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

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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.

NEXT: Victoria Vetri, Thou Art Avenged, or, Does the Carpet Match the Drapes?

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  1. if arabs had an awards ceremony like the jews maybe they wouldn’t be so angry.

  2. WASHINGTON – Despite the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of public trials, nearly all records are being kept secret for more than 5,000 defendants who completed their journey through the federal courts over the last three years.

    Instances of such secrecy more than doubled from 2003 to 2005.

    More

  3. science, that’s the crappiest movie review I’ve ever seen. Don’t quit your day job.

  4. Dude, it’s Saturday, and this is a long-assed Oscar post. What’s with the spamtrolling?

  5. Yeah, um, first two comments, score: Trolls 1, Loopies 1. I guess loopy isn’t the right word for completely out of context. Still, I don’t wanna see the tie breaker.

    …There’s a “suggestions” box on the left of your screen, science. Next time, use it or look for a relevent thread. …and if I’m ranting to some kind of political advocacy spam bot, please don’t tell me.

    This would have been a great piece, still, it makes for a great post. I’d like to have a longer response, but I’ll just make two remarks for now.

    1) I’m sick of handheld cameras myself, and I didn’t think I’d ever say that.

    2) My money’s on either the gayness of cowboys or the race guilt of wealthy Angelenos. …both of which play straight to the academy!

  6. The academy could finesse the Munich-Paradise divide by giving an overdue Mr. Brasso to Cecil B. De Mille’s great sleeper ,
    _The Crusades_ .

    His ecumenical bloodbath almost achieves a peace process breakthrough by marrying Berengaria off to Saladin, recruits France into an alliance with Britain to pacify the naughty infidels, and should sell popcorn galore in Persia with oceans of flaming oil poured over caped crusaders . Hasn’t even been colorized, so Spielberg can do his signature paint -ins when ever the action lags in the remake.

  7. Wonderful piece, Tim. I always like reading your thoughts on film. I’m glad someone agrees with me about how awesome Minority Report Minus Twenty Or Twenty-Five Minutes is.

    As far as Oscars, I’m betting on gay cowboys eating pudding, just for the sake of furthering the culture war. That’s quiite a gun there, academy…

  8. In my mind its a tossup between Crash and Brokeback Mountain.

    I think there are more than enough old folks in the Academy that Brokeback is not at all likely to outvote Crash in that age group. The younger Academy voters will split (my unknowledgable opinion) between praising “the gay movie” for finally a good movie about gays that is accessible to the mainstream public, and Crash which is based in their hometown of LA and speaks to the fact that there is definitely some strong racism in LA, and that racism is something they want to spotlight too.

    My fearless prediction is that Crash wins.

  9. At least Spielberg is sane. I’m really starting to wonder about Mel Gibson:

    http://oscars.movies.yahoo.com/news/associatedpress/20060304/714.html

    Still, I’d rather hear Gibson saying that than hear him (or Susan Sarandon) talk about their politics.

    Haven’t seen Munich yet, but if Spielberg had really followed Dogme Dogma, the eyeball thing wouldn’t have been so bothersome, because you wouldn’t have been able to see anything half the time.

  10. Thanks or the ‘Goodforyouness” link , which connects to Baehr’s screed at WorldNetDaily.com, which provides this memorable self-explanation:

    ” About WND WorldNetDaily.com can best be explained by its mission statement…an independent newssite created to capitalize on new media technology, to reinvigorate and revitalize the role of the free press as a guardian of liberty, an exponent of truth and justice, an uncompromising disseminator of news….

    TODAYS WND HIGHLIGHTS

    Top exorcist condemns ‘Harry Potter’ “

  11. Hmm. My last post was more tangental to the article than I originally thought.

    I like Tim’s point about Spielberg losing confidence in the audience. Stevo’s lack of trust shows in a lot ways throughout many of his pictures. I saw Duel recently, and there is a scene where Dennis Weaver’s (RIP) character is in a restaurant with a bunch of truckers, one of whom is a psychopath trying to run him off the road. We hear Weaver’s long interior monologue as to which of them could be the psycho, what to do about it, etc. I thought about how Hitchcock would have handled the same situation, sticking to the visual cues and omitting the narration. The Ted Turner colorized girl in Schindler’s List is another good example.

    To be fair to him, however, haven’t we had enough movies yet where amoral killers wipe out dozens and dozens of “bad” guys? Is another movie displaying the heroic assassin(s) really necessary?

  12. Tim,
    Your “general comments” bears a striking resemblance to an “article”.

    Thank you for using the ‘MORE?’ feature that keeps most of it off the main page. Could we please have a rule that any post over 500 words be required to use this?

    What Spielberg movie ever put a kid’s survival in serious question?

    And for the love of all things you hold sacred, never ever use the word “joint” as a synonym for film again!

  13. I can remember when you couldn’t be sure a kid would survive a Spielberg movie

    Minority report….tom’s son is as dead as dirt and his death is never…never resolved.

  14. My biggest problem with Munich is that it is an essentially dishonest film. Spielberg is attempting to make a Message Film – using historical events to infer and convey a general moral about the nature of vengeance, violence begetting violence, and so on.

    Unfortunately, by changing historical events to fit his preconceived message (for example, as noted in the piece, none of the Israeli agents have ever evinced the least sympathy for their targets nor a sense that their actions were morally suspect) Spielberg undermines both his argument and his film. He ends up saying far more about his own beliefs than he does about reality: a sin that would be forgiveable in a sui generis script, but one that is disqualifying in an historically grounded one.

    I suspect that Munich is in Oscar contention because, as Entertainment Weekly’s reviewers put it, it is an “important” movie. People feel that it has the right message and therefore that it is Oscar-worthy. I bear Spielberg no ill will for the position that he has taken per se, but I hope that the Academy will refrain from rewarding his movie for it.

  15. What Spielberg movie ever put a kid’s survival in serious question?

    What about that gay Indian Prince who Shortround beats the shit out of in Temple of Doom?

  16. Smokin P

    To be fair to him, however, haven’t we had enough movies yet where amoral killers wipe out dozens and dozens of “bad” guys? Is another movie displaying the heroic assassin(s) really necessary?

    I don’t think that is what tim is asking for. A good example I think would be romper stomper in which the villans are the main characters and they are human even likable…but they still remain villians.

    Why did spielberg make an ahistorical film when the history is far more interesting.

    example: why not show the inoccent waiter get killed by the assassins and make sure the audiance knows he was inocent. Even more, show the audiance that the assasians know they killed the wrong guy and they still don’t care…all time making the assasians and the assasinated likeable.

    Speilberg is technically capable of making such a film, but i feel he is emotionally incapable or doing it.

  17. Reasonable people can disagree on whether there is moral order in the universe, so I think it’s unfair to condemn an artist’s choice to express this point of view in his work, no matter how “serious” the source material.

    I haven’t seen Munich, so I can only make a general aesthetic argument here.

  18. From what I hear, this movie shows Israelis who fight like Samson but whine like Woody Allen. Who needs that? Just give us the nonstop violence, please.

    If you want moral ambiguity, how about offing the waiter, and the possibility that Meir was so busy trying to kill the terrorists that she was caught flat-footed on Yom Kippur, 1973.

  19. The first comment, though loopy, raises a question: Are there Egyptian-film awards ceremonies? And if so, why not?

  20. Nice find on the Ahram piece, Smoking Penguin. Rgyptian films are pretty hammy, but there are some gems. Lest you thought the Egyptian Oscar candidates were apolitical “The Embassy In the Building” is a bout an Egyptian who returns from 25 yrs outside the country and finds that his family’s apartment now shares a building with the Israeli Embassy. Hilarity ensues (no really, it’s a comedy, but one with obvious political overtones). There’s another Egyptian film called “I Love the Cinema” which was reviewed her months back by C.P. Freund. Also worth a looksie.

  21. Apologies to the board.
    Multitasking error it seems.
    I didn’t intend to post that article (it was going to my lawyer brother in an email…).

    The “ctrlv post” action was intended to post this link to an article on Munic I liked.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/1222/p14s01-almo.html

  22. Fredsox: cheesy might be a better food adjective to use, given the sensitivities of some – don’t want to start an infoodtada. (Ok, I’ll stop now.)

    I’ve heard Egyptian films were almost like Bollywood, and for the same reasons – restrictions on sex, cultural mores, etc. I knew a woman who’d lived for much of her life in Iraq (she got out pre-Baath), and she told me what Tim alluded to in his article – that Cairo was the Hollywood of the Arabic world.

    Interestingly, she said that pretty much anyone who spoke Arabic understood the Egyptian dialect, because they’d heard it so much in films.

  23. science, that CSM review was good; it says what I wanted to say in fewer words. But I don’t understand why everybody keeps quoting that David Brooks line about how there’s no Hamas or Islamic Jihad in the movie. That’s like saying there’s no Ku Klux Klan in a movie about the French Revolution. If you want to make the case that the 70s setting makes the movie of limited relevance to the contemporary war on terrorism, I would agree. But it’s not like Spielberg edited the Islamists out of the story.

  24. 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.

    I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain, but I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it. I did see the previews, and the two main characters certainly dressed up like cowboys, however… Isn’t the film, really, about the gayness of shepherds?

    I know that “cowboy” as it’s used covers a lot of people who don’t chase cows around, but still, I’d bet there are a lot of cowboys out there who in this context would just as soon point out the difference. …especially outside the state of Texas.

  25. Tim,

    Because in Spielbergs only official statement about the movie (“By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly . . . I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today.”), it’s obvious he wants the current conflict to be understood in light of the 70’s Munich story.

    But I tend to agree with you anyways; our current “islamofacism’ was a minor player back then and so using a story set in the 70’s middle east conflict really doesn’t have much to say about the current conflict.

    Our modern Islamic fanatics are really what our current conflict is about . . .

  26. Wooooooo Hooooooooo!!!

    Crash won best pic. They didn’t get best director though. How often does that happen? Maybe 4 or 5 times I guess. I suppose we’ll know tomorrow though, I’d bet a lot it will be talked about a lot on tv and elsewhere.

    I stand by my explanation that the older demographic of the Academy was comfortable praising a pic dealing with the ugliness of race, but “uncomfortable” condoning a film about the last quasi-acceptable prejudice of homosexuality. But they had nothing against the director.

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