Two different 2005 takes on the "suspense" of terrorism.
By Robert Avila
Central to the making of a martyr is the making of the martyr video. So we discover in a key scene in Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, one of this year's best films, which follows the troubled (not to say troubling) mission of two would-be suicide bombers from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, best friends Säid (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman).
Striking the iconic pose, Khaled holds his written remarks on a sheet of paper in one hand while balancing a machine gun with the other. Around his neck is the black-and-white checkered Palestinian kaffiyeh, as he reads the prepared statement with quavering emotion into the video camera. The camera, he's told, wasn't working. He'll have to do it again. The camera still seems to be faulty. Take three! Now he's growing impatient with the production. But the crew members are serene and reassure him. As he starts again, they take out sandwiches and begin idly eating and watching. Khaled is thrown once more, but also reminded of something. Looking into the camera, he tells his mother of a better deal he's found for her on water filters. Thus the politics of representation in modern-day Palestine. It's an issue very much at the heart of Paradise Now's sleek, sophisticated, and deeply humane exploration of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
By contrast and for all its high-end production values, even higher profile, and extensive commercial reach Steven Spielberg's Munich is a winding, windy, and ultimately impoverished approach to the same conflict. (Although you'd never know it was the same conflict, so distracted is its trajectory.)
Even as a suspense-thriller, per se, Spielberg's "take on terror" never does much to reapproach the genre, being that it's stocked with the usual tension devices, action sequences, and plot twists. Moreover, with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner cobbled out of Canadian journalist George Jonas's book Vengeance (supposedly an insider's true account of the '70s and '80s Mossad campaign to hunt down the leaders of Black September and related Palestinian terrorist organizations and already inspiration for the 1986 made-for-TV movie Sword of Gideon), Munich's dialogue stirs a heavy and unappealing mix of macho bravura, ludicrous clichés, maudlin emotionalism, and crude psychologizing.
Munich insists on being taken as a morally complex picture in addition to a nifty suspense drama. To this end, its hero, Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) the dashing young Mossad agent handpicked by Prime Minister Golda Meir to lead one of the several secret hit squads activated by Israel after the tragedy at the Olympic Games increasingly comes to have doubts about the trade-offs involved in fighting evil. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," Meir intones.
The political articulation of the central dilemma, as far as the movie is concerned, gets summed up in the debate among the film's protagonists, members of the quirky crackerjack team of assassins Avner heads. One Mossad agent argues they must be as ruthless as the enemy to defeat him. Another responds that this threatens to turn them into the equivalent of the enemy. (Sounds familiar? This tension then plays out in the over-the-top slo-mo sequence in which the Mossad agents race to save a PLO target's young daughter who strays into the line of fire.)
For Avner, the dilemma gets cast in terms of competing loyalties to family and patria (both represented here by absent fathers and strong-willed women, beginning at the top with Meir). When Avner meets his PLO counterpart in a stagy conversation about the Palestinian struggle, the idea of home becomes further complicated by the competing claims of two peoples for the same space. By the end (and it's a long two-and-a-half hours off), Avner's mission has mentally exhausted and disillusioned him. Paranoid and haunted, he returns to his wife and child, now living in Brooklyn, rejecting the invitation of the Israeli security state to "come home."
The crux of the dilemma sounds much like the limited debates normally allowed around the US "war on terror," of the "how much torture is enough?" variety. As an approach to the problems actually giving rise to Palestinian terrorism including the international variety depicted in the movie, which peaked in the early '70s in the wake of Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967 and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Munich's moral accounting leaves much to be desired.
Traipsing all over Europe (with a raid in Lebanon) and ending in Brooklyn, it's as if, when it came to the question of Palestine, Spielberg literally couldn't go there. Munich's title already suggests as much. As a byword for the appeasement of evil ever since Britain's disastrous "peace in our time" settlement with Hitler's Germany in 1938, Munich is also a word very much in vogue in Bush's "war on terror," usefully deployed against critics in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
Spielberg's film is careful to point back to 1930s and '40s Europe and forward to present-day America. The sympathy and understanding indeed owed to Europe's Jewish population since the Nazi genocide ("The world has played rough with your tribe," a former French resistance fighter tells Avner. "It's right that you play rough back") mingles here with the dilemma faced by modern nation-states supposedly balancing a fight against terrorism with the promise of an open society. Despite fleeting and often double-edged attempts to humanize the Palestinians, Munich works hard to displace the real but largely unspoken moral quandary haunting its subject Israel's ongoing dispossession and occupation of an indigenous population.