Sunday, December 25, 2005

Musing Pictures: Munich

I am very surprised at some of the negative press this film received before its release.

I had an opportunity to see "Munich" on Friday, catching a mid-day matinee on the first day of its release.

It is a very delicate film, despite the strength with which it comes across -- and it is one of the darkest, most subdued of Spielberg's films.

It begins with the Munich Olympics massacre, in a sequence that combines re-enactment and a combination of authentic news footage. The combination allows us to feel the horror of the event while feeling the truthfulness of it -- regardless of whether everything else in the film happened the way it did, the massacre at Munich is real, is caught-on-film, and as such, that gives the re-enactment a great deal of weight and significance.

Spielberg has made films about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and African Slavery. For the first time, he has made a film about an event which he can remember, himself. I imagine that Spielberg's memories of Munich are from the news media -- and he gives us, especially those of us too young to remember, not just the opportunity to see the news reports he saw, but, through the dramatization, he grands us the opportunity to experience it all with an immediacy that a history lesson can never convey.

And that sets the tone for the film that follows -- a film that is a dramatization, inspired by true events, but never claiming to be a full representation of them. In its deviance from pure fact, "Munich" manages to tell a story of meta-truth, capturing the great complexities of this chapter in Israel's history in one story. Thankfully, Spielberg does not try to dillute those complexities. In bringing them all down to just a few characters in one relatively limited series of events, Spielberg manages to concentrate those complexities, to bring them all in to full-view all at once.

The power of "Munich" is that it manages to express the deep trauma of Israel in a universal way -- and I say "of Israel" because both Spielberg and the film's primary writer Tony Kushner, care deeply about Israel. As complex as the film is, its views on Palestinians are exclusively views from-the-outside. This is a personal film, and as such, any attempt at a more personal view of Palestinians would have detracted from the film's honesty. Palestinians have a voice, and a very interesting one, but it is not a voice that is different from the voice of Palestinian Public Relations offices all over the world -- and it is combined with the voice we hear of terrorists and the folks who encourage and support them (in case you worried that Palestinians come off as peaceniks -- they don't.)

"Munich" is a Jewish film, about a Jewish state that struggles desperately with the double-need to both exist and to do the right thing in the face of not an in-human enemy, but an enemy with a face, with a name, and with its own claims. Too often, on the news, we hear about Israel killing X number of people. It's too rare that we see the agony people face, on their own and among their friends, when trying to decide whether to pull the trigger, or detonate the explosive.

I am relieved about one thing: In his effort to try to convey the complexity of the conflict, Spielberg could have run in to the trap of making stuff up -- and I don't mean in terms of the basic narrative.

Spielberg shows the Israelis struggling with killing people who are VERY guilty of severe crimes. He shows them going to extreme lengths, jeopardizing their own mission, to avoid killing civillians and bystandards (even when they use bombs (!!!)) This has been a public conversation in Israel for thirty years, so it's not made up.

To balance this off, Spielberg could have portrayed the Palestinians as somehow similarly humane... but since Munich, the approach of Palestinian millitants has been purely terroristic -- that is, not only have they not made efforts to avoid killing civillians, but they have actively pursued policies of killing civillians at random and without mercy. Spielberg does not try to portray Palestinian terrorism in a "better light". On the contrary, he keeps bringing images of the Munich massacre back, to remind us, over and over again, just how horriffic that type of violence is, and just how important it is to respond very strongly to it. Spielberg eventually questions the particular response, but not the need to respond harshly.

Were the film to suggest a conclusion to the whole mess, it would be a weak film. It is a film about the confusion of the situation, and about the difficulty of actually, truly rising above it.

If you have a strong opinion against the film, I urge you to take a look at Spielberg's own defense of the work -- a defense I feel he shouldn't have been put in the position of having to make. His comments are here: and here:



Anonymous said...


He did make stuff up.


AzS said...

It is a film billed as fiction. Spielberg began by saying it is "inspired by true events", not that it is "based on true events", and certainly not that it is "all true".

Inspiration is an interesting word. It is less academic than having a film "based" on anything. It is emotional. To say you are inspired by something is to say that something (an event, a fact, a person) moves you to act in a particular way.

True events inspired Spielberg to make "Munich". It's the emotional center of the film which strikes me as particularly true, even if the facts (which are not, technically, presented as facts) are not accurate.


Anonymous said...

I think when you start assigning truth-values to things as soft and imprecise as "emotional centers of films," you render concepts like "truth" and "falsity" virtually meaningless. But that is a linguistic-philosophical gripe, and as I now see what you meant, I stand corrected.


AzS said...

You are right that a truth value assigned to a film's "emotional center" is a little meaningless. Perhaps I should say that the emotional center is resonant (which, if you take the term in the sense of wave mechanics, implies a certain specificity, or accurateness, in the sense of a resonant frequency).