By almost every measure, Steven Spielberg is the most successful filmmaker living in the world today. No other director of cinema can boast so many box-office receipts, as much critical acclaim, more technical accomplishment, or narrative variety. But while a master of both the blockbuster and the intimate, he is also an important (some would argue, necessary) chronicler of history.
Like all artists, Spielberg’s filmmaking is informed by the fundamental qualities of his identity, and few filmmakers present those qualities in their films so pervasively as Spielberg. As much as Spielberg, the man, is a contradiction (sentimental and yet brutal, both goofy and devastatingly sincere), the observant constant viewer could identify his cinematic identity as having key qualities representing (among others) Spielberg as a Jewish-American, a humanitarian, and a father.
Spielberg’s personal history is infused in the history he presents on-screen, evident in every frame of films like ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Amistad’, ‘Empire of the Sun’, and, most recently, in ‘Lincoln’, his dramatisation of the defining moral motion of America’s greatest president. In the weeks leading up to its release, we’ll be taking a retrospective look back at four of Spielberg’s most important histories, beginning with his most politicised and controversial: ‘Munich’.
In the summer of 1972, tragedy strikes the Munich Olympic Games when the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, breaks into the athletes’ dormitory and takes the Israeli team hostage. The subsequent siege and failed escape attempt leaves eleven Israelis dead, the massacre broadcast by the mass media on an unprecedented world scale. Using these events as merely its impetus, ‘Munich’ instead focuses on the clandestine aftermath of the massacre: the trail of revenge tasked by the Israeli government to a Mossad agent, Avner (Eric Bana), and his team of ‘specialists’ (Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Hanns Zischler, and Mathieu Kassovitz). Their purpose is to hunt down and kill those responsible for the murder of their kinsman, an "eye for an eye" crusade that forces them to question the morality of killing for loyalty and zeal.
While many dismissed the film as a superficial reduction of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, Spielberg is far more interested in the human cost – physically, spiritually, mentally – that result from violence and its repercussions. The actions of the Palestinian terrorists are justification for the Israeli retaliation – the retaliation itself the catalyst for more, equally bloody retaliation – and while the film could be content to indeed reduce the conflict to an endless cycle of self-perpetuation, Spielberg focuses it through the lens of Avner, a loyal soldier and Israeli patriot whose catalyst for change is linked emphatically with his impending fatherhood.
Many of Spielberg’s films examine the relationship between fathers and sons, often ones that are flawed and sometimes even absent. The adventurousness of Indiana Jones is a cry for attention from an emotionally distant father; Tom Hanks embarks on a journey to save the elusive prodigal son, Ryan; even Elliot projects fatherly attachment to E.T. in the absence of his own. Avner’s work is bloody and brutal, requiring a singular perspective to make it ‘moral’, a perspective he can only maintain as an individual, not as a father-to-be. His impending fatherhood allows him to acknowledge the perpetuation of the violence he himself is perpetuating, and to seek out a life divorced from it. (It’s no coincidence that that place is Spielberg's America, a metaphorical and literal land of endless possibility.)
"Severing of the chain" is an impossible ideal, only feasible on a personal level; nations, subject to governmental systems and social responsibilities (both good and bad), are incapable of sudden and radical change. Avner is a Spielbergian ideal: a man with the capacity for self-awareness, sensitivity to others, and the ability to make choices for the sake of his family (specifically: his unborn son).
Spielberg is far more interested in the human cost – physically, spiritually, mentally.
In ‘Munich’, the ideal is perhaps as far from sentimental as Spielberg has ever been. A sense of doomed futility – that Avner will forever be looking over his shoulder, awaiting the circle of violence to close its noose around him – hangs over even the film’s smallest moments of catharsis. The concluding conversation between Avner and his handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), deliberately and pessimistically frames the World Trade Centre in the background: a sadly prophetic indication of how the cycle continues unabated, even today.
Framing Avner’s singular transformation is a taunt and exceedingly tense thriller, embracing the notions of cinematic storytelling as much as factual accuracy. While no story, no matter how factual, will be an exact replication of events, perspectives, and actions, the film is excused its embellishments with staggering technical craft. There is a le Carre sense of moodiness to the mechanics of Avner’s spycraft, a low-tech plausibility to the protocols and inventions. This is an era of silenced pistols and bombs in telephones, safety-deposit boxes and dead-drops. The period detail is beautifully realised and stunningly photographed, and Spielberg’s unflinching portrayal of the film’s violence against this detail makes for potent and uncomfortably visceral juxtaposition. The Munich massacre, re-enacted in disturbingly intimate, almost documentary detail, is not simply a device designed to shock; it’s a necessary inclusion to further muddy the moral waters of the righteous justification to come.
Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ is a powerful spy thriller, harrowing and politically resonant. Although depicting one of his darkest distillations of humanity’s recent past, ugly in its motivations and brutal in its execution, it is not entirely without hope. In ‘Munich’, Spielberg maintains faith in the capacity for the individual to provoke change through singular actions, even as he acknowledges that, forever self-perpetuating, the qualities that make us human are both our salvation and our constant source of destruction.