Post Millennial Malaise 11: Munich

In Which Home has a High Price

No movies about the past are actually about the past. Yes they may recount, in varying levels of detail, events that happened in bygone days, and said accounts can indeed tell a whole story that is thematically cogent and narratively engaging. Like all things, however, there is always an impetus to return to the mists of history, and that urge is usually linked to connect what has happened with what is happening. This isn’t an original point, but it’s important to highlight in regards to the movies made during the 2000’s. For there are vanishingly few films directly about the contemporary world in respect to 9/11 and the war on a terror, and those that do exist are quite often flat out bad.

Hollywood’s obvious aversion to the difficult political headwind of the time resulted in many a movie that is in shape and structure about something else, but tries to tap into the relevant thematic framework to speak to the contemporary moment. A tried and true method to be sure (think of something like MASH), and one that ended up as a go to for the prestige feature of the time. Which brings us to the grandaddy of modern Hollywood, Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg has always held an interesting place in the world of film, and especially when it comes to the possible thematic interpretations that his projects asserted. His eye for pure popcorn pleasure has often led watchers to assume not much is going on under the hood, however there’s usually an implicit thematic import that is being communicated, even if the messaging is a bit muddled. There’s the avarice of the mayor in Jaws, the family abandonment of Close Encounters, the broken household of E.T., the retrograde exoticism and mysticism of Indiana Jones. All these things swirl in the background of his films, but are things to poke at around the spectacle.

Even in his swings at prestigious films before the turn of the century background these elements to a certain degree, aiming to make a respectable and engaging portraiture of history, to varying ends. Spielberg is able to do good work with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but muddles around with The Color Purple and Amistad. But then 9/11 happened, and suddenly he gets more of a explicit political bent to his work. There’s the paranoid surveillance state of Minority Report, the international isolation of The Terminal, the ominous invasion of War of the Worlds, and the despairing political reality of terrorism in Munich.

Munich is an odd duck in all of Spielberg’s filmography, and not just because of the much ballyhooed sex scene, one of his few prestige pictures that slinks into despondence and fear rather than returning to sense of schmaltz or a certitude. In many ways this feels like the 70’s film that Spielberg never made in the decade of his ascent, a piece closer to other in his cohort of film brats like Coppola. It’s a bit of throwback in style and tone to be certain, but it also engages with the history of the time that doesn’t paint a pretty picture. It’s one of the few films that Spielberg made that is a total hot stove. Politically precarious while also thematically interesting. There are obvious objections to be made here about the history, and how Munich positions it’s characters, but I also think Spielberg uses this material to rich thematic ends, painting a rathe bleak picture of nationalist retribution.

The narrative is a fictionalized recount of an Israeli operation in response to the Black September attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Mossad agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is given deep cover by his government to hunt down and assassinated the individuals involved in the attack. He puts together a little team (built from a stable of great actors including Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, and Hans Zischler) to go about Europe and root out his enemies. Along the way he forms contact with a mysterious espionage cabal fronted by a man named Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and headed by the avuncular but mysterious Papa (Michael Londsdale).

As the group whittles down their assassination list they become more paranoid as members are picked off and the possibility of subterfuge increases. Each time a target is assassinated a new wrinkle steps in to complicate things. Collateral from the attack, interference by foreign governments, and the possibility that what they are doing is almost entirely pointless. The whole thing winds down with Avner alone and isolated with his wife in New York. An outcast at every level questioning what his actions actually achieved.

The story is a field of political landmines, and I don’t have enough knowledge on the situation to speak accurately on all the ins and outs of the Israel/Palestine situation. It’s reasonable to say that Spielberg can’t do the same either. Fully embedding his camera in the Israeli perspective will certainly lead to bristling. However I think he hits upon a pretty smart idea, that the bloody world of espionage and foreign affairs is deeply entwined to the want for a domestic life. It’s why the film highlights Avner’s relationship with his wife, the birth of their child, and yes the final sex scene. These are the supposed elements that Avner is fighting for, but his actions are spoiling the domesticity that appears to be the goal of his actions.

Frequently Avner meets Louis in front of giant store window. Beautifully dressed in a modern and luxuriant kitchen model. Beyond that plane of glass is the dream, the possibility of peace. Visible but out of reach. The characters frequently touch the window, but never actually enter inside. The bliss of domesticity an illusion reflected back. Louis vocalizes this sentiment, “You could have a kitchen like this someday. It costs dearly. Home always does.” Such a life will come at incalculable price that no amount of money and prestige can retain.

With this frame Spielberg creates a world of spy craft that is chilly and isolating. One where grand ideas crash headlong against the barriers of human fragility, incompetence, and uncertainty. A simple tit for tat world of revenge and retaliation won’t actually soothe the underlying fears, and could eventually just exacerbate the problem. It’s here that Spielberg gets to flex his formidable formal chops to display his ability for high wire tension and terror. For all this speak of thematic heft, most of Munich is a series of set-pieces where our group tries to execute or escape.

Spielberg’s a master for a reason. Each of these scenes are whips of razors, employing classical techniques like long zooms, reflections, and shadowy cinematography to heighten the uncertainty of what is playing out. An early highlight involves a bomb placed in a phone. The plan seems clean enough, but the whole thing is nearly undone by an inconveniently parked truck and the return of a young child that might get caught in the crosshairs. It demonstrates the extreme tact needed to pull off this mission, and as the story progresses thing slowly devolve into messier and more ham handed fights.

This process also leads to a clear dehumanization of Avner, who by the end sleeps in closets and sweats out his fears, and it’s why the concluding sex scene is not as bewildering as many make it out. Yes it is a bit odd that Bana is just firehosed down with sweat, yes the music is a little overblown, and yes the amount of thrusting might be hyperbolic, but there is a clear point here that gets muddled in the “Spielberg directed banging” discourse. This is the ultimate moment of the domestic being intertwined with the political, as Avner’s supposedly most intimated moments are not free from the terror that now stalks his life. His love making is intercut with the Munich terrorist attack because his life at home is now as much his life out in the field. That was the price of his domesticity, the comfort of his wife will never be extracted from the bloodshed of the past. Such is the burden of the spy.

All of this then cleanly (perhaps too cleanly) intersects with modern world. After all the movie ends with a lingering shot of the World Trade Center. The point, however, is still cogent. That nationalistic retaliations in the face of unimaginable terror attacks rarely result in the desired outcomes that one is looking for. You can justify it as way to protect the domestic (which is definitely what the US did in the aftermath of 9/11), but it doesn’t really work that way. More often then not you become paranoid and isolated. The objects used to enact such violence might die or lose themselves in the process. The whole affair is burdened by a Hydra affect, no one thing will fully stop conflict, it goes on forever if not snuffed out.

In a way this button on the end of Munich has been proven more right than wrong. Israel and Palestine are still at odds with one another, and the lashing out the US committed to after 9/11 has lead to a seemingly eternal quagmire with no real resolutions. So even with the pat connections made in the film, they still resonate years down the line. The spy’s life at home will never be separated from the actions made abroad.

Odds and Ends

  • The Academy Awards are always puzzling, but the Oscars for the films of 2005 are quite the head scratchers indeed. Munich got most of the big awards, but no acting noms, and was seen as kind of dead in the water. Leaving a bit of a vacuum for both Crash and Brokeback Mountain to take the top spots. Wish Brokeback Mountain could have swept the Best Picture win as well.
  • I would argue that this might be Spielberg’s most underrated feature. It’s reputation is almost entirely tied up with the final sex scene now, but the rest of the movie is still pretty engrossing.
  • Speaking of sex, the final sequence is definitely overblown, but not half as kinky as the first in the movie, where Avner makes love to his very pregnant wife.
  • Eric Bana has also had quite the puzzling career. One of those actors that popped in the early 00’s got a bunch of big roles in movies that are kind of shrugged at (looking at you Troy) starred in a wonky superhero movie, and is now just kind of puttering around in the background.

Next Week: It all comes back around as Bond is back in town with the near perfect franchise restart Casino Royale.