Friday, December 30, 2005

Day 91: Munich

Munich, Steven Spielberg's potboiler-that-would-be-prestige-picture, is ostensibly about an incidient involving Israel's revenge campaign against Palestinian terrorists following the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, but, as its final shot coyly states, it can also be seen as a film examining America's reaction to September 11th. That it's effective at being both of these things at once is its greatest asset; this effectiveness is born of an admirable restraint for about the first half of the film. It's a wonderful companion piece to Spielberg's War of the Worlds, another film that took a tangential, though far from subtle, route to examine, explore, and exploit (I use that word in the kindest way) post-9/11 American fear of the other. However, as laudable as it is to make mainstream films that seem like a conscious attempt to deal with national trauma using familiar genres to synthesize the zeitgeist floating around in the ether, both films are severely flawed, probably by the same calculation I praised above.

Munich, for instance, is far too watery-eyed and guilt-ridden from the get-go to function as a film about the consequences of revenge. The sequences featuring a group of agents executing those unfortunate enough to be on a list of names are invariably staged with the technical and emotional competence one expects from Spielberg. Each has its own rhythms, its own visual identity, and its own set of suprising moments that serve to ratchet up the suspense as the killer Israelis attempt to kill their targets while leaving civilians unharmed. All of this stuff is pretty great, reminiscent of the comraderie and fellowship in killing found in (of all things) DePalma's The Untouchables at times. And yet, continuing with this comparison, Munich's characters (and overreaching tone) are too often like Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness: moralistic and strangely unprepared for the potential ramifications of their actions.

Which isn't to say that all maudlin moments in the film come off this way. The moment when the bomb-maker of the group has to bow out because he's unprepared for what the group is about to do is a great moment that skirts the edge of treacle and comes out genuine. The conversation that occurs between the lead Israeli agent and a terrorist about the Israeli/Palestinan conflict is also effective and thoughtful, if only for the way it raises questions and answers them according to the point of view of those involved with the conversation and then leaves it alone until the two meet again. Additionally, I liked the montage of television reports and the people watching these reports about the kidnapping of Israeli athletes so much that I wanted it to be the entire film.

But after the group kills a female assassin in a fit of cold-blooded retribution, the film wiggles about, looking for its groove and never finding anything. And later, Eric Bana, as the lead agent, begins freaking out in paranoia as abruptly as Jack Nicholson went crazy in The Shining. This is not Bana's fault at all, he's interesting in the role, but the film's. It has done very, very little to set up this character change. The film finds itself again in its closing scenes, making clear that the film is also about the abandonment of the father figure, but prior to this is a vast stretch of time and one of the more ridiculous sex scenes ever committed to celluloid (poor, poor Kate Capshaw).

Munich would have been better served to take its perspective on revenge from the Daniel Craig character's perspective. He's the group's hothead. Wants to kill the enemies, has no compunction about doing it, and, yet, he's got very little to do in the movie. Bana's character is so angst-ridden in the opening, it cheapens his double angst later. How about a movie about a man who thinks with his gut slowly learning that his gut is very often stupid and wrong? About someone who does not care about the consequences of his actions being forced to deal with them? I think that's your zeitgeist, Sr. Spielbergo. Have at it.