ST. JOHN, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — The camera always lies. That is one of my most dearly held beliefs, and an early screening of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which I saw last week, provides me with more evidence. The camera always lies — and Steven Spielberg lies quite a lot too, at least when he uses a camera pursuant to his Art.
Not long ago he did a movie, Shark Tale, in which all the bad guys spoke with Italian accents and were supposed to summon up visions of the mafia. This movie was for children. Spielberg covers himself on this sort of thing by speaking out against stereotyping even as he stereotypes. Now he has committed another simplistic botch. In Munich he portrays a hit team of Israeli agents ordered to kill the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics as morally equivalent to the terrorists. That, of course, is untrue. The act of the Israeli agents is morally justified as an attempt not only to eliminate murderers but also to demonstrate to the terrorists’ leaders that kidnapping private citizens will not further their political goals. In the anarchy of terrorist war what the Israelis did is, alas, for the good and morally defensible.
But Spielberg’s camera lies in other ways. The movie begins with a chaos of scenes exploding across the screen and lasting far too long. This is an assault on the senses, not an engagement of intellect. In fact the whole movie is an assault on the senses and hardly ever an engagement of intellect. And the assault — which is to say, the movie — lasts far too long. After enduring Munich the normal viewer will be in need of a drink or some other sort of “coping mechanism,” as they say.
I attended the movie with a veteran law enforcement officer who sneered at howlers committed by Spielberg’s camera. Almost everything was exaggerated. Bullet holes on the lovely body of a beautiful naked actress were far larger than they would be with the caliber guns used to shoot her. The body of a knifed Mossad agent was perfectly and dramatically filmed as sitting upright on a bench, to the snickers of my friend who pointed out that the knife wound would have caused the dead person’s muscles to relax and the corpse to fall over. Action was everywhere. Explanation was almost nonexistent.
What the agents did to hunt down and kill the terrorists went completely unexplained, as did the training they underwent to become so proficient in their grisly arts. Munich of course is a modern movie. That means there is very little explanation. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. That might be for the best. What dialogue there existed was banal and at times, as with all else in the movie, devious. There is one ludicrous scene where the Jewish hit team and a Palestinian terror squad spend the night together. Call it their sleepover. A conversation follows between a Jew and a Palestinian. It is perhaps the intellectual denouement of the movie. It is also an attempt by Spielberg to demonstrate moral equivalence between the two, which does not come off very well. Those who know the history of this conflict understand that the Israelis are defenders. The terrorists are aggressors and particularly brutal aggressors at that.
Yet this simple-minded scene, the sleepover scene, is the great piece of wisdom Spielberg hopes to impart. Munich is, as Spielberg told Time magazine, “a prayer for peace.” Actually it is just another example of the camera’s lies. Aided and abetted by sound effects, it jolts the senses with huge hands or other appendages thrust across the screen, towering men and women filmed from the ground up, from other weird angles, all to convey impressions that are dramatic but very unreal. Colors are brighter than real or darker than real. Sounds shriek, howl, and explode at the viewer. My friend from law enforcement has covered crime scenes and crimes themselves. She assures me the real thing is much less entertaining.
According to the British newspaper the Guardian, Spielberg insists that “the biggest threat to the Middle East was neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis but intransigence on both sides.” Given the Sharon government’s generosity in its negotiations with the Palestinians, I guess we can understand Munich‘s errors. Spielberg is a Hollywood ignoramus. But he has another problem in his treatment of such serious issues as peace in the Middle East. His favorite artistic instrument is the camera, and the camera always lies. Maybe he should give up the camera for a lump of marble and a chisel.