Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Walter Reich wrote in the Washington Post about Spielberg's new film, "Munich". Having seen the film last night in a sort of advance screening, I can say it is a heavy work that grapples hard with the 1972 massacre of the 11 Israeli athletes and the retributive killings that follow.

Not a ponderous investigative documentary of any kind, "Munich" is drama to a not-so-provocative caliber. Of course, denying its impact would destroy the complex emotional web that such times exploit. Spielberg appears to have intended to avoid a simplistic portrayal, with a clear delineation between good and evil. But none of it excuses terrorist criminality.

Avner, the protagonist, is assigned by Mossad with four other agents to track down and kill the Arab terrorists and their orchestrators. The agents are nameless, their mission secret. The words of one agent (Ciaran Hinds), onto their first target in Rome, is worth heeding: speaking of the Pharaoh's armies who drown in Sea of Reeds, he says God told the Israelites not to rejoice, for they had smote "a whole multitude of [His] children."

Another agent, their bombmaker (Mathieu Kassovitz), ultimately cannot live in their line of work without his soul, as he tells Avner. The greatest strength of "Munich" is how it demonstrates that taking life, however just, psychologically brutalizes you. Reich, in the Post, rejects Spielberg's "protestations" that his film is only asking questions for the audience. "Munich" is instead "a very strong political statement" because we are made to rethink the logic of how we are fighting terrorism. What Reich felt excluded from Spielberg's film was, of all things, the history of the Zionist movement. Okay, maybe that's too simplified, but Reich does feel that the director seems to suggest that the Israeli state has no history prior to the Holocaust. But I disagree with Reich if he is presuming that Spielberg is historically ignorant.

David Edelstein, in Slate, feels obligated to explain that he does not "consider a movie that assigns motives more complicated than pure evil to constitute an apology." Referring to "commentators" like, perhaps, renowned huckster Jack Cashill (who excoriated Spielberg in a recent column), Edelstein argues that "an expression of uncertainty and disgust is not the same as one of outright denunciation."

It is that ambiguity which bothers me about the picture. The ever-reputable Roger Ebert describes it as "an act of courage and conscience." He traces the parallel Spielberg not too overtly presents to today's geopolitical climate, and the unending cycle of violence that plagues the Holy Land. Borrowing a paraphrased line from Golda Meir, in which Ebert writes that she said "civilizations must sometimes compromise their values," he asks about costs versus benefits. The real question is about the line between vengeance and justice.

Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, discusses the character of Avner in particular -- whose "humanity, however compromised ... gives 'Munich' the weight of a moral argument," which is to its core a statement that "blood has its costs, even blood shed in righteous defense." So the film "is as much a mediation on ethics as a political thriller," Dargis writes.

Yet again we see the defensive nature in reviewing this film: " ... 'Munich' has already been strafed by op-ed attacks. The accusations might make sense if the filmmaker took us into the terrorists' homes for some moral relativism. But Mr. Spielberg is doing nothing more radical here than advancing the idea that dialogue ends when two enemies, held hostage by dusty history and hot blood, have their hands locked around each other's throats" (some emphases). Don't understand it.

(Below is an excerpted portion of the Post's LiveOnline chat with Mr. Reich, where one of my questions is posted.)

"Munich" has been labeled controversial and provocative, and there is little doubt to the powerful impact the movie delivers, but hasn't its central point, that retributive killing breeds a cycle of violence, been shown to be all too obvious?

Walter Reich: I think the "cycle of violence" formulation is more a formulation than a reality. Terrorists like it because it takes the onus off them--they didn't start the process. But anyone who wants to believe that this formulation is true should be able to prove that if you don't respond then terrorism will stop--that terrorism is caused by the attempt to stop terrorism. This doesn't make sense, either logically or in real life.

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