Saturday, January 7

Munich

Saw Munich this afternoon, and thought that I would post a few reflexive observations.

1. The movie reminded me that I almost always leave Spielberg's films unmoved. With the exceptions of Jaws and Schindler's List, I don't think I've ever really enjoyed one wholeheartedly, and I've actually hated some (Amistad, Hook). Even as a child, I remember being hugely disappointed by E.T., especially given the hype it received among my young peers. Munich was no different. It's not a bad film, but it's too long and bland to be good. There were some good performances--Geoffrey Rush is reliably great--and no weak ones, but the overall impression is underwhelming.

2. I did enjoy most of the movie's action sequences, which combined elements of Ronin, Mission Impossible, John le Carre and Frederick Forsythe (the quirky, multinational team of complementary experts--explosives, documents, strategy, muscle, etc., dangerous hits meticulously planned in picture-perfect continental cafes; double-crosses; urbane French anarchists, getaways through narrow cobbled streets).

3. The beginning was also impressive--fast-paced, with kinetic camerawork and seamless splicing of documentary footage and convincing re-enactments--but I couldn't help comparing it unfavorably to the excellent 1999 documentary One Day in September, which I happened to catch on television over the holidays. That movie showed what a debacle the entire operation was for the Germans, from their failure to realize that the terrorists were watching everything unfold on television (why didn't they immediately cut power to the building or jam the signal?), to a failed rescue plan that assumed no more than five terrorists (there were eight), to the lack of radio contact between German snipers at the Munich airport (with predictably fatal consequences), to the final, craven capitulation to demands that they free the three surviving murderer/kidnappers. I recommend renting it--it left me shaking my head in disbelief at the naivety and incompetence of Olympic "security" operations back then and forever dispelled for me the myth of German efficiency.

4. A telling detail left out of the film (not a fault--there was no particular reason to include it), is the fact that when the International Olympic Committee decided to continue the games, the one mark of respect for the slain Israeli athletes was the decision to lower all the flags at the stadium to half mast. The Arab countries, however, refused to lower theirs. (Why this was their decision, I don't know--I assume the grounds of the games, including the flags, are under the control of either the IOC or the host city.)

5. I was slightly bothered by the same problems identified in this Wall Street Journal OpinionJournal article by Bret Stephens, particularly the recurring humor about Jewish penny-pinching, the anachronistic moralizing by Golda Meir, who utters the film's most quoted line, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." As Stephens points out, "the Torah and Talmud are replete with descriptions of the justified smiting of one enemy or another. (Hanukkah, for instance, commemorates the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid empire.)" Another line identified by Stephen as uncharacteristic of Meir (or any thoughtful person, I would add) is her instruction to her advisors to "forget peace for now, we have to be strong." As Stephens wryly (and rightly) observes "[n]ever mind that in 1972 neither the Arab states nor the PLO was prepared to live in peace with Israel on any terms. Never mind, too, that peace and strength are not incompatible options." Indeed, what ever happened to "peace through strength?"

Stephens does not pursue the point, but these examples are part of a larger theme that Avner's mission is incompatible with something fundamentally Jewish. At another point in the film, one of Avner's men has a sudden breakdown as the team is about to board a train bound for their next hit. He can't go on; he no longer believes in the mission and whines to his leader "We're Jews, Avner. Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong . . . we're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish . . ." But what part of righteousness requires the renunciation of force? What happened to righteous anger? The Israeli team is scrupulous in its avoidance of innocent deaths--one hit is aborted to avoid killing the target's daughter and, in the midst of a bloody Beirut triple-hit, Avner literally puts himself between Mossad operatives and a young Arab to prevent the boy's death. This is in sharp contrast to Black September's cold-blooded machine-gunning of innocent Israeli athletes (not to mention their attacks on Lod airport earlier that year in which 32 Israelis were killed; the airport is featured in the movie, but the deaths are not mentioned).

Despite the qualitative difference between each side's use of force, fighting back against terrorists whose goals are the destruction of the State of Israel and the elimination of the Jewish people, is portrayed as inimical to Jewish "values," to "peace," and to "righteousness." The deterrent value of Avner's mission may be questioned (and is), but to portray his sincere attempt to defend the Jewish state by killing those who would destroy it as un-Jewish, or immoral, is dangerously woolyheaded. Does Spielberg object to U.S. attempts to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

6. The movie was about half an hour too long. The detour to Amsterdam to avenge a seduced and murdered colleague added nothing and could have been usefully omitted. I found an amusing if inadvertent criticism of the film's length in the New York Times review by Manohla Dargis. Dargis writes: In between the cloak, dagger and drag, the telephone bombs and a veritable alphabet soup of intrigue (C.I.A., P.L.O., K.G.B.), the years pass with increasing desperation and the team's numbers dwindle. Actually, the time frame is only about six months (the Olympics were in 1972 and the protagonist, Avner, is out of Mossad and living in Brooklyn by 1973), but the middle portion of the film certainly drags enough to make it feel like years are passing. (Didn't Dargis notice that Avner's wife was seven-months pregnant when Avner began his mission and that his daughter could only vocalize a gurgling "da da" at the end?)

7. Avner has recurring nightmares, in which he flashes back to the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich, but this is impossible. The details of what happened were not captured by any camera and could not be recalled--especially in such harrowing and graphic detail--by someone who wasn't there. These episodes are a way of unfolding the drama of the hostage-taking and murders gradually, over the course of the film, and help to remind the viewer of Avner's and Israel's justification for his actions, but turning them into flashbacks is an unimaginative cliché and logically silly.

UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot this observation:

8. The movie's final scene is one of the most inexplicably vulgar conjunctions of sex and violence I have seen in a movie. There may have been a message intended--the cycle of death and creation, or some such platitude--but the scene is just tasteless and uncomfortable to watch.

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