2005Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds
ill and Ted would beg to differ, but Munich is proof that what is extreme is not necessarily radical. A filmmaker often spurned for his sentimentality, Steven Spielberg is to be commended at the very least for his protean understanding of emotional polarities, spanning the cruelty of Gaspar Noe to the joy of Frank Capra. His cinema is one primarily of attenuated catharses hyperbolically hard and soft. In order to project the surface impression of intelligence, this effusiveness is garnished in ornately nuanced restlessness, disguised as naturalism. This garnish impresses some: Munich has been hailed as the film we need, a call against arms, a paragon of political ambivalence. Yet the stance taken here—Israelis and Palestinians are alike, both mired in a mutual solipsism, carrying on a war for publicity mistaken for nobility—is nebulous at best, phony at worst, and certainly lazy. But frankly, I was so swept up in Spielberg’s relentlessly propulsive construction that you can forget what I just said: this movie is awesome. It’s just unfortunate that fierce aesthetics negate a more knowing, specific politique.
Perhaps this is why War of the Worlds remains the director’s best film of 2005: it obviates the problem of real-world context. Transposing the faceless brutality of Schindler’s List to an apocalyptic free-for-all, Spielberg found indelible power in the Other, a tripod-legged E.T. whose form was as horrifyingly arbitrary as the swatstika. That film’s greatest moments were its most self-contained, contributing nothing to the overall schema but pure viscera: one tracking shot, following a coldly insistent woman fleeing the tripods, struggling and finally dissipating into ash, all binded within the periphery of Tom Cruise’s Incompetent Dad, ripped yours truly apart like no other Movie Moment this past year. Or so I thought, until lo and behold this shot drew a reprise in Munich, with the alien replaced by Israeli vigilante Avner (Eric Bana) and the woman now a sultry, retaliatory spy. It is slower: the terms of her death unfold, she’s incredulous, and is struck, stroking her cat with seconds to live, finally settling into a disturbingly graphic pose to wither. This scene is dismissed by Spielberg’s detractors as gender-regressive, a moralistic death sentence for an unholy seductress. But her pose is so randomly undignified, so pointedly feminine, so beautiful and horrible, that it can only be joyless. It’s as if the happenstance of her robe sliding open is a tragedy that takes precedence above all intentions and ideologies, psychically destroying those in its path. That this horror requires contextualization—an agent remarks later, "I wish I hadn't left her like that,"—is an indication of the responsibilities Socially Conscious Spielberg has to bear, and Thrill Ride Spielberg can safely shirk.
Avner’s deterioration is, as some have suggested, attenuated to near-tedium. Moral collapse takes on myriad forms. But in Spielberg’s cut-and-dry elaboration of contradictory meaning, this is a necessary evil, part and parcel with parsing Avner’s social and political consciences. What’s fascinating is how killing makes both a hardened killer and a blubbering mess out of the guy; it’s as if his growing emotional investment in his family and dwindling remorse in wreaking havoc are inversely proportional. This culminates in present orgasm dovetailed with past massacre, a frequently ridiculed sequence at once profoundly moving in design and awkwardly hilarious in execution, a collision of local and global turmoil conceived with the heart of a lion and the grace of a hippo. Sweaty locks flailing iconically, Avner at one point seems to dodge a machinegun and defensively ejaculate. I know it’s silly, but I was rapt. Mechanistic, ersatz-Bressonian violence seguing into feral coitus? Spielbergian fatherhood-as-redemption sublimated in its most abstract and literally prenatal form? Inexorable death meets inexorable sperm? Sorry, haters. It’s all so shamelessly beautiful it’ll make you splooge, if not vomit.
Ideologically, however, Spielberg favors the simplicity of the syllogism (“We kill armed men.; “The guards are armed.” = “Then we kill them.”) and the parallelism (the film concludes with two steadfast “no”s, each respectively defending the opposing forces of spiritual and biological family), and it does him no favors. Potent, meaningful images are his saving grace, and Munich’s final one is a somber suggestion of perpetual violence that might’ve struck a sharper chord had Martin Scorsese not played the same trick three years ago in Gangs of New York. That the same underlying message holds true for both films—terrorism is nothing new—indicates a common ground between Spielberg’s Jewish righteousness and Scorsese’s Catholic expiation: perhaps, just as wars roil into unending cycles, post-9/11 cinema has spun a cycle of its own. What sets the two apart is Spielberg’s predilection for implication. Where Scorsese shows us our world, Spielberg asks us to remember it. His may be a blunt instrument, but it strikes in the name of contemplation.