Sneak Preview - Munich

by robbiefreeling
December 9, 2005 11:23 AM
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Liberals. Conservatives. Cynics. Kubrick-worshippers. Add another to the ever-growing cadre of contradictory Spielberg detractors: Zionists? Unthinkable for anyone who has actually seen Spielberg’s coda to Schindler’s List, no? Well, while Spielberg’s new film, Munich, may not break any new political ground, even for medium-budget Hollywood spectacle, it is nevertheless undeniably as much a thinkpiece as a genre work. Naturally, many have their knives out already, no one more vociferously than New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, whose article this week puts forth that Munich is “consistent with Tony Kushner's view that Zionism, as he told Ori Nir of Haaretz last year, was ‘not the right answer,’ and that the creation of Israel was ‘a mistake,’ and that ‘establishing a state means fucking people over.’” While there’s a lot of truth to Wieseltier’s piece—no more so than in his statement that Spielberg’s even-handed account of the Israeli response to the 1972 Munich olympics massacre perpetrated by a group of Palestinean terrorists is too strategically balanced, too eager to condemn all to truly offend anyone—he ultimately relies on the same old canard eternally trotted out to smackdown the erstwhile “Boy Wonder”: “The makers of Munich seem to think that it is itself an intervention in the historical conflict that it portrays.”

I would argue this is precisely what Munich, surprisingly, does not do. “When Spielberg gets serious,” (that should be a bumper sticker--often said whenever Spielberg doesn’t make sci-fi, but honestly, can anyone think of a movie more “serious” that came from a studio in the past 10 years than A.I.?), many are quick to charge him with grandiose historical finality, that Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan were meant to be the ultimate statements on Holocaust, Slavery, and WWII, respectively, and that Spielberg’s hubristic end result was to wrap historical trauma up in resolution. What his detractors here do not realize is that this is a scholarly invention as a means to rationalize imagery so powerful and epochal that it seems like finality. Spielberg’s technique is so acute and primal that cinema bends in its wake.

Therefore, expectations, from those who want it as well as those who don’t, may dash Munich, which is, ultimately…a thriller. A genre piece imbued with a searing sense of morality. Once again, Spielberg goes farther than one would expect in terms of violence, and some moments (a knife haphazardly puncturing a stocking-clad forehead, bloody bullets richocheting off a white wall creating cloud formations, neck bullet holes gurlging blood with a decidedly delayed reaction) are impossible to shake. But this time, what’s most remarkable is a symbiosis even stranger than the much-discussed, underappreciated Kubrick/Spielberg connection: Kushner/Spielberg. Though I can’t say after one viewing if the fruits of their labors quite meld into something completely harmonious or coherent, I can say with assuredness that the in-your-face combo of Kushner’s verbal loftiness and Spielberg’s visual flamboyance,yields something altogether welcome: a Hollywood thriller distrustful of its own narrative thrust, a confused self-loathing action pic that all but dissolves into sweaty panic and regret. There’s a lot here that works and some stuff that really doesn’t, but Spielberg is most impressive when he (often) lets his actors just speak. Or spout, as the case may be.

Which brings us back to Wieseltier: he saves his strongest condemnations not for Spielberg’s manipulative suspense tactics but for Kushner’s pro-Palestine stance. This coming so soon after ideologues thrashed War of the Worlds for white supremacy. Therefore, do Spielberg’s twin terror narratives of 2005 ultimately function as definitive political assertions or as blank slates on which to project all contemporary fears? The last image of Munich leads me to believe the latter, yet Kushner, who cleverly devises dramatic queues for debate, simply won’t leave well enough alone, interrupting Janusz Kaminski’s glossy-grim knockout work at every turn. Thank God for that. And how about this for Spielberg: vibrant, volatile homoeroticism (not just for the five sweaty Mossad team agents bunking together in close quarters for years on end but for a sincerely omnipresent fetishizing of Eric Bana’s perfect-specimen physique) and the most memorable image melding sex and death I can recall seeing this year at the movies. Munich, as expected, is a force to be reckoned with…yet at this point I’m still reckoning.

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  • robbiefreeling | December 22, 2005 9:30 AMReply

    By way of something of a response, I find it ridiculous and unfair to bring The Terminal into the dialogue, firstly because more than any other Spielberg film, it tries to circumvent these notions of historical finality and political acuity through its strict rom-com genre structure, and secondly because it's terrible. Further proof of its strenuously off-putting capitalist tendencies can be found at RS, here:

    But back to this: it's far too easy and simplistic to fall back on the old Spielberg bashing (his stabs at "importance" are undone by his desire to entertain, his imagery is too accessible to plumb the depths of true human degradation or tragedy, history is made digestible)in the face of something as baffling and odd as Munich. I doubt the commenters have seen this one yet, and as much as I am constantly torn by the Spielberg project, and as much as I find the detractors critically valid and exceptionally intriguing, there are simply different rules applied to this kind of packaging. It's doubtful that anyone truly came away from Schindler's List, outside of Israeli scholars and JLG, with relief and joy that what's done is done. Likewise, Munich is about a terror that is ever-growing and has no end in sight, and there is no projection of resolution here. Just grief. The final word of dialogue in Munich is "no."

  • joeye | December 22, 2005 12:31 AMReply

    As to the above responses denouncing robbiefreeling's comments, perhaps restatement of his point would be helpful: Spielberg's films contain imagery that is unassimilable within the narrative patterns (the Hollywood conventions and formula, Hollywood structure, what have you) that the films adopt in order that they can be consumed by a large audience. This large audience goes for the narrative but gets the images with it...perhaps they don't understand the images, perhaps the images are blotted out by the conventional resolutions, but the images are distributed by the films, are made public, are made available. This is Spielberg's critical justification, if the critic cares to make it: he makes "primal", potentially subversive images available to the minority that can distill them and assign them meaning, and perhaps create the feeling of "uncanny" (in a Freudian sense) among those who consume the film just for its narrative--to unsettle them.

    Thus robbiefreeling's comments perhaps hold the view that Spielberg's films have a disjoint between the dominant reading (the blockbuster mainstream reception of the film as entertaining historical document) and the film text itself, which contains images that cannot conform to this reading, contain more meaning in their singularity than the dominant reading does in its regard of the entire film.

    As to Spielberg's bombast and his capitalism (as well as his films' often suspect ideology), they are, for purposes of conducting a feasible discourse on the subject of this post, divorced from these comments for heuristic reasons.

  • jimmyjames | December 15, 2005 11:13 AMReply

    "...imagery so powerful and epochal that it seems like finality. Spielberg’s technique is so acute and primal that cinema bends in its wake." where does one begin? how about with jlg-"spielberg uses this man and this story and all the jewish tragedy as if it were a big orchestra, to make a stereophonic sound from a simple story." more important is the question of an "epochal" image in relation to the holocaust, slavery, wwii, etc. i.e. a "grand event" in history (which itself implies a static view, a looking back upon). in itself this belies a view that a summation can be provided, a summation which has a definitive take. now you say this is a "scholarly invention" but one fails to see how this view is seperate from the form the spielberg film takes (or to say, doesn't an "epochal" image need a historical position outside the history being told, a position of "finality", to define it as such?). that is, by making films which fall into the codified hollywood means of storytelling, they create in the viewer a digestable already understood response rather than something which necessitates actual thought upon its subject. the holocaust was bad vs. what allowed the holocaust to happen? the form of narrative that spielbergs films exist in is itself a statement of finality, or more so a pre-existing type which audiences know what to do with and thus easily file away as known. it is the form of a historical narrative view that goes from a to b. there is no questioning the movement of the narrative, it is a narrative which has an end known from the beginning and all its momentum is used to reach that end. there is no room for questioning the events when they simply serve to validate the conclusion (the position of finality held by speilberg). so it isnt the scholars who create this idea of finality but the means of filmmaking spielberg utilizes (i would guess unaware of this himself if one is to accept the argument of "scholarly" application) thinking he is saying more. as for "cinema bending in its wake" because of an "acture and primal" technique, i don't even understand how this makes sense. his "technique" is of the utmost tradition of hollywood narrative filmmaking, a production of images that can indeed be "acute" and primal" but which in spieblergs hands at this historical date has probably lost any of this power as these images refer more to other images of classical hollywood filmmaking than anything outside of these images. not a bad thing per se but not primal. he is no nicholas ray.

  • Bob | December 15, 2005 2:24 AMReply

    "What his detractors here do not realize is that this is a scholarly invention as a means to rationalize imagery so powerful and epochal that it seems like finality. Spielberg’s technique is so acute and primal that cinema bends in its wake."

    -Oh please! You're talking about a man who calls "The Terminal" a small film, $60 million budget and all. Each and everyone of Spielberg's films comes, choking on money, into the marketplace as "important art" - White Elephant Art. It's hard not to be taken in by the ad campaigns that make each film seem essential, and which Spielberg surely has control over. And in the "Spielberg case", it's impossible to disentangle the films from the contexts in which they are presented. The films are their marketing campaigns, to a certain degree - they are inseparable. "The Terminal" is a key (pretentious as he is, he can't even make a "small film" 90 minutes long - it basically amounts to an infomercial for capitalism and Spielberg has no qualms. Cinema doesn't bend to his wake; it doesn't bend to the wake of anyone. He's an old C.B. Demille, a monopolist, intent on touching every major issue with his personal, final touch.

  • filmenthusiast2000 | December 13, 2005 6:42 AMReply

    I LOL'd.

  • Ken Chen | December 11, 2005 10:52 AMReply

    Great post!

  • Ingersoll Rand | December 11, 2005 3:08 AMReply


    I would argue that because of over-effusive front-runners like you that Spielberg does get the final word on every majestically obvious hot-button subject he chooses to film.


    Armond White, is that you?


  • Dan | December 9, 2005 11:50 AMReply

    I just wanted to say that "Spielberg's technique is so acute and primal that cinema bends in its wake" is a really terrific sentence. Great work.