München Leads to Bellyache, or, Get Bombed Before the Oscars


I've been meaning to write an article teaming the Steven Spielberg joint Munich and the Hany Abu-Assad joint Paradise Now, two terrorism-related pictures (and less famously, two pictures that channel the aesthetic of the seventies in very different ways) that are both in the running for this weekend's feast of self-congratulations. (We're really in a spinach-eating year: Every nominee for best picture and best foreign-language picture contains more than the US RDA of goodforyouness and social importance.) I never got around to writing an article, and nobody's gonna care after the Oscars (if anybody cared in the first place), but here are some general comments:

My visceral response (in the true sense of that word) to Munich is that I can't in good conscience recommend a movie that is this severely sanpaku. I can take a few "floating irises" in a motion picture, but this was like a visit to an epilepsy ward: Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Ciarán Hinds, Michael "Moonraker" Lonsdale, the woman who played Golda Meir, countless sunken-eyed Israeli officers smoking cigarettes in their ill-fitting olive drab uniforms: You haven't seen this many whites of the eyes since The Omega Man. Making it even more quease-inducing is that everybody is shown in those horrific Spielbergian super-closeups. How close does the master director think we really want to get to the stars?

None of these elements would stick out except that Spielberg remains in the grip of the shakycam vogue. (At this point I'd be happy to see a few people take a reverse-Dogme 95 vow to avoid handheld camerawork for a few years.) And to complete that sinking feeling you get in your gut, the movie features an already-famous sex scene in which some Long, Swift Sword of Siegfried-style humping is intercut with shots of the Israeli Olympic team being butchered at the end of the Munich standoff. Many explanations of that scene have been offered, with Matt Zoller-Seitz's take being the most intelligent, but it merely made me wonder what Kate Capshaw must be going through when it's date night at the Spielberg house.

There is, however, one respect in which Munich is good to your tummy: Nearly every Spielberg picture contains at least one scene where the main characters eat delicious-looking food, and this one is no exception.

So Munich is a flawed masterpiece. A masterpiece because Spielberg's control of the whole package—casting, set decoration, and so on—is as strong as ever. This is a wonderfully detailed period movie, in its way as intoxicated with the look and feel of the seventies as Austin Powers In Goldmember (and despite some markers so obvious they're almost parodic—bustling plazas that let you know you're in Rome, Eiffel Tower backdrops to signal that you're in Paris: At one point a French character is shown riding around in what I think was a Citroen Traction holding a fluffy little dog and listening to Edith Piaf). It's also probably the closest Spielberg has come, or will come, to a true note of ambiguity, something he's been striving for since he started making self-consciously grownup pictures. In a truly inspired bit of casting, Mathieu Amalric, as the assassins' fidgety and temperamental contact with the underworld, steals every scene he's in.

Flawed because, as in all his serious pictures, Spielberg is instinctively at odds with the material. He's just too sure that at some level the world makes sense (you would be too if you'd enjoyed as much success as he has), and too confident in the reliable tropes of mainstream movies, to entertain the uncertainty implicit in mature subject matter. Looking back over his recent output, you see a string of classics strangled in the cradle by the filmmaker's need to turn them into regular movies. Minority Report, for two-thirds of its running time, is the greatest movie ever made, one that comes within centimeters of engaging the full irony and tragedy of the Philip K. Dick universe; then Spielberg loses confidence in the audience and turns it into just another movie adventure, pulling out even that ultimate film cliché wherein two characters struggle over a gun and the gun goes off and you don't know which one was shot. (That the shot character is Max von Sydow just compounds the sense of wasted promise.) The vastly ambitious AI spends countless hours refusing to admit that its unwholesome central premise can never be resolved, and the movie's search for warm fuzziness leads through so many false endings and epilogues that you start to fear it will never end. (A.S. Hamrah memorably compared AI to "a lollipop that's been licked by a whole kindergarten class and then dragged through ashes and shit.") The biggest tragedy is Saving Private Ryan, a film everybody admires because they only remember its first fifteen minutes, before the banal comforts of character development and audience expectations crowd out the ghastly logic of the battle sequences. Imagine what a movie Private Ryan would have been had Spielberg moved the action to the Pacific theater and turned it into A War At Tarawa, a 90-minute film of uninterrupted combat that ends not when the objective is achieved or the cause is shown to be just but when the last person who can be slaughtered has been slaughtered.

Munich certainly ponders some of the disturbing implications of its subject matter. The movie shows its heroes stricken with guilty consciences (ahistorically, according to the actual participants in the events) over their mission to assassinate the planners of the Munich massacre, arguing—in clumsy, undramatic speeches and dialogues—about whether there's justification for their actions, whether an eye for an eye doesn't leave everybody blind in the end, and so on. But these musings are luxury items, because the film never leaves the comfort zone of a well ordered universe—you know not only that the hero's wife and kid will never be in any real danger (I can remember when you couldn't be sure a kid would survive a Spielberg movie) but that the hero will never have to do anything too bad. Left-wing critics have tagged the movie for not mentioning the Lillehammer affair, in which Mossad killed an innocent Moroccan waiter by mistake, and taken that as a sign that Spielberg is unwilling to criticize Israel too harshly. (In the no-win politics of Total Culture War, the right lambasted him, long before the movie premiered, for being too critical of Israel.) But I don't think Spielberg is too kind to Israel; I think he's too kind to the universe. He just can't enter a territory without clear meanings, rooting interests, and moral resolutions.

In a way, that's to Spielberg's credit. Despite all evidence, he still thinks he's making movies for human beings, that audiences want to be sure the protagonists are justified in their actions, maintain conscientious and professional habits, and so on. That diligence increasingly puts him at the lagging end of audience expectations. Contemporary popular movies rarely make any great effort to spell out moral distinctions between heroes and villains—it's enough to know that one group is good and the other bad. Ironically, this movie could have spared itself the attacks from the right had it shown its heroes as conscienceless killing machines instead of doubting Hamlets.

That also might have made for a better movie. Spielberg wants to make a solemn, moral picture about the slipperiness of ethics. But what the material wants to be is a jolly, amoral picture about the unreliability of information—The Dirty Dozen reimagined as a Thomas Pynchon story. Munich goes for the ambiguity of 70s-era realism, to the extent of stealing a whole scene from The Conversation. But the ambiguity in the great 70s movies wasn't moral, it was categorical. There's more than enough uncertainty in the story of Operation Wrath of God itself—which Michael Young back in 2000 posited may be even more at odds with reality than anybody in the U.S. knows—that we don't need scene after scene of head-scratching and speechifying about the cycle of violence and whether the Jews are a vengeful people. The movie's central question is how a liberal society deals with its need for illiberal characters, a question that has driven a great variety of what used to be called "men's pictures"—The Searchers, Dirty Harry, Patton, and so on. But when the illiberal characters are liberal at heart, what's the point? Ultimately, who cares what somebody else's conscience is telling him?

All these problems vanish like al Qaeda Number 2 Men, however, when Munich just settles into the visual story. When the heroes kill the first of their targets, the victim is an amiable, rabbit-toothed literati living a shabby-genteel life in Rome. The contrast between the terrorist's bloody history and his engaging appearance couldn't be more striking—it's impossible not to feel sorry for him. He gets shot while holding a bag of groceries, and we get a closeup of a pool of milk rapidly turning red with his blood. The mix of blood and milk tips off any alert viewer to the unkosherness of the act, the perfect button for the conflicting emotions the sequence raises. But then the next scene has the characters sitting around debating (again!) whether they really did the right thing. Just shut up and tell the story already! This establishes the pattern of the movie—an episode of spectacular, unsettling tension punctuated by a scene of editorializing about the scene you just saw. That gets repeated at least three times by my count, and culminates in the ruination of the movie's brilliant last shot: From the Brooklyn side of the East River, the camera tilts up to show the brand-new World Trade Center in the distance, but then Spielberg botches the effect by superimposing an explanatory card telling you what became of the remaining terrorists. (Has any movie, except maybe Animal House, ever been helped by an explanatory crawl before the end titles?)

Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is a lesser movie, but it has all the virtues Munich lacks. It's tense, stripped-down, unsentimental, unresolved, and willing to explore every chilling avenue implicit in the subject matter.

To be fair, most of the work was done with the topic selection. It's compelling enough to show two suicide bombers on their last day that you'd really have to work hard not to make a good movie about it. Abu-Assad makes a virtue of his circumstances. As a Palestinian living in Europe he's fascinated by the details of life in Nablus and free of the soppy artlessness that characterizes Cairo-based Arab cinema (mawkish acting, amateurish production values, shrill buffoon characters). And with his production stuck between the pressure of the Israeli occupation and Palestinian gangs who grumbled about potentially negative portrayals of terrorists, he adopts a tone of deadpan neutrality.

The result is a picture that (mostly) dries out its material. To employ a critical cliché that is often used to praise empty work, Paradise Now gets its value from what it doesn't include. The standard leftish tactic in treating Palestinian suicide bombers would be to pile on large helpings of social-realist determinism, to argue that terrorists are driven by socio-economic root causes. (That argument had an exact counterpart in the rapidly fading neoconservative vision of rescuing the Muslim world from its fiscal and ideological pathologies.) But while Paradise Now's protagonists are shown to be poor and under-employed, there's no attempt to argue that they're driven by economic circumstance, or by any other material motivation. The movie respects the mystery of what would drive a man to blow himself up along with a bunch of innocent people.

I should say that many people, particularly those who are circulating a petition to have Paradise Now withdrawn from awards consideration, believe the movie endorses the point of view of the bombers, and I have no evidence to dispute that claim other than my sense that the dialogue here is meant to illustrate character rather than express the filmmaker's opinion. Abu-Assad didn't do himself any favors when the interviewer Igal Avidan asked whether he condemned suicide bombing—a gotcha question, but a fair one in this case. In the movie's weakest sections, Said, the more interesting of the two lead characters, is set off against Suha, his westernized prospective girlfriend. Said's father was executed for collaborating with the Israelis, while Suha, the daughter of a wealthy Palestinian (presumably PLO) hero, has become a peace activist. This has the makings of something interesting, but the two pepper each other with ideological talking points. The Belgian actress Lubna Azabal gets the thankless task of turning a wet-blanket girlfriend character into the movie's moral benchmark. It's the one place where the film descends into Munich-level hectoring, and ironically it supports the argument of Paradise Now's detractors: You can't fully disclaim the ideologies expressed in the film when you're staging them via Platonic dialogue.

On surer ground, the movie undermines the terrorist ideology with wacky, day-to-day detail that comes straight from the Palestinian setting. When Said's partner Khaled delivers his videotaped will, his line reading is riveting and heartbreaking; then comes the reveal, that the camera is jammed and he'll have to repeat the speech, but now with his momentum broken—a suicide bomber's version of the actor's nightmare. Delivering his own will, Said rambles to his mother that he knows where she can find an inexpensive water filter and other necessities. (This is the kind of left-field leavening Spielberg used to deliver effortlessly.) Later, the same video vendor who makes wedding films explains that he also sells DVDs of suicide bombers' wills, and there's a discussion of which ones are the biggest sellers. When the heroes' mission goes awry, Abu-Assad plays up the central absurdity of a well-dressed man strapped with bombs running between bus-stop, open-air mechanic's shop, and home—none of which, for obvious reasons, he can visit for very long. In a radical departure from the niceties of Egyptian movies (which always show Arabs attacking only uniformed soldiers, who sometimes sport stars of David on their helmets in case you have any doubts), Paradise Now makes no bones about the fact that Said and Khaled will be blowing up civilians.

Paradise Now features a formal hallmark of 70s neo-realism: the total absence of a musical score, even over the opening and closing credits. But what makes it a more relevant movie than Munich is that it's about contemporary rather than historical events. Munich's last shot of the World Trade Center is meant to erase the distance between 1973 and today, but ends up emphasizing it. The terrorist targets in Munich are all cosmopolitans: One has translated 1,001 Nights into Italian; another has a French-speaking daughter attending a private school in Paris; a third is seen having a polite and solicitous exchange with the movie's hero. Several are shown to be drinkers and none appear to be religious. The (perhaps intentional) message is: Who wouldn't prefer this group over the Muslim fanatics who fill out the terrorist ranks today?

Will either of these movies win over that little gold man we call Oscar®? I'd doubt it. As Jesse Walker noted yesterday, the Academy prefers its politics predigested. The emergence of Steven Spielberg (the closest thing we have to baseball and apple pie) as a politically polarizing figure has been an interesting cultural phenomenon, and I'm still hoping to see him rant about Zionist hoodlums during his acceptance speech. But the controversy over both Munich and Paradise Now is not unwarranted, and while that speaks well of both films, it also makes them problem pictures. That is to say, fascinating pictures that complement each other in important ways. That they both take on a subject that—unlike the gayness of cowboys (a topic I thought had been settled by the banter between Monty Clift and John Ireland in Red River), the race guilt of wealthy Angelenos, or the umpteenth denunciation of Joe McCarthy—is actually of interest to many Americans, makes them even more worth seeing.