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January 31, 2006

Over-long and Superficial - Steven Spielberg just can't do psychological depth, finds Lilian Pizzichini: Munich - Steven Spielberg

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Directed by Steven Spielberg
certificate 15, 2005

The news that Steven Spielberg's Munich has only grossed $40 million since opening, and is thus looking likely to be one of his biggest commercial flops, is not really surprising for two vital reasons. Munich lacks the narrative propulsion to make it as imperative as its subject-matter. No one would doubt that Spielberg is a great director but his strength is popular art: complexity does not suit him.

In Jurassic Park a glass of trembling water heralds a prehistoric rampage of cinematically devastating proportions. It was a fabulous filmic moment; an effective device well delivered. In Munich, Spielberg needs more than devices to convey the moral confusion he is trying to portray.

But he starts off well: the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre is cleverly told. He does it through the lens of the media. We see the awful events unfold on TV screens. The haircuts, the kipper ties, the gushing broadcasters, combined with the sympathetically recreated interiors, take us straight back to the 1970s when terrorism was something new and shocking.

The famous shot of the masked PLO terrorist emerging on to the balcony of the Israeli athletes' apartment is shown through a cameraman's eye and then on television, before we cut to the scene playing out behind him as he strolls on to the balcony. All the while, we have the authentic TV commentator's breathless voiceover. The brutality of what happened in that apartment - the butchering of innocence - is given to us straight: it's tragic, frantic and gory. There is no dialogue. These scenes make their point through the accumulation of precise and focused detail. Not an inch of film is wasted. These killings, in a film full of them, are the most effective, morally and cinematically. The faces of the terrorists, young Arab men, are full of panic overcome by manic resolve. They are doing what they are doing for their homeland. They will die and deal death for their lost country. This is the message of the film.

Now to the Israelis. Eric Bana plays the man to whom Golda Meir hands over the power, the Swiss bank account and the right to avenge her fallen sons. Meir is a difficult part in which to convince but Lynne Cohen's grey-haired old lady in support stockings and cardigan communicates the effectiveness of matriarchal power-play superbly. Bana's Avner is a novice field agent used to minor assignments but dedicated, courageous and single-minded. His handlers have researched him well. His mother gave him up as a baby, his father was busy fighting for his country (significant, this: see below) and he was raised in a kibbutz. As his wife points out:

Israel is your mother.
In case he has any doubts about his mission his actual mother (a rather fearsome matriarch this one, dressed in smart suits and grimly unsmiling) tells him:
We finally have a place to call our own. We must not let anyone take it away.
The other significant woman in his life is his lovely, young pregnant wife. This is Spielberg being corny. Home means family, yes, but the reality of home and family and what they mean is more complex than this. It's like home = good, outside home = naughty. And every time the dialogue revolves around home, the lines are delivered with a clunk. As Avner and his team of crack assassins travel round a gorgeously recreated 1970s Europe seeking out PLO hot shots and eliminating them, they talk a lot about home. "Home is good" - Spielberg hammers the point home, so to speak, again and again. Each time the actors look almost embarrassed. There is no subtlety here, no attempt at psychological depth, they are merely repeating their lines.

I once heard a saying that there is no sight so nauseating as a journalist agonising over his conscience. Well, actually, there is. Spielberg has his Israeli assassins agonising over all these killings and what it's doing to their feelings while they're hiding explosives in their next victim's home ("home" again, you see?).

In another scene, this time downright silly, Avner and his crew are hiding out in a safe house (oops! did it again!!) in Athens when they find themselves bunking up with Arab terrorists. They pretend to be a mix of European terrorists - Avner from Baader Meinhof, his mate from ETA, etc. A risible late-night chat over a crafty fag on the staircase ensues between Avner and the Arabs' leader. They earnestly discuss what home means to them. The Arab explains that, along with the IRA, Basque separatists, et al, they are all simply fighting for their homes. He says:

Home is everything.
Well, if home is so important to these men why, unlike ET, does Avner the agent rarely find time to call home? This (female) reviewer was left to wonder, if men care so much about their homes why do they spend so much time, in this film, anyway, miles away from them, bonding with other men in orgies of violence? While their young, lovely wives (Mrs Avner) are left at home holding the baby?

Anyway, though he is often racked with soul-destroying guilt, Avner never wavers, never tires, in his mission. And here comes Spielberg's next big point (ker-plunk!). As soon as one Palestinian terrorist is dispatched another springs up to take his place. I almost expected someone to say:

They're breeding them like rabbits.
Instead, Avner develops an addiction. He can't stop killing Palestinian terrorists.

So the deaths mount up - and, one thing in Spielberg's favour is that, each murder is botched in some way - these are not deadly cool assassins a la Alain Delon's Samourai. There are some half-hearted post-assassination recriminations between the agents, and rows over just how many explosives are needed to do the deed. Here we have another lost opportunity for sharp dialogue a la The Italian Job:

I only wanted you to blow the bloody doors off.
And if I was getting giddy with boredom it's because Munich is too long by about 40 minutes. The editing is often flaccid and for this there is no excuse. The subject-matter demands tense, compelling drama.

In short, despite Spielberg's heavy-handed examination of "eye for an eye" morality his movie fails to accomplish its brief. These are vital and important topics he is discussing - the cycle of violence he is depicting becomes meaningless. But the nullity pervades his film because he simply cannot do psychological depth. He was fair to both sides. But his handling left me cold. I found it hard to believe that his hired assassins would do this amount of kvetching.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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I doubt that Spielberg is a great director. Everything he has done has been derivative and facile. He and Lucas have been responsible for the cult of the self-referential film that has thrived since the late 70s. As result, so few films these days contain any scrap of emotional or even physical reality. So we keep getting the same boring cliches: every corporation is automatically evil; all parents are prats or villains, all authority other than that exercised by left-liberals is bad; all judges must be female or black, etc , etc.

Posted by: Peter L at February 1, 2006 03:58 AM
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