We’re late coming to the film criticism of Washington Post movie critic Stephen Hunter. Earlier this year reader Judith Sears brought Hunter to our attention in connection with his excellent, beautifully written review of “The Great Raid.” Last Friday Hunter reviewed “Munich” for the Post. His take on the film is the first that has made me laugh:
The film arrives at, politically, today’s classic liberal cri de coeur against the war in Iraq: It’s taking too long. There’s no plan. It’s too violent. It’s degrading us. We can’t be like them. Too many people are dying. It’ll never end. How did we get into this mess? Make it go away.
Hunter humorously describes the film’s portrayal of the Israeli assassination team led by Avner:
Avner is, naturally, an idealist. His guys are far from the commando types usual to movies about Special Operations (and to actual Special Operations themselves): One is a frail toymaker whose circuitry skills lend themselves to bombs as well; another is a Brit thug who happens to be Jewish (Daniel Craig, who will shortly play James Bond, but here is content to be an ensemble professional); there’s a reluctant ex-soldier and mild-mannered guy who could be an accountant (he wears bow ties and sweater vests). No tattoos, no Seal or Delta machismo, no eight hours a day spent on firing ranges or in shoot houses or hoisting iron in a gym, no funny haircuts, no sexy specialist weapons, no throat or ear mikes — just skilled technicians with clean backgrounds as unearthed by Israeli intelligence (represented by Geoffrey Rush as Avner’s case officer).
Hunter takes the film both on its own Spielbergian terms and on the terms of the controversy it has generated:
Spielberg has attracted, even before the fact, a great deal of criticism for the crime of moral equivalency; that is, he shows how at the ground level, the ideologies tend to vaporize, and you are left with the squalor of violence. You can hate a man, yes, for what he has done and what he represents, but at a certain point, it’s difficult to bear that in mind. If you shoot him in the head, he reacts exactly as a man who is innocent would react: There’s really only one way to react to a bullet in the head. The movie is about the cost of such repetition, and how it kills the soul.
In the end, Avner becomes a self-imposed, bitter exile. At one point, when two young Israeli soldiers express admiration for what he’s done, he recoils in horror. It’s worth repeating, however, that this is a theme Spielberg didn’t sound in “Saving Private Ryan.” In that film, he argued quite the opposite: Kill them until they’re all gone.
But killing, like it or not, is an important issue. Right now, in the sandbox, young Americans are killing in extraordinary numbers. Read David Zucchino’s “Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad” and realize that in the rush to the Iraqi capital, American gunners spray-painted literally hundreds of men bright red. The killings, of armed combatants, were all legal and sanctioned at the highest levels of government. And nobody cares. Nobody wonders: What of those machine-gunners? Do they just go back to civilian life with 150 kills on their memory at the age of 21? What’s the long-term cost? What’s the cost, in short, not of dying, but of killing? How many times can you pull the trigger before you begin to go sour? We owe it to our guys to contemplate the issue.
So give the movie credit for its rigor in facing this depressing problem, and not covering it in Shinola and the other stuff, as do most movies on war or armed conflict. That’s very impressive, but at the same time, “Munich” has a few seedy aspects. For one thing, it’s strangely obsessed with…food? Yeah, food. Avner, a cook, is continually preparing giant meals for the team and as they discuss killing this Black Septemberist or that, they peel potatoes, dice celery, beat eggs. It’s very odd.
Then, worse, in a somewhat crude attempt to impose a suspenseful structure, the narrative memories of the Munich massacre are inserted throughout, climaxing in intimate scenes where the Black September terrorists blow up one helicopter and machine-gun the hostages at point-blank range. Problem: Whose memories are these? The cinema grammar of the film places them in Avner’s head, though he wasn’t there, so who, exactly, is doing the remembering? But Spielberg has done this before (the “false memory” is the central structural device in “Saving Private Ryan”). The bigger problem is the question of appropriateness. It seems almost disrespectful to weave in a provocative re-creation of the killings — somehow a massacre of unarmed innocents that shocked the world should be more than just fodder for ginning up the tension at the end of a commercial movie.
Then there’s a strange, even troubling, episode where the boys hunt down and execute a contract killer — who has taken out one of their own — apparently under the pay of the Russians, who are ticked off that the team accidentally whacked a KGB agent when they were blowing up a target in a Cyprus hotel room. The contract killer is, in fact, a beautiful woman and she is, in fact, naked when her executioners arrive with silenced .22s disguised as bicycle pumps. The scene plays out with weird, sadomasochistic sexual overtones that will remind aging boy baby boomers of their most salacious prepubescent memories (guilty!) of the commingling of sex and violence in the famous, near-pornographic ending of Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury.” Spielberg may be arguing that, in this case, the hit was not ordered by Jerusalem but is purely at the initiative of the surviving members; the team had become They, The Jury. Nevertheless, the weird, almost pornographic vibration of the sequence is itself completely uncharacteristic of Spielberg and completely gratuitous.
The problem with “Munich” is simple: It asks hard questions and finds easy answers.
Hunter’s review is “Circle of death.”
UPDATE: Victor Davis Hanson covers terrorism in this year’s films: “Hollywood’s misunderstood terrorists.” Hanson writes:
Actors, producers, screenwriters and directors of Southern California live in a bubble, where coast, climate and plentiful capital shield the film industry from the harsh world. In their good intentions, these tanned utopians can afford to dream away fascist killers and instead rail at Western bogeymen even in the midst of a global war against Middle East jihadists who wish to trump what they wrought at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
If Hollywood wants to know why attendance is down, it is not just the misdemeanor sin of warping reality, but the artistic felony that it does so in such a predictable manner.