Liberals. Conservatives. Cynics. Kubrick-worshippers. Add another to the ever-growing cadre of contradictory Spielberg detractors: Zionists? Unthinkable for anyone who has actually seen Spielberg’s coda to Schindler’s List, no? Well, while Spielberg’s new film, Munich, may not break any new political ground, even for medium-budget Hollywood spectacle, it is nevertheless undeniably as much a thinkpiece as a genre work. Naturally, many have their knives out already, no one more vociferously than New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, whose article this week puts forth that Munich is “consistent with Tony Kushner’s view that Zionism, as he told Ori Nir of Haaretz last year, was ‘not the right answer,’ and that the creation of Israel was ‘a mistake,’ and that ‘establishing a state means fucking people over.’” While there’s a lot of truth to Wieseltier’s piece—no more so than in his statement that Spielberg’s even-handed account of the Israeli response to the 1972 Munich olympics massacre perpetrated by a group of Palestinean terrorists is too strategically balanced, too eager to condemn all to truly offend anyone—he ultimately relies on the same old canard eternally trotted out to smackdown the erstwhile “Boy Wonder”: “The makers of Munich seem to think that it is itself an intervention in the historical conflict that it portrays.”
I would argue this is precisely what Munich, surprisingly, does not do. “When Spielberg gets serious,” (that should be a bumper sticker–often said whenever Spielberg doesn’t make sci-fi, but honestly, can anyone think of a movie more “serious” that came from a studio in the past 10 years than A.I.?), many are quick to charge him with grandiose historical finality, that Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan were meant to be the ultimate statements on Holocaust, Slavery, and WWII, respectively, and that Spielberg’s hubristic end result was to wrap historical trauma up in resolution. What his detractors here do not realize is that this is a scholarly invention as a means to rationalize imagery so powerful and epochal that it seems like finality. Spielberg’s technique is so acute and primal that cinema bends in its wake.
Therefore, expectations, from those who want it as well as those who don’t, may dash Munich, which is, ultimately…a thriller. A genre piece imbued with a searing sense of morality. Once again, Spielberg goes farther than one would expect in terms of violence, and some moments (a knife haphazardly puncturing a stocking-clad forehead, bloody bullets richocheting off a white wall creating cloud formations, neck bullet holes gurlging blood with a decidedly delayed reaction) are impossible to shake. But this time, what’s most remarkable is a symbiosis even stranger than the much-discussed, underappreciated Kubrick/Spielberg connection: Kushner/Spielberg. Though I can’t say after one viewing if the fruits of their labors quite meld into something completely harmonious or coherent, I can say with assuredness that the in-your-face combo of Kushner’s verbal loftiness and Spielberg’s visual flamboyance,yields something altogether welcome: a Hollywood thriller distrustful of its own narrative thrust, a confused self-loathing action pic that all but dissolves into sweaty panic and regret. There’s a lot here that works and some stuff that really doesn’t, but Spielberg is most impressive when he (often) lets his actors just speak. Or spout, as the case may be.
Which brings us back to Wieseltier: he saves his strongest condemnations not for Spielberg’s manipulative suspense tactics but for Kushner’s pro-Palestine stance. This coming so soon after ideologues thrashed War of the Worlds for white supremacy. Therefore, do Spielberg’s twin terror narratives of 2005 ultimately function as definitive political assertions or as blank slates on which to project all contemporary fears? The last image of Munich leads me to believe the latter, yet Kushner, who cleverly devises dramatic queues for debate, simply won’t leave well enough alone, interrupting Janusz Kaminski’s glossy-grim knockout work at every turn. Thank God for that. And how about this for Spielberg: vibrant, volatile homoeroticism (not just for the five sweaty Mossad team agents bunking together in close quarters for years on end but for a sincerely omnipresent fetishizing of Eric Bana’s perfect-specimen physique) and the most memorable image melding sex and death I can recall seeing this year at the movies. Munich, as expected, is a force to be reckoned with…yet at this point I’m still reckoning.