Sunday, May 18, 2014
(December 2005, U.S.)
For this post of Steven Spielberg's MUNICH, I'm going to open with the exact same words I used to open my blog for Otto Preminger's 1961 film of EXODUS some time ago and that's this...this blog should probably have been ghost-written by my cousin Danny. He's a thousand times more the Jew than I'll ever want to be, he's half Israeli and he surely knows a lot more about the factual history behind the events that happened following the terrorist massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. My knowledge, like many others, is often associated with this iconic black and white photographed that was taken during the event...
Still, it's my writing, so I'll do my best to do not only the film justice, but the historical events that inspired it. But having mentioned my cousin Danny, let me just stay focused on him for a moment. From the moment I saw MUNICH on the big screen, one of my early initial reactions was to tell him to go see it as quickly as possible. You see, I knew the subject matter would ring true with him. He was born in America and is as American as you, me and the next guy (the man was a "Dead-Head" back in the day! How much more American can you get than that??). But strictly speaking, he's also as pro-Israel as I'm ever likely to meet; a man who takes his homeland roots and religion rather seriously (sometimes too seriously for my tastes, but hey - it's the differences between family members that command respect and sometimes bring them closer). Well, guess what happened! To my shocking dismay, Danny's reaction was less than enthusiastic. So after I lifted my fallen jaw off of the floor, I asked why he felt that way. His response seemed to dwell on whatever he considered to be gross inaccuracies of not only the Israeli government's secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after the Munich massacre, but also some of the distorted facts regarding Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, and also of its agents. This is where discussions regarding film and politics goes head-to-head. Those who know their history and their governmental facts of any true life event are always going to be the first to cry bloody murder against any Hollywood production that attempts to tell their own story based on facts. Example? How much of Oliver Stone's JFK can honestly claim to be all true-blue?? As fans of pure film, are we not required to create and draw the fine line between what is fact and what is fiction? MUNICH does not claim to or attempt to be a documentary of the facts. It's Hollywood based on true events. And strictly speaking as a hard-boiled fan of Steven Spielberg's credibility as a storyteller, I have nothing but faith in the man, his craft and his research to give MUNICH more than a fair chance at itself. Anyway, I'll get back to Danny later.
The film begins with a depiction of the events of the 1972 Munich Olympics committed by the terrorist organization know as "Black September" and then cuts to the home of Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, where an agent of Mossad, Avner Kaufman (played by post-Hulk Eric Bana), is chosen to lead an assassination mission against eleven Palestinians who were allegedly had a hand in the planning of the massacre. To give the Israeli government plausible deniability and at the direction of his handler Ephraim (played by Geoffrey Rush), Avner resigns from Mossad and operates with no official ties to Israel. His team includes four Jewish volunteers from around the world, each with their own speciality of assassination, including South African driver Steve (played by a chilling pre-Bond Daniel Craig) and a Belgian toy-maker and explosives expert Robert (played by Mathieu Kassovitz). Much like the traditional James Bond film, we follow our heroes to different cities in Europe as they reign their own brand of assassination terror in the name of justice and vengeance for those Israelis who were massacred in Munich. Take note that I use the word "Israelis" and not hostages when describing the victims of terror. This is important because its this fact that primarily drives these men to commit rather unspeakable acts of violence in the name of counter-acting violence. The often-reluctant assassins argue about the morality and logistics of their mission and for the sake of protecting their own souls of righteousness, they routinely remind themselves that what they're doing is in the name of their beloved Israel and their fellow Jews. This conviction is perhaps best understood (and perhaps even cheered by those who are Jewish) when a bad ass son-of-a-bitch like Daniel Craig says things like, "Don't fuck with the Jews!" and "The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!"
Despite the hard-heartedness of these men, there is also the perfect touches of real humanity in their souls. Note in particular the sequence of their second target when their assassination attempt is aborted the moment they learn that their victim's little girl will get caught in the bomb's explosion and then immediately resumed the moment she leaves the building. These are paid men with specific targets who, perhaps unlike other traditional and more vicious terrorists and assassins, are willing to make every effort to spare any innocent casualties of war. Does this make them better men? Does it make them more righteous? This is clearly Spielberg's message and question throughout a story that reminds us that their is justification for vengeance and murder during a post 9-11 decade of America when we as a country attacked by terrorists question how and when violence is meant to be counter-attacked with greater violence (the film actually concludes with a final shot of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the distance). Yes, an eye for an eye makes the most sense to most of us (it does to ME!) and the Klingon (STAR TREK) proverb will tell you, revenge is a dish best served cold, and this film doesn't miss a chance to remind us of that. But the film also seems to want to explore the possibility of empathy for both sides of the coin. During the scene in which the Israeli team and a team of Palestinian soldiers are mistakenly sent to the same safe house in Athens, Avner finds himself having a heartfelt political conversation with one of the rival PLO members (ironically, he later kills him during a hit on another target), while the rest of the rival soldiers find some temporary peace in simply agreeing on a song playing on a radio station that broadcasts from neither of their countries. It's little subtleties like this that outline the hearts of men during times of political conflict and unrest. By the end of the film, Avner is disillusioned and living in Brooklyn, trying to do nothing more than protect his family and regain his humanity. Did he do the right thing? Was their any evidence to support the necessity of his actions and the entire operation? He'll likely never know because technically, he and his team never existed, nor did the mission. He's now left only with his own conscience and the simplicity of trying to survive in a hard world filled with violence.
So now let's talk further about controversy and historical authenticity. Is there any true comparison to the actions of our heroes in MUNICH and how it works in reality? This revenge squad obsesses about making sure only their targets are hit and meticulous care is taken to avoid collateral damage, but is that really the way things happen with Israeli assassins or any other, for that matter? For myself, I cannot claim to know the true workings of any foreign government (let alone the American one!), nor do I know how a true operation like Mossad and its agents function in real life. In the case of this film, fact may be fiction and fiction may be fact, for all I know. Perhaps I don't even care. I want facts, I want fiction, I want intrigue and I want historical entertainment in a way that only the great Steven Spielberg can give me, and often does! For someone like my cousin Danny, however, (yes, we're back to him now!), fact versus fiction may require a stronger discipline. As I said, his initial reaction to the film was negative for such reasons. However, because time and reinterpretation are often kind to a film, I'm happy to say that after some repeated viewings of MUNICH on HBO, Danny finally came to is senses and realized what a great motion picture it is. Perhaps even after some additional consideration and open-mindedness, he even realized that the film had a stronger and more accurate message of man, country, humanity and vengeance than he initially realized. And for that, I'll dedicate this blog post for MUNICH to Danny...because in a way, this film was specially made for a man like him - the American man and the Israeli man!
You know, those who know me best know that despite being born Jewish, I'm about as far from a practicing Jew as you're ever likely to meet. Believe it or not, this has sometimes made me a bit of a "black sheep" in my family in a rather fun, good-natured, teasing sort of way. People like Danny, though, and even my own wife, don't hide the fact that they wish I would take being a Jew just a bit more seriously. To do so would surely please some in my family, but would also be the grossest display of hypocrisy I could ever imagine...and those who know me well know that I detest nothing more in life than hypocrisy! Spielberg was also accused once or twice of not truly embracing his Jewish heritage when he was younger. He's likely more than made up for that with films like SCHINDLER'S LIST and MUNICH.
Finally, on the slightly lighter side of things, let me just say that I say MUNICH on its opening day and then in an act of mulitplex-hopping, I sat down to watch the film SYRIANA the same day. Not exactly a day of uplifting cinema, but two great films, nonetheless.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Avner Kaufman: "Come to my house for dinner tonight. Come on, you're a Jew, you're a stranger. It's written someplace or other that I'm meant to ask you to come and break bread with me. So...break bread with me, Ephraim."
Okay, I'm afraid I'm still not done because this final line that closes the film commands some thought and questioning here. This is a truly intriguing line, in my opinion. On the one hand, it speaks of kindness and respect because Avner is offering to break bread with a man whom he generally despises. On the other hand, is this kindness derived simply because Ephraim is a Jew and because Avner feels he's complying with a written proverb? I may be a nice person (in general), but I'm hardly the type who treats every one of his fellow men like his own brother (because I don't!)! If I'm to ask someone to share a meal with me, shall it simply be because I feel I have to because I'm a Jew and he's a Jew and somewhere it's written that all Jews should break bread with each other? Would a Jew feel the need or the desire to extend such an act of kind invitation to say, a Christian, or one of another religious denomination? I would argue that such an offer of bread breaking is, on the surface, an act of unselfish kindness, but is also laced with some genuine racism and prejudice, as well. Perhaps with these final words, I've just opened myself up to yet another religious argument with my cousin Danny...or a real pissed off rabbi!