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fumbling towards empathy


movie review::munich

you knew it was only a matter of time until movies about the middle east and the history of terrorism started cropping up in hollywood. the subject has been strangely verboten, but this year, it seems that directors are gradually stepping up to give their version of events. jarhead tackled the effects of the first iraq war on the troops who were sent there, syriana tried to give a global perspective on the flow of power and money through the middle east and now munich steps up to look at the violent fallout from a particular historical event.

steven spielberg is not a favourite of mine. other than ron howard, i find him the worst offender for routinely hawking the most overwrought and trite emotional pieces, where good and evil are too neatly defined. munich is a very different sort of a film for him, because those clear definitions are precisely what gets thrown out the window. the result, however, is still seriously flawed.

for starters, since the audience is already aware of the complications of middle eastern politics and has generally come to accept that palestinians have a claim to being heard and to some type of statehood, it is difficult to recreate the atmosphere of 1972, when support for that cause likely would have got you beaten by an angry mob. so from the beginning, empathy with the characters- israeli government and army officials, mossad agents, not exactly the people you want your daughter marrying- is something you have to work to achieve.

the actors don’t help with this. the six mossad operatives assigned to hunt and kill eleven arabs responsible for killing eleven israeli athletes are given some opportunity to show depth- questioning the validity of their assignment, talking about their faith, interacting with family- but the cast seems to be operating under the effects of some serious qualudes. ciaran hinds gets some credit for trying to liven things up, and is given the script’s few standout moments. other than that, the characters range from dull (eric bana’s blancmange mossad agent) to flat-out unlikeable (daniel craig, looking and sounding more like an ss officer than an israeli- did they really have to give the lines about jewish blood to the blond guy?).

the scene which should form the dramatic core of the movie- where bana and his arabic opposite number discuss politics over a cigarette, feels strangely hollow. it’s easy to respect spielberg for refusing to prejudice the argument, but at some point, the audience has to care about somebody, or it isn’t engaging as drama.

the final scene of the movie takes place with bana and his boss (geoffrey rush, who desperately needs to find a role worthy of his talents again) in a circular dialogue about terrorism and proof that really isn’t anything the audience won’t have heard before. the two of them pace back and forth along the brooklyn waterfront, the manhattan skyline hovering behind them. i couldn’t help noticing that every time they walked to a point where lower manhattan (the movie is set in 1973, the year that the world trade centre was completed) would be visible, one of them would turn and the camera would start to move in the opposite direction. the last frame of the film, where the credits inform us that nine of the eleven men marked for death by the israelis were eventually killed allows the shot to drift where it has been shy to go before, so the news of these deaths is printed against the two towers. it’s a directorial flourish, and a very clever one. but what does it say about the rest of the film that i spent the last five minutes of it following the camera movements rather than the dialogue?

munich is balanced and will not attempt to sway your emotions in any direction on the question of middle east politics. indeed, the movie requires no emotional investment from the viewer whatsoever. a pretty chilling reaction when you think about it.

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