolds, there is always a TV set tuned to another terrorist act, making it clear that the bloodbath is neither cleansing nor bringing closure to anyone.
The writers give the audience a crash course on the long list of grievances of the Jewish people, and they insert the equally grievous list of the Palestinians, doing both with clunky dialogue that hits the audience in the head like a ball of hardened falafel. There are several ridiculous scenes where checking your disbelief at the door is required, like one preposterous scene set up to facilitate an exchange between the Mossad leader Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana, gorgeous and fantastic) and one of the Palestinian terrorists. In it, Kaufman is extremely harsh and contemptuous of the Palestinians while the Palestinian makes his case for a homeland strongly and compellingly. The writing is sharp in a Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 101 kind of way, but the situation is absurd.
Thus, I beg to differ with those who complain that all the sympathies lie on the Israeli side. Quite the contrary: you can hear the writers and the director spinning like the Tazmanian Devil on acid as they grapple with the kvetching of one side and the other (both of which I am sick of, if you must know).
So even with all the cheese inside this blintz, my hat (kippah? kefiyeh?) off to Spielberg and Kushner and Roth for making sure we remember that Jews have a historical moral obligation not to behave like savages and that revenge is an eternal nightmare that turns people into murderers and the world into hell.

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