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Film Review: Munich

Munich (2005; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Munich is a fascinating, difficult film that, apart from the expected and perfunctory child-in-peril scene, barely feels like Spielberg. It’s mostly hard and unflinching and there’s not much in the way of a sugar-coated feel-good ending to tart up its less savoury and more morally troubling implications, as in so many of his films. But then this approach matches the overriding theme of the material and its applicability to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, be it three decades ago or today.

As is the case with many contemporary thrillers focusing on clandestine intelligence operations and pitiless politically-linked espionage and assassinations, Spielberg’s tightly-clenched depiction of the sweatily emotional internal conflict experienced by Eric Bana’s Mossad agent Avner Kaufman and his team of assassins hunting down and dispatching the Palestinian perpetrators of the confinement and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in the titular German city humanizes and thus normalizes the sadistic moral evils of their state-sanctioned actions. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek’s observations on Zero Dark Thirty and its treatment of torture, portraying state-supported black ops as something that flawed, imperfect human beings engage in before returning to their routine, normalized lives drags a rightful moral taboo into the mainstream discourse of Western liberal democratic society. It’s the classic statement of the Overton Window, and if Spielberg isn’t moving it himself he’s showing how it can be moved without anyone really noticing or effectively objecting.

As you might well imagine from this reading, I don’t feel that Spielberg is entirely in control of the images and ideas he deploys at all times in Munich. This is a common enough occurence for America’s great populist auteur, who should be praised for seeking out grand and challenging themes and meanings just as he should be criticized for allowing his inborn instincts towards entertainment and sentimentalism to make a hash out of them. The flashbacks to recreated events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 are pitched manipulatively and do not maintain a firm, coherent link to the events that constitute the film’s plot. They are a needless revivification of a trauma that haunts all who remember it, nowhere more so than in the practically laughable juxtaposition of images of the massacre with Avner making perspiring, dark, aggressive love to his wife.

Still, there’s an unquieting ambiguity about the events in the film and their connection to the haunting traumas of history. Why is it called Munich when it is not set there and takes place well after the terror that went down there in 1972? Because this story, like all stories of the modern nation of Israel, spiral off inescapably from things that happened in the first city of Bavaria, not so much in 1972 but in 1923 and thereafter. The massacre was made all the worse for Israelis and Jews the world over for occuring in the supposed-reformed and liberalized incubation chamber of the National Socialist ideology that conceived of and executed the Holocaust, itself the proximal post-war impetus for their long-overdue winning of a homeland of their own at long last. Nazism did not cause the Munich massacre (indeed, a progressive overreaction to lingering perceptions of goosestepping German militarism convinced Olympic organizers to relax security at the Games). But it was undoubtedly situated in its root structure, inescapably feeding into it.

The unforgiving covert violence that Avner and his team are expected by their superiors (Geoffrey Rush represents this perspective most belligerently) to enact without flinching is not about restoring order or preserving security, those specious official justifications of secret illegality so familiar to us in the War on Terror era of unconstitutional surveillance and indefinite detention. It’s almost openly about revenge, about exorcising the lingering ghosts of an inutterably painful past as aggressively as possible. But aggression and hate preconditioned this historical haunting and they will not dispel it. In its most blazing moments (and they are few) Munich is very much about how Israel became the nation it is, and how an uncompomising response to centuries of traumas beyond the control of the Jewish people engendered a system of unswerving control that has subjected the counry’s internal minorities to discrimination not wholly dissimilar to that which it was founded in order to avert. Israel is ideally about the comfort and closure of belonging, but it’s likewise inherent defiant and zealous in not only its erection but in its pursuit of self-preservation. Munich wonders, if not quite out loud, if the latter quality has fatally infected the former.

My own reading of Munich (and of Israel) aside, it is evident that critics and commentators on the left and on the right were unsatisfied with how the film refused to consistently reflect their ideological assumptions about the Arab-Israeli conflict back to them. The ideologues didn’t find what they were looking for here, in short, and one has to kind of admire the film for that, whatever its other failings. If it has any sort of unifying message (and that’s a big “if”), it’s that deep, complex social problems can’t simply be killed away and the ghosts of past suffering do not find peace through warlike activity. It was derided by some observers on those grounds (mostly by those on the Right in American and Israel who think such deep-seated divisions and traumas can be solved by force alone) as wishy-washy liberal pacifism, but this is not a pacifist movie by any stretch of the imagination. What kind of movie is it, ultimately? I’m not so sure that’s ever properly clear, but it certainly is a good one, everything considered.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

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