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Munich – truth, fact, fiction and art

we can choose

we can choose

Munich – Director Steven Spielberg

“Inspired by real events” opens this movie. And it troubles me. Do we owe the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at Munich anything less than the truth? Not the absolute truth, that may not be known to anyone. But if we are to put their story at the heart of a profit-making product, essentially entertainment, should we not ask for more confidence in the accuracy of the events portrayed than that they are merely “inspired” by what really happened? Anything less it seems to me gets perilously close to what we might call ‘factionalising’ their tragedy and the suffering of their relatives, for dramatic effect. If so, I don’t know about you but I find it a bit uncomfortable. After all it is surely a greater journalistic and no less artistic challenge to adopt the documentary form and to stand by your film as having been made as accurate, as ‘true’ as you can possibly make it.

This is becoming a recurrent theme, found recently for example, in Jarhead, Lord of War, The New World and it seems the upcoming United 93. Isn’t suggesting that a film has some relationship to real events however tenuous, a lazy, even dubious way of trying to add to its credibility or its dramatic value? Or are even movies changing their character to become part of the systematic media blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction, virtual and real? In what sense for example is Big Brother reality TV? Are films-as-product becoming a commodity like everything else, and mere artistic imagination too inefficient, or worse, too commercially risky, to meet market demand?

We have no way of telling to what extent the in some ways implausible conspiracy theory underlying Munich, is close to the truth, heavily factionalised or even, beyond the bare known facts, almost totally fictional. True respect for the victims of the Munich massacre it seems to me, does not rest in the mere fact of re-publicising their tragic deaths through a multi-million dollar movie. Rather we should recount the events in which their lives were destroyed with as rigorous attention to truth as one can muster. ‘Hollywoodising’ history is a disturbing phenomenon. If you want to make a cinematic, artistic assessment of this issue compare Munich or any of the others above with The Last Days of Sophie Scholl, or even Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List.

There is much in Munich to render it implausible. With the extraordinarily professional reputation of the Mossad, what do we make of a nationally critical ‘black-ops’ assassination mission entrusted to a leader and colleague hesitant and uncertain before their first kill? Or a bomb-maker who has only ever defused bombs, never made one? This hit team also wanders the streets altogether as a group looking about as innocuous and unnoticeable as Raymond Chandler once put it, “as a tarantula on a slice of angel cake”. Each hit seems less like a meticulously planned, risk minimised, military operation, than an opportunistic one-off with no credible security protection to circumvent. As portrayed, Avnar’s (Eric Bana) hit team look more like something out of the BBC’s fun scam series Hustle than top of the line clandestine Mossad hit men. And given the appalling cock-ups they make with bombs we are never given anything remotely plausible as an explanation of why the in-close certainty of knives or guns are not used exclusively. We are told that the final target is so well protected it will be impossible to get at him. Yet 2 guys with guns and black faces hop over a couple of fences, line up the shot and when interrupted run through unlocked gates and hop another so low even I could vault it in one. And trust me – that’s low.

For me, the performances are seldom more than adequate though not helped much by a highly variable emotional and moral tone to the movie – the actors must have had lots of questions. Geoffrey Rush looks miscast and Daniel Craig’s Steve seems stereotyped. Only Ciaran Hinds’ Carl settles into a really solid, credible character. Bana’s performance has been much praised but try as I might, and I really wanted to like this movie, I just can’t see it.

Surprisingly for Spielberg the editing lacks pace and tension much of the time despite one or two excellent nail-baiting scenes. Cutting about 30 minutes would have improved the film enormously. (I know – critic’s cliché, but it’s still true). The placing of the flashbacks to Munich look more designed to remind us that the hits are justified, than to maintain an effective dramatic tension. The moral ambivalence within the team is too sketchy and undeveloped to convince. In fact, the main problem with Munich may be that Spielberg never quite makes up his mind what his own moral perspective is – and it shows.

Avnar we are shown, is the son of an Israeli hero, personally know to Golda Meir (an uncanny cameo by Lynn Cohen); and he is entrusted with one of the most sensitive, critical missions in the history of the Jewish state. This makes the way the film portrays his subsequent treatment by the Israeli authorities simply unbelievable. It just makes no sense, especially as Anvar and his mission have not hit the headlines. I am sure Geoffrey Rush’s refusal to break bread with him in New York at the end is meant to be deeply significant of something but as played, it just seems a pointless gesture of pique. I’m afraid it takes more than a worthy subject and an evocative end-shot of the still-standing two towers to justify claims of “a prayer for peace” or “relevant to our times”.

I’m having a bad time with renowned directors, Allen, Malik and now Spielberg. Yet I am a great admirer of each (not that that will worry them much I suppose). But though Munich is easily the best of the bunch and at least worth seeing, Oscar nominations ahead of say Shane Black and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang would be to mistake worthiness of topic with quality of film.

(February 2006)

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