Monday, January 16, 2006

“Munich” – Spielberg Is Back In Top Form

In this Blog, I review many books and only a few movies. One reason for this disparity is that I find many more books worth sharing than I find films that are noteworthy. So, when I choose to write about a movie, it means that the film has grabbed me in a significant way. With his new film, “Munich,” Spielberg grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go for three hours.

Unlike most members of my generation, I did not follow the 1972 Munich massacre in real time through the reporting of Jim McKay and Peter Jennings on ABC news. I was incommunicado for the period of the Munich Olympics, on my honeymoon in the mountains of Haiti. So, I did not experience in 1972 the roller coater ride of emotions that most TV viewers did as the hostage crisis and tragedy unfolded on the screen before them. Through the artistry of Spielberg and his creative team, I now feel as if I understand for the first time the range of emotions the rest of the world must have experienced when the Israeli Olympic athletes were slain in Munich. In addition, the film ushers the viewer beyond the original tragedy and leads one to consider the many layers of repercussions that are spawned from the subsequent retaliation that Israel launched against those Palestinians who had planned and executed the massacre.

Spielberg is wading in deep waters here, and he has crafted a very painful and deeply thought-provoking film. Using a technique that reminded me of “Schindler’s List”, early in the movie, the director weaves together the showing of photographs of two different groups of individuals – the 11 Israelis who were killed and the 11 Palestinians who perpetrated the outrage. Images of victims and terrorists are shuffled together as two halves of a deck of 22 cards – a graphic summation of the central message of the film: that violence – even violence justified as revenge for inhuman acts – exacts a steep toll upon both the original victims and perpetrators, as well as upon subsequent generations of those who seek justice through retribution.

It is an age-old dilemma. How do we appropriately respond to acts of violence? In Fiddler on the Roof, Teyve has a response to the Old Testament principle of “Lex Talionis” - “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

“Very good,” says Tevye, paraphrasing Gandhi, “that way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

It was his desire to move the world beyond the tit-for-tat mentality of “Eye for an eye” that prompted Jesus of Nazareth to proclaim:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love you neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43,44)

For two thousand years, followers of Christ have been wrestling with the conundrum of how to apply this difficult teaching in a world of real politik. This film continues the debate. It offers no easy answers, but does a masterful job of posing the questions in a variety of ways – verbally through the dialogue and visually through the pained expressions on the faces of the characters who are forced to confront the horrors of terror and the equal horrors of retribution. The film skillfully employs the characters of Golda Meir - Prime Minister of Israel, and Avner Kauffman - former Mossad officer and head of the assassination team tasked to kill the 11 Palestinians complicit in the Munich massacre, to depict the depth of struggle with moral choices that are as complex and intractable as a Gordian knot.

This is the kind of film that is best viewed alone, leaving yourself plenty of time for silent reflection after watching the film, or seen in the company of someone with whom you can “debrief” the experience and explore the many depths of meaning and challenge that the film offers.

This is not a film that most individuals will enjoy; it is a film that most thoughtful persons will treasure.


1 comment:

Devo said...

Your last comment is especially accurate, Al. I saw Munich last Tuesday and I'm still reeling from it. The last shot was especially powerful, particularly for those folks who need a bit of a "sack of bricks to the face" approach to fully absorb Speilberg's gist. So many critics are very quick to point out the "historical inaccuracies" or "excessive use of poetic license" that he took in his formulation of the film, but I contend that these critics are entirely missing the point. This is not a documentary, it is a cinematic composition. He told the story for a reason, and too much nitpicking about what's "real" and "fiction" within that story only demeans its strength.

I think the best part of the entire experience is one's inability to "choose sides" after viewing the film. No matter what portion of the political spectrum you fall on, Spielberg forces you to ask questions that are (and should be) immensely difficult to answer in any meaningful way. This movie should be mandatory viewing material in numerous college classrooms, in my humble opinion.