Saturday, December 31, 2005


I saw Munich last night, Spielberg's movie on the Munich assassinations and revenge. I basically ended up agreeing with this New Yorker assessment:
All the film does is add another tallish tale to the deadlocked mythology of the Middle East, and all the controversies will do is stoke its sense of earnestness, which has to be its least appealing aspect.
I was disappointed mainly because I erroneously thought that, given the political criticism of the movie, it might have elaborated the complexity of the relationship between Israel and Palestine. But it's mostly a spy thriller in 70s outfits. For that, it was good enough. But as a political statement, it was trite. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of it was the ongoing conversation between the protagonist and Geoffrey Rush's character. There's lots of language about "home" and this seems to be Spielberg's main statement. But he pays quick lip service to the Palestinian idea of home in favor of home as Israel.

Home is a tricky thing. It's the source of our strongest moral convictions and loyalties. This cuts at least two ways: the warm human idea of belonging and community, and the cold human sentiment of exclusion and the foreign. We have the family, the new-born, the cultural signifiers, the collegial meals (inherited from the kibbutz). On the other hand, we have either dark, swarthy, and perspiring Arabs or urbane Frenchy sophisticates -- both are classic figures of evil in American cinema. Toss in the near-murder of a child (the father gets it after all), and we have a tad of moral string-tugging. The interesting thing about home, however, is how powerfully it can be abused. Take "Homeland Security." It's not "Home" for nothing. Home signifies all that's good, without any question. To this extent, Spielberg's movie elides the moral ambiguity of terror-revenge-terror.... Spielberg hints at the eternal cycle and one can take it as an allegory for the supposed War on Terror as setting up America's own part in the endless cycle. But in the end, "home" does nothing other than act upon the easiest of moral sentiments. And then it does so for Israel, although it should be noticed that the assassinations of alleged Palestinian Black September leaders take place not in Palestine.

This movie will receive an Oscar nomination. But it's a real shame that the opportunity to deal with real moral ambiguities -- when we see "home" as plural and conflictual -- was lost. There is only the brief discussion at the end of the movie in which Rush's "tough-minded realist" character tells Avner, the protagonist to "come home" from his expatriated life in Brooklyn. Avner invites Rush to dinner, Rush declines (we're not family), and Avner walks away back to his wife and child in Brooklyn. In the name of home, his actions have led to home being lost to him, appears to be the message. Poor Avner. But the ongoing conflict is a conflict between homes in the plural. The movie sets up a dichotomy between principled home-ness on one hand, and amoral self-interest on the other. What happens, though, when we live in a world that is -- to be the genuine tough-minded realist -- increasingly populated by people with multiple homes and conflicting loyalties?


Here's a better review at Truthdig.

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