Sunday, May 28, 2006

Munich and Unintended Consequences

I am surprised. I didn't expect to hate it, knew I'd see it at some point, I just figured the lack of buzz (in spite of a series of Oscar nominations) meant it had misfired. I remember seeing the previews and the subject material was compelling. I remember intending to see it in the theater. But it slipped through, probably a combination of me being distracted with moving and a sense that it was getting lukewarm reviews.

That was my mistake. It actually got the full four stars from Ebert and from Bernardelli, the two guys who seem to review every movie ever. I am weird when it comes to movies and movie reviews. I want to get as virginal experience as possible when I see a film, and then once I have I typically go read a bunch of reviews. Mostly I'm curious to see who had the same take as me, and sometimes I get new insight from a particular reviewer.

And then I become a sort of hypocrite in that I post stuff discussing aspects of the plot and characterization that I would never want to read in advance of seeing a movie myself. So I guess stop here if you don't want to know anything.

This is one of those movies, however, that I can't really spoil, because there isn't much to reveal that you don't know from the premise. Everyone knows what happened in Munich 1972, and everyone knows the movie is about the Israeli secret assassination agents sent to exact revenge on the Munich planners.

The real story is in the questions the movie raises about violence, revenge, the need for a home, and personal culpability. Even these are predictable questions. Fortunately, in Munich's case, predictability does not translate into cliche. I was surprised to learn afterward that the film was 3 hours long. It is tautly paced and always interesting. Part of the reason is that while we know about Munich, we don't really know the details of what happened afterward. Not that Steven Spielberg does - this is admittedly a piece of fiction and nobody watching should think that these are real characters. All we really know is that Black September planned and executed the Munich attack, that Israeli PM Golda Meir decided to respond to the attack by going after those who planned it, and that 9 of the 11 original planners were subsequently assassinated. The rest is all fill in the blanks. That's the movie's imagination. You don't spend 3 hours agonizing over complex moral questions. Most of the time you are watching guys cleverly grapple with the details of killing guarded men, learning as they go. It's a sneaky way to keep you interested as event tumbles on event until the ripples of all this action lead where they must.

Perhaps another reason I didn't have the impetus to go see the film when it was in the theater is that I have an intangible uncomfortability trusting Spielberg. I feel like the only one, but Schindler's List didn't really do much for me. When that movie came out, I just felt like none of it was new information, it was all old ground. I don't mean that callously at all, because every human being needs to know the Holocaust story.

I simply mean I was already highly aware of it, and the movie didn't teach me anything new or cause me to question anything new. One of my earliest childhood memories is being 4 years old and my mom putting me to bed telling me history stories, the telling and retelling of which I craved. Martin Luther King and WWII (including the Holocaust) just fascinated me. So I was highly aware of what had happened for nearly two decades before Spielberg's film. I'd studied about the Holocaust in history books, read the standard Night and Diary of Anne Frank in junior high school, seen the story represented in plenty of war documentaries and miniseries. So Spielberg doing a film on it seemed more about the fact that Spielberg was doing it and thus it would get more attention and publicity (good) than if another director had done something. So I remember seing it and thinking, okay, another retelling of the story, but nothing super special. Nothing warranting a top-5 ranking on imdb's all time movies list, for example. [Having said that, I am sure if I'd been 10 when the movie came out, as I was when I saw Gandhi, I'd feel completely differently.]

Spielberg is a strong director, but whenever I see one of his films I always feel like there's this tickling distraction element of artificial emotional manipulation. It's often subtle, but it stands out. Spielberg makes movies for mass consumption and for box office success, and so while his knack for compelling stories is undiminished, he sometimes allows cliched elements (like in Saving Private Ryan where the squad is made up of one of everything - the black guy, the Brookyln guy, the Southern guy, etc.) to kind of oversell an otherwise powerful story in a way that can feel a little false. To make the Holocaust comparison, I thought Polanski's The Pianist was just tremendous, and not a false note struck.

All of this is prelude to say that Munich did not strike me nearly the same way. There is one moment that tickles at me a little, where Eric Bana's character (the main assassin) encounters a PLO counterpart and they have a conversation (the PLO guy mistakenly thinks Bana's guy is a Basque terrorist, explaining why they can converse). I guess the scene didn't bug me much because Spielberg HAS to get this conversation in the movie somehow, and it would have seemed falser to have an Israeli arguing with some French guy, or worse, a conscience stricken fellow Israeli death squad member, over the virtue of Palestinian homeland claims. Plus, about two scenes later the Israeli guy shoots the PLO dude a bunch of times in the chest. So they weren't getting too crazy.

One of the truisms of all storytelling is that you tell the most universal stories in the most specific context. The most recent Exhibit A in that regard was Brokeback Mountain, a love story told so specifically that the universal extrapolation was done automatically by the viewer and never by the film. This is a hugely important principle in Munich, because Spielberg is definitely looking to ask some universal-type questions.

The most important question is, "What are the unintended consequences of revenge?" Ebert says the most important question is about when and how should civilizations make compromises with their values (Meir has a line early on saying that every civilization finds it necessary to mkae compromises with heir own values), but I think the unintended consequences question is the more central one, and the civilizations question a subset. There is a scene in the film where the group is going after one of the Munich planners. They track him to his hotel where he comes and goes with armed guards. The plan is to wait til he leaves, sneak into his room, put explosives under his mattress that will be armed with his weight and then triggered by a device after one of the group gives the signal that he's on the bed. The signaller will be in the next room.

Now, the target before this one was also killed with a bomb - one placed in a telephone and detonated after pickup. However, the bomb was weaker than expected, and the man only died after several days in the hospital. So the group members wonder, how strong will the mattress-bomb be? Especially considering that the guy giving the go ahead signal will be in the next room. All assurances are given that their teammate will be safe. So they go ahead as planned, and sure enough the bomb is way too powerful and nearly kills the signaller, blowing him across the room in the powerful blast. When confronted with the near-miss, the bombmaker insists the explosive was mislabelled and he had no way of knowing that. Such a detail was out of his control.

I didn't think about it until after, but that is Munich's central theme. When we exact revenge, there is a slop factor. We control less than we think we control. There is blowback - in that scene, literal blowback. We only control events to a point, and beyond that they are out of our control. There is collateral damage (in that specific scene, there is also a honeymooning couple in the room on the opposite side who go from lovemaking to disorientation and blindness in a flash). Revenge sets in motion other events whose fruit is not yet seen.

The film starts off very clear cut in terms of right and wrong. Peaceful Israeli athletes are murdered. That is wrong. The intention to kill the planners seems entirely just and clear cut. It seems like a good time to make a compromise with the civilization's values. And it won't get a counterargument from me.

But as the film progresses and the assassinations mount, counterattacks begin to occur on Israeli interests in Europe and elsewhere. More targets are taken out, the assassination group is targeted and intelligence information peddlers are playing both sides for a price. People get killed. Things get messy. Paranoia sets in. There are personal consequences. The longer it goes on, the further away a dream of living quietly with family seems. Scar tissue builds, and while all of it was attempted in the name of righteous retribution - still valid - what do you do about the unavoidable bottom line personal realities?

And how do you reconcile the legitimate revenge with the reality that every guy that gets killed has a replacement who is just as vicious and determined to do damage, if not more so? You're stuck. You can't stop fighting, you can't react by saying what's the use, we won't stop being attacked if we kill these guys, given that there is an endless supply of "guys." But if your retribution is in no way keeping you safe, do you keep spending money and lives to fight a fruitless battle? And it is through the specific story of Israel and the Munich attack that this question is raised, but it could apply to uncountable conflicts between peoples and groups and tribes all across the globe throughout history.

It also raises the question about how far down can you drill into whatever conclusions you come up with. For example, if someone rapes my daughter and I kill the guy, that is not going to set off an endless cycle of violence. And I am not going to lose any sleep over it. People are killed on planet Earth and have been killed for thousands of years for thousands of different reasons. If someone rapes your daughter and you kill them and that isn't justifiable, no killing is ever justifiable under any circumstances, in my view. Wartime killers are heroes, but removng your daughter's rapist from eligibility to breathe makes you a criminal? Only if you buy in to someone else's construct, and I don't.

You can have blood feuds between families like the Hatfields and McCoys. Or, hell, between the Soprano side and the Johnny Sack side. And do these distinctions matter? Israel-PLO is between peoples/nation-states. Hatfield-McCoy is family blood feud. Soprano-Sack, if it happens, would be a fused case of family revenge and business competition. Do the unintended consequences of revenge have different self-contained mechanisms for coming under control, depending on the nature of the groups involved? Is it easier for a Sopranos-Sack compromise to be reached because fighting is "bad for business" than it is for the Hatfields to stop killing the McCoys and vice versa becasue that fight is about (at least how we understand it in legend) straight up hatred and tit-for-tat recordkeeping of bloodhsed? Is the size of the group the determining factor in the unwieldiness of containing and curbing bloodshed, since the bigger the group, the more cats to herd?

There is no way to really address all of these questions realistically without a spiritual perspective coming into play at some point in the discussion. To me, that would be the real purpose of religion as an institution, as a modifying force. The problem, naturally, is that religion is a major double edged sword in this regard. Religion is the ultimate revenge cycle killing motivation throughout history. More than land. This is why I always say I would rather take my chances not having it around. If I were on Let's Make a Deal, I'd say, let's just eliminate religion altogether and see what's behind Door #3, Monty, a world without religion. Let's gamble. Purely hypothetical, of course, as religion ain't going anywhere.

But you don't necessarily need a codified, organized religion to have a spiritual perspective. And as I said, you need it to get to the root of these answers, because there's no way that faith and trust aren't somewhere at the bottom of those answers. Then again, maybe the answer is simple biological wiring. Maybe we need another million years of evolution of brain chemical reaction before we are able to overcome these behaviors.

So this is a long, winding post. But the point I'm making is that Munich is a very mature, very important film. It doesn't have pat answers. I'm not sure it has any answers at all, just poignant observation of the evidence. Critics who dismissed it as trying to be too PC (i.e., not take sides) are retarded and could not have missed the point more. This is NOT a PC film. There isn't moral equivocation. The film doesn't need to take sides. To make a film that says gee, aren't all these Palestinian terrorists a bunch of scumbags would be to do something obvious. The film says, yes, these guys were scum and deserved to die and we're going to show you how they got stalked and killed, you're going to see a bloody torso hanging from a ceiling fan and we're not going to make you, the viewer, feel guilty for rooting for that.

But we are going to sneak one thing in there. We're going to say, "Now that you feel better and revenged because that murderer didn't get away with it, look around at your situation. What is the reality on the ground? What are your personal costs? What is still not in your control, and how are you going to come to terms with living in such a world?" As a guy who connects strongly with the notion of revenge for wrongful behavior, I find these questions maddening and infuriating, because it seems totally unfair that revenge can't be clean. But I can't pretend the questions aren't 100% legit. I can't deny that looking for fairness is a surefire recipe to make yourself crazy in the long run. There is no such thing as "even."

So far I haven't spoiled much detail, but now I want to discuss the ending, which if you haven't seen it, should be a virgin experience because it will definitely lessen the impact of the movie if you hear about it first. So go see the film if you haven't already and come back to the end of this post sometime if you want to hear my thoughts on the ending.

Spoiler starts now (through the end of post).

The movie ends after the main character has come to the U.S. to escape the people who have begun to hunt him seeking retribution. Now living in Brooklyn with his wife and infant daughter, he is trying to come to terms with the personal toll of the experience and whether his actions made a dent, whether his actions did anything to change the course of his people's future for the good. Did he even kill the specific people responsible for the specific Munich crime? His handler, played by Geoffrey Rush (one of my favorite actors), has come to America to try to persuade him to accept assignments in Latin America doing similar work. They meet in a Brooklyn riverside park to converse in the film's final scene.

The final shot is devastating. The characters walk off in different directions but the camera pulls back and raises up slightly before settling. The final shot looks across the East River at the skyline of 1970's Manhattan. In the distance and just off center stand the twin towers. The film pauses on this view, lingering, and the credits slowly start to roll. After almost 5 years, the sight of those doomed buildings is still moving. It hurts to see, but it is a very powerful and necessary way to close the film. Since the attacks, I've seen those buildings many times in movies, all filmed prior to 9/11, but those films capture them without knowing their fate. This is the first film I've seen that includes them, knowing the future.

Now, Spielberg is not saying the events portrayed in the movie are why the 9/11 attacks occurred. We know that. But he is making the unmistakeably important point that it's all connected. In fact, we are all interconnected. Not in that facile hippie bumper sticker, we are all one stuff, though I do think there is great truth in the spiritual principle of interconnectedness that has to be part of an answer to questions the film raises. The interconnectedness suggested is that none of these attacks and counterattacks, assassinations and counter assassinations happen in a vacuum. Which is fucked, because the Israeli government really didn't have a choice, in my view, not to respond to Munich. And so the film is asking us, if we are forced to respond to murderous acts with revenge, do we really have any control - is violence on an endless, inevitable chain reaction path, given the nature of human beings? Is there ever a clean stopping point? What conditions must be in place for that to happen?

When you see that shot of the towers, the necessary move from the somewhat abstract "this is a story about something that happened in the 70s" to "this is my life" is complete. What American can look at those buildings and not feel raw hurt? That hurt is real. It's personal. Spielberg is saying, you better not think this is some abstract philosophical exercise here. All this hurt, anger and revenge you see in the film? You're personally involved. So you dismiss addressing the central questions at your own peril.

Robert Kennedy once said something incredibly hopeful and beautiful. Speaking in the specific context of South African apartheid, he said:
"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
Munich presents us with the depressing flip side. The attacks on Olympic athletes and the response was one ripple in the ocean, perhaps an unavoidable ripple, but one whose energy combined with thousands of other ripples to sweep down the mightiest towers. In turn, our men of deep personal cowardice who rule this country have fed on our fears like jackals and asked us to compromise the entirety of our American values and get nothing in return.

Munich is Spielberg's most important, timeliest film. If not for Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's his best.


Blogger TubaOnFire said...

Bad movies have really fucked up our ideas of revenge. I am interested to see how a good movie treats it. In bad movies, you establish the bad guy as a bad guy – he kills someone, tortures someone – that sort of thing. But then in the end, Bruce Willis gets him. Then everything is better. Queue the happy music and roll the credits. I don’t think revenge makes anything better. The only direction you can go is forward. Now the Israeli’s had to get those guys from Black whatever because if they didn’t 1) these same guys could keep coming back at them and 2) it would have shown that they wouldn’t respond, lowering the threshold for future attacks. Often little is gained from walking away, sometimes you have to respond. Other times, you choose to respond because responding makes you feel better going forward. It never takes away what happened.

For example, if someone rapes your child, you have to kill them. Otherwise, you have to live with being the guy who didn’t protect his child and then didn’t do anything about it afterwards. You have to kill them. But, don’t think it makes everything swell later. And the pain that you cause yourself, the compromise with your values, that is what the rapist causes too. Violence casts a wide swath. So what if this starts some blood feud that lasts ages – well I guess it does. Sometimes you have to respond because you can’t live not responding and fuck the consequences. That was 9/11. Shortly afterwards, some one came to my door looking for money to wage peace in Afghanistan or some such crap. The hijackers were all dead so what was the point of going to war over there. I was so pissed. Then when we went to a war we shouldn’t have, these folks really discredited the anti-war movement. It was easy for the jackals (good term) to spin. Anyway, our actions in Afghanistan killed lots of innocent people. Even if we did the absolute best job possible, were as careful as could be, we would kill innocent people. That is why you take war seriously – unlike the flag draped yahoos. It is a hell of a decision to be a killer of the innocent. It was the right choice in Afghanistan. And that is an extra reason to hate Osama and the rest of his douchebag cult of death. There actions force us to kill a little of our soul to fight them.

So, how do you stop endless cycles of violence? There will always be douchebags out there – motivated by fear or greed or religion or something – to start things. I think there are two things. First, you cannot sanitize the violence the way we have. We don’t see the coffins or hear the shrieks of the mothers who get the late night knock on the door from military men in suits. The war in Iraq touches no one but the families of those fighting it. There are no war bonds, just tax cuts. No wonder there are people with the gall to suggest we try this in Iran. This is not some fucking game.

The second thing that has to happen is that people have to have more to live for. This is the failure of religion. Religion gives you things to die for. When you look at the situation with Israel/Palestine, what exactly keeps a 19 year old Palestinian from becoming a suicide bomber? What are his chances to have a nice job, a family and an I-pod? So the options are a bleh life or a spectacular death. And, I’ll bet before he blows himself up, he is real popular with the coeds. Kind of a Che thing going on. PJ O’Rourke said, “Sleeping with ideology laden coeds beats the heck out of toiling behind the family water buffalo.” Wherever that is true, there will be problems. This is then amplified 10,000 times by a very macho culture that can accept no slight. You made fun of our Profit – people have to die. Couple that with religious fanatics (with plenty of their own macho) on the other side and you have a never ending disaster.

The guy whose dog shits in my yard -- he totally deserves for me to beat him with a tire iron. But I don’t. Despite the revenge and small satisfaction from justice being served, I lose more than I win. There are always consequences. Everything has a price. Only children don’t understand this. We want so badly for there to be no price, but there always is one. So sometimes I don’t get the justice that I deserve. Sometimes the price is too high. It may be consequences from outside or it may be the damage I do to my own soul, but sometimes the price is too high. That breaks the chain.

Crap that was rambling

11:26 PM  
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8:30 PM  

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