My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 5 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Twin Meanings

More often than not, historical movies are more concerned with the present than they are with the past. Rarely has that truism been proven more accurate than in Steven Spielberg’s polemical new movie, Munich.

Munich concerns itself with the response of the then Israeli government to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. It is based on a highly disputed book entitled Vengeance by George Jonas, and previously made into a TV movie called Sword of Gideon (1987). The movie and book alleges that a black op group of Mossad agents were sent to hunt down and assassinate the leadership of the Black September group across the European continent.

Needless to say, the movie has caused a huge furore, particularly amongst Jewish commentators. Whatever historical and political problems the movie may or may not have, there are two facts that cannot be disputed. Firstly, Munich is a masterfully directed piece of film-making and a riveting, provocative and unsettling thriller. Secondly, this is not just a movie about the Arab/Israeli conflict. Munich is about America and the directions that George W. Bush has taken regarding domestic and foreign policy.

The film is replete with moments that solidify that argument. The Prime Minister Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen) delivers lines like “Every civilisation has to find ways to negotiate compromises with its own values” while other characters state that Israel must “forget peace, we must be strong”. Others muse that “there’s no peace at the end of this” and “all this blood will come back to haunt us” to which the reply comes “It will be worth it, it will work out”.

Spielberg’s over-riding mission for this movie is to show the spiritual loss that a country endures when it succumbs to fervent patriotic and nationalistic demands for devastating revenge. Lights and lighting are major motifs in this movie, throwing into stark relief the darkness of the group’s mission and the mentality that underlies it. The lead character Avner (superbly played by Eric Bana) is, literally, a shadow of his former self by the movie’s end, his once-olive complexion now gaunt and deathly pale. Through this character, Spielberg conveys the message that, in trying to defend its life, Israel may have forsaken its soul.

Any doubt about Munich’s true didactic purpose is removed by the movie’s closing shot. Avner has just walked away from a meeting in a Brooklyn park with his Mossad boss (Geoffrey Rush). The camera scans the 1970s New York skyline with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre glaringly prominent. The credits roll but the camera stays on this image. This is no accident.

The fallen Twin Towers have cast a long shadow over all aspects of American life, not the least of which its movie output. Spielberg himself has been fictionally grappling with the consequences of 9/11 in his last few movies. His remake of War of the Worlds (2005) was very much informed by the fear of terrorism, deploying a clunky metaphorical device where an all-out attack from an ‘alien’ (i.e. outsiders and foreigners) entity brings the U.S and the world to its knees.

Spielberg’s previous two movies before WOTW also deal with 9/11, albeit it in more indirect ways. The Terminal (2004), in which a bureaucratic snafu leaves Eastern European Tom Hanks stranded in an American airport, was the first movie to reflect upon and depict the severe administrative nightmare that is the post-9/11 created Department of Homeland Security (just ask anyone who has tried to get a Visa or a Social Security card in the US over the last five years).

A year after the terrorist attacks, Spielberg brought an on-hold Stanley Kubrick project to the screen. Minority Report (2002) is a futuristic thriller in which technology is used to monitor the citizen and where authority acts swiftly to prevent crimes before they are actually committed. Even at that early stage in the War on Terrorism, Spielberg was commenting on (and even prefiguring) the contentious Patriot Act and the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence that brought the US into Iraq.

Immediately after the attacks, Hollywood shut down business down and delayed the production and release of movies that might be deemed insensitive to the national mood of grief and fear (such as The Governator’s Collateral Damage). Once the initial shock wore off, and military intervention in Afghanistan began, the multiplexes were hit by a slew of hit and miss war movies in quantities not seen since the heyday of the Reagan presidency. Black Hawk Down (2001), Behind Enemy Lines (2001), We Were Soldiers (2002), Enemy at the Gates (2001) were all released in quick succession to cash in on the America’s patriotic, militaristic mood.

Other movies were less obvious in their attempts to accommodate the effects of 9/11. Todd Fields' remarkable indie feature In the Bedroom (2001) was the best reviewed movie of 2001 and won a slew of awards. Its themes of profound grief, senseless loss and fervent retribution seemed to perfectly encapsulate the mood of the nation. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) was one of the first movies to go into production after the initial shutdown following the attacks. It’s a movie that perfectly captured the fear, uncertainty and paranoia that the US was plunged into, particularly in the scenes where the characters are watching what they believe to be the end of the world live on television. Shyamalan created a similar tone for his later movie The Village (2004) in which a fiercely enclosed and isolated community must suddenly confront malevolent, wood-dwelling forces on their outskirts that they always knew existed but who never struck before now.

Sam Raimi’s comic book adaptation Spiderman was the most successful American movie of 2002. The country rallied around the story of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), an ordinary young man, who through a dramatic change in circumstance literally becomes a hero overnight. Parker’s story was seen as a fitting tribute to the heroics performed by the emergency services in the chaotic, tragic hours following the 9/11 attacks.

Parts of the movie had to be reshot following the attacks, including a climactic face-off on the side of the Twin Towers themselves. During the re-edit, explicit references to the cultural and political shift were worked in, such as when a group of citizens defend Spiderman as he’s battling the Green Goblin. One character shouts “If you attack one of us, you attack us all”. This is the message of Article V of the Nato Charter which was invoked directly after the attacks in a moving, albeit short-lived moment of transatlantic solidarity. The sequel, Spiderman 2 (2004) further developed the theme of using ‘great power’ responsibly.

Movies have been slow to criticise the Bush Administration or question its controversial policies. Before all-out culture war was declared in 2004, movies had to quietly get their message across. The Quiet American (2002), a movie about American involvement in 1950s Indochina, certainly went against the patriotic grain as did the decidedly anti-military Buffalo Soldiers (2003). Scott Rudin, producer of the Oscar winning The Hours (2002), proudly declared that his movie was an affront to Bush’s concept of family and the insincere, black and white approach that he has imprinted on national debate about parenting, sexuality and other personal issues. Michael Moore’s documentary, Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Team America: World Police (2004) were less subtle about expressing disapproval of Bush’s America.

Moore was back in 2004 with his political hot potato, Fahrenheit 9/11, which no studio wanted to touch in an election year. Winning the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival brought a backer as well as acres of column inches about the issues raised in the documentary. Jonathan Demme also timed the release of his avowedly topical remake of The Manchurian Candidate to coincide with the Democratic National Convention where the Kerry-Edwards ticket was selected to challenge Bush-Cheney. Last summer, both Joss Whedon’s magnificent Serenity and George Lucas’ semi-illiterate Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith both featured pointed commentaries on Empire and Manichean world views (with varying levels of success).

This year, Munich is just one of a series of films that are finally breaking the silence over Bush, his policies and the war in Iraq. Even a cursory glance at synopses of major new movies will show that these are most certainly concerned with the US that the world was left with once the smoke cleared in New York and Washington. Political and cultural swings and debates inform the narratives of Jarhead, Good Night and Good Luck, Transamerica, Brokeback Mountain, Syriana amongst many more. After years of kowtowing to a dubious and distorted idea of patriotism and what it means to be a ‘real’ (i.e. Bush-like) American, Hollywood is waking up and engaging with issues.

At one point in Munich, Avner remarks that the Palestinian retaliation for the Israeli mission means that “we are in a dialogue with them now”. The same could be said of Hollywood, the government and the many diverse citizens that both are trying to reach.

No comments: