Steven Spielberg’s Munich is close kin to Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) – a horrifyingly awful film made by an acclaimed, talented and extremely well-resourced director.
The title will lead many viewers to expect a dramatisation of the tragic events at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists – a topic covered in exacting detail in Kevin Macdonald’s documentary One Day in September (1999). But this part of the story is seen only in TV clips and occasional, overheated flashbacks.
Spielberg’s saga, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, is about the secret Mossad squad sent around the world to kill various participants and masterminds of the Munich massacre. It is based fairly closely on the much-debated, non-fiction book Vengeance by George Jonas – right down to the most incredible details, such as the shadowy existence of “Le Group”, an underground French organisation which funds all terrorists but has no political program other than to bring down governments.
Spielberg, of course, is not content to make an action film spiced with the frisson of some social topicality. At every opportunity, he crams in invented details which turn Munich into a weird parable of the modern family. The head of the hit squad, Avner (Eric Bana), mourns his dead father, and has a baby on the way. Top dog at Le Group, known only as “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), has problems with his own stinky kids (played by Mathieu Amalric and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), but acts as a surrogate Dad to Avner. Our hero even has two mothers to cope with – his biological one, plus Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen from Sex and the City). And his squad of merry killers is also a replacement family.
What does this all mean? It means that Spielberg is scrambling for something to say, straining for significance – and failing miserably. When it comes to the core of the story, Spielberg has only a single, guiding thought: that violence is a bad, bad thing, and that revenge killing merely begets more revenge killing (aka The Tarantino Alibi). But Spielberg takes his sweet time getting to that earth-shattering revelation. For a long while, he lets us simply enjoy the thrilling spectacle of Avner and his men hunting down suspects, planting bombs, and engaging in street shoot-outs. It is standard Hollywood movie hypocrisy.
Spielberg is, to put it mildly, an uneven director. He is at his best when he works in a visceral, intuitive way, from his unconscious, in films such as Empire of the Sun (1987), A.I. (2001) and The War of the Worlds (2005). And he is at his worst in the string of preachy, message pictures inaugurated by The Color Purple (1985). But Spielberg, like Scorsese, is no great political thinker, and his “give peace a chance” message here is laughable.
What’s worse, his artistic and storytelling judgement has deserted him almost completely in Munich. There is no trick too cheap for this film. Spielberg shows us Avner gaunt, wasting away and “dehumanised” by the violence he commits – except when the sound of his new-born baby down a phone line makes him weep. A scene where terrorists of opposed ideological persuasions bond over American soul music is excruciating.
And Avner’s personal ”vision” of the truth of the Munich killings, right in the midst of the worst sex scene in American cinema history, caps off this mess perfectly.
POSTSCRIPT (February 2006)
Shortly after the newspaper appearance of the above review, the World Socialist Web Site ran a blistering denunciation, by their Australian correspondent Richard Phillips, of the critiques (and the critics) of Munich. Perhaps to the surprise of Phillips and his editors, I was, at the time, a regular reader of WSWS. Here is my reply, which they duly published:
Dear Editors –
Being an avid reader of WSWS, I was amused to see myself called out in Richard Phillips’ piece “’Progressive’ Australian Film Critics Denounce Spielberg’s Munich” (February 17, 2006). By an uncanny coincidence, I read on the same day Salvador Dalí’s famous essay on the paranoiac critical method: “It is enough that the delirium of interpretation should have linked together the implications of the images of the different pictures covering a wall for the real existence of this link to be no longer deniable.”
Phillips practices paranoiac criticism with a fervour that would have pleased old Dalí: it is enough for him to note that both I (and another critic, Julie Rigg) come to roughly the same conclusion as the “pro-Israel opponents of Munich” – namely, that it is a very bad film – to “prove” beyond any doubt that we all share and propagate the same, sinister, despicable, right-wing ideology.
This is a laughably absurd conclusion, well below the best journalistic and intellectual standards (fast receding into the past) of WSWS. The fact that both I and some right-winger declare our dislike of this movie proves or demonstrates nothing more than that any film – especially a confused, contradictory one like Munich – is going to give rise to diverse evaluations at every point along the political spectrum (as, indeed, this film has already done). The “coincidence” of two negative opinions does not reveal any malign conspiracy of public discourse.
Yet Phillips keeps banging on in a tone of exposé, comically recalling the harangues of a Stalinist show-trial. My review of Munich “reveals” my “political orientation: opposition to any challenge to the current status quo in the Middle East and any plea for an alternative”. I “have no fundamental differences with the pro-Israel opponents” of the film. I “reveal”, yet again, that my “opposition is from the right”. I am apparently “deeply nervous” about the sea-change in contemporary culture. Mine is a “right-wing denunciation”, so, of course, I have been “posturing” all along as a “progressive intellectual” with “left-liberal pretensions”. Cast out as a propagandising leftie by Australia’s conservative ideologue Andrew Bolt, and cast out as a closet conservative by World Socialist Web Site: such is the life of a working film critic.
All that for not liking Munich the way Mr Phillips does? None of it is true, and here is why: my stated reasons for disliking the movie are not at all the same as your average “pro-Israel opponent”. Phillips, for his part, cannot even grasp why many fine, progressive people have attacked or doubted this movie: its agenda as a thriller, the way it stokes its audience to enjoy the killing (it’s so exciting!) and then do a moral flip-flop and “criticise revenge killing” is the type of standard Hollywood hypocrisy my review targeted. Not to mention the barrage of cheap, dramatic tricks which show how little Spielberg has to say about the complexities of the issues his film raises (and, I would argue, exploits).
In the course of his smear, Phillips quotes no other piece I have written since 1979, only that I am an “expert” (those quotation marks again!) on the Mad Max movies, and hence obviously a supporter/purveyor of “prevailing and debased social currents”. Actually, my book contains a political critique of those movies; but, more importantly, I am impressed by Phillips’ certainty that anyone who writes about an action movie is automatically not-on-the-left. You just wiped off many great and progressive film critics there, Comrade …
Yours sincerely …
Mr Phillips was granted a further right of reply by WSWS, which begins: “Fair enough, my polemical assault on your review was, on further reflection, excessive. In particular, I’m prepared to concede that your dislike of Spielberg’s Munich does not make you a defender of the status quo in the Middle East or signify that you share the political views of the Zionist opponents of the film”. Whew! He then proceeds to reiterate the terms of his initial critique, claiming that my approach “smacks of cynicism”. You can’t win ‘em all …
© Adrian Martin January/February 2006