"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Spielberg's Munich Mistakes

Conservatives have written very critically about Steven Speilberg's Munich, saying that the film essentially posits moral equivalency between the terrorists who arranged the kidnapping and eventual killing of innocent Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games and the agents whom the Israeli government set on the trail to kill the organizers of the atrocity. Spielberg's public statements support the notion that he sees a connection between the events of the film and U.S. involvement in Iraq, and does not approve of the latter.

Upon viewing the film, however, I think that these critics are wrong and that the film is not an allegory for the Iraq War, Spielberg's public statements notwithstanding. Furthermore, I do not believe that Spielberg intended any moral equivalency between the two sides, but instead that he was simply exploring the questions and letting the viewers come to their own conclusions. As a spectator, there was no doubt in my mind that the Israelis were right in what they were doing. Others will undoubtedly draw other conclusions, but I think everyone would judge the situation based on the beliefs about justice, retribution, etc., that they held upon entering the theater. I think it entirely absurd to believe that Spielberg's film would change a person's fundamental thoughts on such matters.

However, I do think that Spielberg was wrong to do the film this way—for dramatic and aesthetic reasons. Throughout the film, we repeatedly see the Israeli agents agonizing over the morality of their task, and discussing it in anguished terms. This is silly. Those who took the job must have had some qualms about it, to be sure, but they must also have known that what they were doing was essential. Nothing is accomplished, in dramatic terms, in their discussing it further, especially on the childlike level that the screenwriters handle it in the present case. Once the agents set out on their path, the only real moral drama is in their attempt to get the job done without endangering innocents. Spielberg includes some of that, but it is overwhelmed by the overall moral-rightness question.

This is particularly damaging to the film's effect because Speilberg and his writers, in what can be seen as deference to the overwhelming importance of these issues, fail to create interesting characters. (Papa, played by Michel Lonsdale, is the only character in the film who is capable of surprising us, which is the most important indicator of whether a character is real or just a cardboard cutout.) A filmmaker captivated by issues cannot exercise the artistic freedom necessary to create real characters and real drama. In addition, the central story—the hunt for the terrorists and schemes to kill them—is the sort of heist-film material that absolutely requires quirky characters because the story elements are so predictable.

One can imagine, then, how compelling this film would have been if it had been directed by a more intelligent, sophisticated filmmaker such as Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) or Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, etc.). Both of these directors were masters of the art of making stock characters into full-bodied, complex, interesting people, as the films mentioned here exemplify. One could easily see, for example, the Israeli bombmaker in Munich as being much more interesting if his relationship with the group leader, Avner, were more like that of John Chance (John Wayne) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan) in Rio Bravo, with the bombmaker complaining, "First you say I didn't use enough explosives, now you say I use too much! Nobody can ever please you. That's it—I'm going back to Israel!" Likewise with the intellectual guy, the easygoing blonde chap, and the other stereotypical characters at the center of the film. And that is especially true of Avner, whose home life, pregnant wife, and descent into paranoia do nothing to distinguish him in our minds as a unique individual.

A contemporary example of the approach I am suggesting is in the television program NCIS, in which characters dealing with disastrous situations—such as the potential hijacking of a train full of spent nuclear fuel rods that could be turned into a giant "dirty" bomb—have quirky personalities that affect how they act, and which make us like them and feel even more intensely the desire for them to succeed.

If Speilberg did not want his audience to pull for his characters to succeed, then he should have chosen another subject, because this kind of film—a "characters on a task" story—absolutely requires audience sympathy for the central characters. We need not approve of everything the central characters do, or even approve of the task they have set out to accomplish (as in heist movies, in which the characters are setting out to steal other people's property), but we must at least have some reason to identify with them and sympathize with them. Spielberg gives us very little of that in Munich.

More interesting characterizations would not have made Spielberg's film less serious; it would make it more compelling for us, as we could more easily see the characters as real people, identify with them, and care about what happens to them. The failure to fulfill his aesthetic obligations, not political ones, is Spielberg's real mistake in Munich.


James Elliott said...

Furthermore, I do not believe that Spielberg intended any moral equivalency between the two sides, but instead that he was simply exploring the questions and letting the viewers come to their own conclusions.

Mr. Karnick, you have by far been one of the most nuanced reviewers of this film. I felt that the principle question being addressed was not the tactics taken to get to a place being justified, or even justice versus retribution, but rather the effect profoundly disturbing - even if necessary - actions can have on those who must carry them out. It is a deeply moving and disturbing question that America as a whole has been far too unwilling to ask itself.

For those willing to pay attention to the subject matter, we know that there is a deeply felt and agonizing conflict that afflicts many who have tortured or killed for our government. Think about it for a minute: We spend years indoctrinating someone against taking certain actions (murder, violence in general but especially against children, women, etc.) and then, in service to the "greater good" (whatever that may be), these people must not only condone but carry out actions that "civilized" society would shun or punish. There's a certain amount of inevitable psychological and spiritual damage done to the perpatrators in this, but few are willing to explore it in film or fiction. Lost has explored it in the character of Sayid (as part of its larger theme of redemption), and TNT's Wanted has explored righteousness versus the damage righteousness does in similar context (jumping into a world 24 never bothers to explore).

Sorry if that was overly long. It's an area of thought that touches me deeply; I'm writing a short story about it, so it's been on my mind.

S. T. Karnick said...

Very apt comments, Mr. Elliott. Thanks for contributing.