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Today I was reading in Sara Anson Vaux's book Finding Meaning at the Movies about The Searchers. Her commentary made me think there could be some very strong connections with Munich. The Searchers is one of those classics I need to see, but haven't gotten around to. Maybe some others can comment on whether these two films connect.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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In short, The Searchers is about a violent man who is asked to retrieve his niece, who has been captured by Indians. In the course of the film, it becomes clear that the man (Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne) so detests the Indians that he plans to not rescue his niece, but kill her, because she's been tainted through her time with the tribe. He has to dehumanize her to justify his planned action.

Whether Edwards will go through with this is unclear until the film's climax. The Searchers raises questions about humanity, race, nationality and family obligations -- all issues that are dealt with in Munich.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Some other things that Vaux pointed out that made me think of Munich:

-Scar is killing white folk, because they killed his family. )The Israeli and Palestinians both are on missions of revenge.)

-Ethan shoots out an Indian's eyes so he can't enter warrior heaven. (Cf., the exposing of the woman assassin.)

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Today I was reading in Sara Anson Vaux's book Finding Meaning at the Movies about The Searchers. Her commentary made me think there could be some very strong connections with Munich. The Searchers is one of those classics I need to see, but haven't gotten around to. Maybe some others can comment on whether these two films connect.

Absolutely, and a great call, Darrel. I thought of "The Searchers" constantly while watching Munich. Spielberg has reportedly been obsessed with The Searchers his whole life, and he's finally gotten to make his version of it. Go out and see this most important American film immediately. The episodic nature of the search, the ambiguous helpers, the false trails, it's all prefigured in the Ford movie.

The strongest connection is in the conception of the character, whose singleminded drive for revenge turns him into an inhuman dark spirit that is only humanized at the end of the film by a mysterious epiphany about family (another strong point of connection). Ford points up the irony that Ethan is the perpetual outsider, it is his actions that ultimately integrate a community wounded by racist strife, a community that finally he has no place in. The tragedy of a loner, Ford called it, in his characteristic understated way.

Avner ultimately rejects his tribal identity as a sabra -- which the film identifies with the "mafia brotherhood" of political zionism, for a goofy secular vision of "hey, we're Jews wherever we are, let's break bread together..." -- in effect saying that Jews don't need a country, a position that held by two successful American Jews, who sleep in nice safe beds, might seem a little falsely majestic, banal, and utopian.

Again, it's likely that Spielberg is only using the "Jewish text" of the film to address specifically American issues by way of allegory. In this case, Ford's vision of America is much more complex than Spielberg's, because Ford is saying that guys like Ethan and Scar, however repellent their racism, are the unacknowledged shadow heroes of the American Story. They are the immovable objects around which the multi-cultural community defines its values by negation.

And in addition, The Searchers has a powerful Freudian dimension that Munich can't even begin to touch.

Edited by goneganesh
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I'm enjoying this conversation. The Searchers is one of my favorite films, but honestly, the similarities to Munich never occurred to me until Darrell raised them. It's heightening my appreciation for Spielberg's film (already held in high regard).

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Somebody at The New Republic sure is pissed:

[spielberg] insists in Newsweek that "Munich never once attacks Israel," which is correct, but also that it "barely criticizes Israel's policy of counterviolence against violence." The latter claim is preposterous, as anybody who has seen Munich knows: The film's very subject is the dubious moral legitimacy, and the dubious practical efficacy, of counterterrorism. If Munich is not about that, it is not about anything. And then Spielberg delivers himself of the oldest weasel words in Hollywood: "It simply asks a plethora of questions." An innocent Socratic exercise, for the consideration of the Academy. No answers, just questions--as if certain kinds of questions are not themselves certain kinds of answers. But Munich asks its questions in ways that make its preferred answers perfectly clear. Spielberg will not own up to any of this.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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A little off topic but...

..got to love the superabundance of people mis-suing "plethora" like Spielberg does here. It isn't merely "lots of", but means an excess in a negative way, as verified by dictionary.com

I first came across the word in The Three Amigos. It seems not everyone got the full extent of the joke, thus making it even funnier for the rest of us...

Jefe: We have many beautiful pinatas for your birthday celebration, each one filled with little surprises!

El Guapo: How many pinatas?

Jefe: Many pinatas, many!

El Guapo: Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?

Jefe: A what?

El Guapo: A *plethora*.

Jefe: Oh yes, El Guapo. You have a plethora.

El Guapo: Jefe, what is a plethora?

Jefe: Why, El Guapo?

El Guapo: Well, you just told me that I had a plethora, and I would just like to know if you know what it means to have a plethora. I would not like to think that someone would tell someone else he has a plethora, and then find out that that person has *no idea* what it means to have a plethora

Matt

Edited by MattPage
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Goodness, don't forget the best part!

El Guapo, I know that I, Jefe, do not have your superior intellect and education, but could it be that once again, you are angry at something else, and are looking to take it out on me?
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And then Spielberg delivers himself of the oldest weasel words in Hollywood: "It simply asks a plethora of questions." An innocent Socratic exercise, for the consideration of the Academy. No answers, just questions--as if certain kinds of questions are not themselves certain kinds of answers. But Munich asks its questions in ways that make its preferred answers perfectly clear. Spielberg will not own up to any of this.

Spielberg seems ignorant to his own lack of subtlety. I found this film interesting in its presentation of the ethical quandries but he's about as subtle as a brick. Does he really expect people to think that he was only presenting the questions?

"Did you mention, perhaps, what line of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed?"

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MichaelRay wrote:

: Spielberg seems ignorant to his own lack of subtlety.

I can only rarely take seriously what Spielberg says about his own films. In particular, I can almost never take seriously what he says about his SERIOUS films.

There's a "special interview" clip with Spielberg on the A.I. Artificial Intelligence DVD where Spielberg starts saying some weird, half-baked things about intelligent toothbrushes, and even after I transcribed it and e-mailed it to people, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. And then there was Spielberg's bizarre tribute to Kubrick at the 1999 Oscars, where he said Kubrick had given the world a vision of "hope and wonder". You wonder sometimes if Spielberg has a clue how dumb he sounds, when he gets out of his depth like that.

"Serious" Spielberg films are often deeply flawed, and sometimes those flaws are the most interesting and revealing things about his films -- but don't expect Spielberg himself to own up to them.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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MichaelRay wrote:

: Spielberg seems ignorant to his own lack of subtlety.

I can only rarely take seriously what Spielberg says about his own films. In particular, I can almost never take seriously what he says about his SERIOUS films.

There's a "special interview" clip with Spielberg on the A.I. Artificial Intelligence DVD where Spielberg starts saying some weird, half-baked things about intelligent toothbrushes, and even after I transcribed it and e-mailed it to people, I couldn't make heads or tails of it. And then there was Spielberg's bizarre tribute to Kubrick at the 1999 Oscars, where he said Kubrick had given the world a vision of "hope and wonder". You wonder sometimes if Spielberg has a clue how dumb he sounds, when he gets out of his depth like that.

"Serious" Spielberg films are often deeply flawed, and sometimes those flaws are the most interesting and revealing things about his films -- but don't expect Spielberg himself to own up to them.

Peter, I have found that to be true of many VERY creative people. IT is as though their creations come from places too deep for words. In counseling I will sometimes have a person who was abused by a father or mother to such an extent that my stomach turns - but the person is telling me with "flat affect." Then when they write about it - it is a true work of art. They can bring me inside their world with amazing skill. Yet when I read it with them in session - it is often hard for them to even "understand" their own creations.

Denny

Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

Cinema In Focus Website

Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Website

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  • 4 months later...

Digging up this thread to add my two cents. Munich is long and ponderous, and I was never in doubt as to where it's headed or what it's saying. Violence begets violence begets more violence. And so it goes. Told in a straightforward fashion. The killings each meticulously get more complicated as it goes. People break down and doubt the mission. Avner is deeply scarred. I am tempted to say it was effecient, but then I remember it was nearly three hours.

I agree with those above who note this is definitely unsentimental Spielberg. It appears to me he has traveled to another extreme though, a pitch black kind of nihilism or apathy that essentially leaves us with: The Israelis will keep killing Palestinians and the Palestinians will keep filling those holes with new commanders to get killed by Israelis. All the while, the American Jews will put their hands in their pockets and go along being "real" Jews without a homeland while the Israelis continue on their killing spree.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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  • 2 months later...

Because I had such a positive reaction to Minority Report, I decided to give Spielberg the benefit of the doubt and sit through this one too; but the experience has left me totally depressed and more than a little angry. I can't believe that Spielberg keeps getting away with stuff like this. He takes an actual event, shows its victims getting blown to bloody meat in graphic close-up, and serves it all up in a simplistic, semi-pornographic James Bond plot with action, suspense and nudity. Why the hell do the critics take this idiot so seriously?

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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My temper has cooled since yesterday. Truth is, I can't recall ever being so confused by a film. I had assumed, from the little I knew of the subject matter, that Spielberg was playing fast and loose with the facts of history again, but having read Peter's fact-check of Robert Fulford and the piece by George Jonas that he posted the link to ("The Spielberg Massacre"), as well as Jeffrey's review at Looking Closer, my stance has softened somewhat. Perhaps the real question is not "Can we trust Steven Spielberg?" but "Can we trust George Jonas?".

Also, I didn't like that the film scared me so much. I know exactly what Barbara Nicolosi means when she says "Munich left me frightened and with a feeling that the world is desperately out of control". I don't want to be having sleepless nights because of Hollywood half-truths whenever a friend or relative has to catch an aeroplane.

I don't know; like I said, I'm very confused.

The trouble is that Spielberg's films are just so patchy. I find myself dazzled by him one minute, and raising my eyebrows at his stupidity the next.

Let me just list a few of my likes and dislikes.

I agree with Andrew about the trite shot of the Eiffel Tower. It irked me too, and I lost touch with the film's narrative for about five minutes after it appeared while I pondered whether it was intended to serve as useful shorthand or if my intelligence had just been insulted. It was obvious that when we got to London it was going to be raining.

Also like Andrew, I had a real problem with the "death of the femme fatale", but I think that Peter is on to something when he says that the assassins strip the woman as payback for their friend. Whether that justifies such a sordid scene is another matter.

I assume that the final sex scene between Avner and his wife is supposed to show that everything that was once good about Avner's life is now tarnished and haunted to some degree, but, even so, I found it silly.

The idea of a toymaker becoming a bombmaker also seems silly to me - like something straight out of James Bond. I assume that this isn't from Jonas' book?

I was intrigued by the French group who were selling Avner information, but I must confess that I didn't really understand who they actually were, or why Hugo Drax... I'm sorry, I mean why "Papa" felt such a bond to Avner (forgive the pun, but I couldn't help myself). Perhaps someone here could explain?

Unlike others, I did not find the closing scene with the Twin Towers to be heavy-handed. I thought it was sufficiently subtle to be unnerving, and it drew a clear and powerful parallel between what Israel was doing then with what America is doing now.

I also really liked the opening title with the word "Munich" being highlighted from a list of city names. Very spooky. After 9/11 and 7/7, we have all become citizens of Munich.

I thought the performances were terrific with one crucial exception: Eric Bana has all the charisma of a wet kipper. He is even worse here than he was in The Incredible Hulk.

I would also add in passing that I disliked A History of Violence more than Munich.

In closing, let me say that I have found myself thinking a lot about the film since I watched it last weekend, so perhaps in some respects it did its job. I am now eager to see the documentary "One Day In September" and read more about this subject. However, I still agree with the critic who said that the movie trivializes the dead. Spielberg's films consistantly reveal his immaturity and his terrible lack of judgement. Think of the shower scene in Schindler's List, or the excessive gore of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a film for children for crying out loud!). Think of the cheap allusions to 9/11 in War of the Worlds, or the death of the nude swimmer in Jaws, which is less a shark attack than a rape, etc.

Edited by The Invisible Man

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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  • 5 years later...

Alex von Tunzelmann @ the Guardian gives the film a C+ for history and another C+ for entertainment, e.g.:

The movie's Avner is a family man, tormented by doubts about the moral and political value of his assassination work. His supporting cast of fellow agents has been conveniently designed to act out the big questions for the audience's benefit. . . . The reality is difficult to establish, but it probably wasn't like this. "In interviewing more than 50 veterans of the Mossad and military intelligence, I found not a single trace of remorse," wrote Aaron J Klein, author of a book about the operation. "On the contrary, the Mossad combatants thought they were doing holy work." This would, of course, have made for a much less sympathetic film.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 years later...

Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, 2009, pgs. 186-189 -

... I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure.  The answer with Spielberg is usually: "not that stupid."  His films bring pleasure where they most engage.  Of course, when reviewing Munich, the cards the critic lays down are expected to be of another kind.  As it happens, the film itself is neither "pro-Israeli" nor "pro-Palestinian," but this is precisely why, in the opinion of many American reviewers, it is inherently aggressive toward Israel, under the logic that anything that isn't pro is, by definition, anti.  There is no way out of that intellectual cul-de-sac, which is why Tony Kushner's and Eric Roth's script does its best to avoid that road.

 

Munich is a film about a truly horrific terrorist attack and the response to that terrorist attack.  It is not about moral equivalence.  It is about what people will do for their families, for their clans, in order to protect and define them ... In the process we begin to understand the biblical imperative "an eye for an eye" as something more deadly than simple revenge: it is of the body.  It permits us the indulgence of thinking with our blood.  And Spielberg understands the blood thinkers in his audience: for every assassination of an Arab, we return - lest we forget - to a grim flashback of that day in September, when eleven innocent Israeli athletes met their deaths in brutal and disgusting fashion.  Flashbacks repeatedly punctuate the film's (slightly overlong) running time.  We are not allowed to forget.  But neither can we ignore what is happening to Avner as he progresses through his mission.  Eric Bana gives a convincing portrayal of a man traveling far from who he is in order to defend who he is.  His great asset is a subtle face that is not histrionic when conveying competing emotions.  The scene where Avner is offered a double mazel tov - once for the arrival of his new baby, and once for the death of a target - is a startling example of this.  Through Avner, Spielberg makes a reluctant audience recognize a natural and dangerous imperative in the blood, a fury we all share.  "I did it for my family" is the most repeated line in this film.

 

... If the audience recoils from South African Steve's assessment, "The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!" it understands Avner when he says, "I'm not comfortable with confusion."  It is easier to think with the blood.  It is easier to be certain.  But how many of us know what to do with these two competing, equally true facts we hear exchanged between Ephraim and Avner: "Israelies will die if these men live.  You know this is true!" says Ephraim.  Avner replies, "There is no peace at the end of this.  You know this is true!"

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Zadie Smith wrote:

: As it happens, the film itself is neither "pro-Israeli" nor "pro-Palestinian," but this is precisely why, in the opinion of many American reviewers, it is inherently aggressive toward Israel, under the logic that anything that isn't pro is, by definition, anti.

 

Um, well, no, there is also the fact that the film is based on a book, and the film flips the book on its head in some ways.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 10 months later...

With ten minutes to go in Throwback Thursday, I finally finished my 10 Years Later revisit of Munich:
 

Arguments about moral equivalence are dicey, and attempts to differentiate similar acts–in this case acts of violence–are always harder than attempts to conflate them. In the film Avner claims “there’s no peace at the end of this” and questions whether or not the Israeli assassinations have made things worse (by ceding the moral high ground or provoking even more rounds of reprisals). Yet while the film gestures at these questions, it never fully convinces me that it grapples with them. It merely has people *say* they have grappled with them as a way of differentiating themselves from others who have used similar methods. Spielberg says, “What’s relevant is the need to go through a careful process” and “highlighting some of the dilemmas that need to be discussed.” Does the latter mean that the film will prompt discussion of some of those dilemmas? More importantly, if what is relevant is “the need to go through a careful process” why is so much of that process truncated and abbreviated in favor of…oh arguments about whether or not leave the woman’s robe open or generic suspense through timing. (When the girl answers the phone can they stop the bomb in time?)  The “careful process”?  There are some cabinet level discussions and Golda Meir says “today I am hearing with new ears” and that’s that. In that regard Munich suffers slightly, I think, in comparison to Zero Dark Thirty, which takes Munich‘s structural order (twenty minutes of deliberation followed by two and half hours of the mission) and reverses it (two hours of deliberation and thirty minutes of mission).

 

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