Friday, December 09, 2005

TNR Takes on Munich

In this week's New Republic, Leon Wieseltier kicks the shit out of Steven Spielberg's Munich, a movie that I have been both looking forward to very much and dreading at the same time. The part of me that writes about terrorism, sports, and the intersection of sports and society cannot wait for the film and hopes that it will be available in theaters in South Africa while I am there for the next six weeks. But the part of me that loathes moral equivalence in the guise of evenhandedness is filled with trepidation. Since the movie is supposed to follow the paths of those Israelis who tracked down eleven of the terrorists responsible for the Munich atrocities, I worry that it will too easily slide into a sort of mushy relativism in which the Israelis are somehow the same as the Palestinian terrorists who carried out the Olympic massacre. Wieseltier confirms the possibility that my fears will be realized:
The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is. For long stretches it feels like The Untouchables with eleven Capones. But its tedium is finally owed to the fact that, for all its vanity about its own courage, the film is afraid of itself. It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness. Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil, Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents, Israelis kill innocents. All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective. (I am referring only to the war between the terrorists and the counterterrorists. The larger picture is darker. Over the years more civilians were killed in Israeli air strikes than in the Palestinian atrocities that provoked those air strikes. The justice of Israel's defense of itself should not be confused with the rightness of everything that it does in self-defense.) No doubt Munich will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexity. But this is not complexity, it is strategy. I mean of the marketing kind: I note that the filmmakers have nervously retained the distinguished services of Dennis Ross to guide the film through the excitable community of people who know about its subject. Munich is desperate not to be charged with a point of view. It is animated by a sense of tragedy and a dream of peace, which all good people share, but which in Hollywood is regarded as a dissent, and also as a point of view. Its glossy caution almost made me think a kind thought about Oliver Stone. For the only side that Steven Spielberg ever takes is the side of the movies. 

But perhaps worse yet, it may not even be a good movie qua moviemaking (after all, I can appreciate a movie's quality even if I do not agree with its politics; this is not insignificant, as we anticipate conservative fulmination over Syriana, a politicized movie that nonetheless by all acoounts is damned good moviemaking.):
The film is powerful, in the hollow way that many of Spielberg's films are powerful. He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings. Whatever the theme, he must ravish the viewer. Munich is aesthetically no different from War of the Worlds, and never mind that one treats questions of ethical and historical consequence and the other is stupid. Spielberg knows how to overwhelm. But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me? In other realms of life, this talent is known as demagoguery. There are better reasons to turn to art, better reasons to go to the movies, than to be blown away. 


I still want to see Munich, but Wieseltier's essay sure makes me think that my anticipation has been misplaced.

1 comment:

Cram said...

Reading this review you posted and others that I have seen do worry me. Nevertheless, I consider Spielberg to be the most gifted directors in Hollywood and strenuously disagree with the authors contention that “He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings.”

So I will see the film. But if what this article says is true, and I have read others items saying making the same charges, then it will seriously compromise his moral credibility for me. This will not stop me from seeing his films, mind you, nor will it take anything away from the great movies that he has made and may make in the future. But it will tell me a little more about Spielberg the man that I didn’t want to know.