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A History of Violence | The Nation

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A History of Violence

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In the past, even when Steven Spielberg has concluded a film with a robot boy cuddling up to a corpse, he has pretended to offer a happy ending. He has set his goodbyes in cemeteries--in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan--only to strike a note of fellowship and reconciliation. Just this past summer, he treated the incineration of the entire world as mere prelude to a family hug.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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So we might pay attention to Spielberg's Munich just because it ends on the word "no," spoken as former colleagues abandon each other on a deserted playground. A chill seems to rise from the choppy river that runs nearby, separating the men from the backdrop of a quietly ominous Manhattan. Their work has cut them off from common humanity, leaving them friendless amid rusted jungle gyms and bare trees, in a place that children have forgotten.

This is some ending for a Spielberg movie, or for that matter any spy thriller, the genre to which Munich contributes a crackling example. Outwardly a movie of hardware and logistics, Munich takes you step by step through Israel's reprisals for the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics. As you would expect from Spielberg, the scale is large, the pace unflagging, the details hypnotically fascinating. But Munich is also about the reprisals for the reprisals. ("We're in dialogue now," comments a Mossad officer, with evident satisfaction, after a Palestinian bombing in London answers an Israeli bombing in Paris.) As the spiral of violence swirls downward, Munich becomes more and more a movie not of how-to but of loss, sorrow, futility and trepidation--which is to say, it's a first-rate spy thriller with a soul. The unhappy ending is striking for Spielberg, but it flows into the last scene as inevitably as the river itself.

The screenplay, credited to Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, moves quickly from re-creation to dramatization: first the hostage-taking and slaughter in Munich, then the recruitment of young Avner (Eric Bana) to lead a team of Israeli assassins. But "recruitment" may be the wrong word. Although Avner is a grown man, with a regular job and pregnant wife, his elders summon him like a boy. They remind him continually that they knew his father; they demand that he accept an assignment on the basis of blind obedience; they casually strip him of all professional status, so he's reduced to the condition of a kid just starting out in the world; they pay him and his undercover team as if doling out an allowance, and insist on getting receipts: "Whatever you're doing, someone else is paying for it."

Avner is so much in shock at the events in Munich--or, perhaps, is so used to being patronized--that he scarcely registers this treatment. In fact, he seems to think his new assignment confirms him as a paterfamilias. He believes he's acting to protect his wife and unborn child; he also behaves like a parent to his assassination team, briefing them over big meals he has cooked himself. But as the shootings and bombings multiply, along with their collateral carnage--Spielberg's direction is meticulous, but the assassins' operations are not--Avner comes to doubt not only the purpose of his mission but also the nature of his most basic relationships, with his elders, his family, his country.

I should now go on to apologize to Eric Bana, an actor I have previously misrepresented as a modern-day Victor Mature. Who would have known, from The Hulk and Troy, that Bana could so movingly play both sides of Avner's nature, as a man with "a gentle soul and butcher's hands"? Bana shows you how Avner shrugs off the urge to think about his actions, meanwhile registering an intelligence that won't be put off forever. When forced, through a kind of practical joke, to enter into debate with a Palestinian militant, Bana's Avner grows so angry that he almost blows his cover--and part of the reason he's so wild-eyed, you sense, is that he can't entirely shut out what he's hearing.

The image I have just assembled, of Avner and the movie he lives in, is a false one, of course, made by ripping details out of their natural places and collaging them onto a single spot, where they become as exaggerated as a caricature. But I, too, have a purpose in my violence. I want to emphasize that Munich has the internal coherence of a work of art. Its politics are inseparable from its narrative themes, its characterizations, even its performances.

This is a point that the film's enemies--the usual gang of hacks, sophists and hirelings--have done their best to ignore. They see that Israeli strongman tactics (and by implication the current Bush war) accomplish nothing in Munich, other than to heap misery upon misery; and they interpret this dramatic outcome as if it were a bald political statement, which they condemn. I, on the other hand, applaud Munich as a political statement, while recognizing that the film wasn't set up to secure votes, or signatures on petitions, or even cash contributions (other than those made at the box office).

What Munich elicits is pity and terror.

Despite the obvious precedent of Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys, and many other westerns that were less explicit and jokey, Brokeback Mountain has unmistakably established a new screen archetype. This is no small achievement. When asked what can happen in the movies, you might think of the Little Tramp kicking up his heels, Rhett cradling Scarlett in his arms, Marilyn playing with her skirt over a subway grate, the big ape carrying a blonde up the Empire State Building (see below). To this limited store of images, we may now add another: Heath Ledger as Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack, necking rapturously behind a laundromat in Riverton, Wyoming.

Based on a story by Annie Proulx, written for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and directed with masterful assurance by Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain narrates twenty years of love, secrecy and frustration in the lives of a pair of modern westerners. They meet as dirt-poor teenagers in 1963, when they hire on to guard a herd of sheep high up in the mountains; and they part for the last time two decades later, having lived for those few days each year when they can steal away on the "fishing trips" that don't fool their wives.

It's a rudimentary story, dominated by time lost and events that didn't happen; and one of its two main characters is so inward that he can scarcely bring himself to speak, or even look at people. So the challenge in making Brokeback Mountain was to create and sustain a mood in all its nuances, working from stuff that's as thin as the mountain air. I suppose another director might have dealt with this problem by inventing all sorts of complications, dramatic or stylistic. Ang Lee chose simplicity as the more difficult but satisfying solution.

He composed the film using big, basic contrasts. When Ennis and Jack are together and happy, you see them outdoors, in the most gorgeous natural settings imaginable. (The pictures, by Rodrigo Prieto, are so extraordinary that they almost justify the habits of award voters, who traditionally give cinematography prizes to Best Landscape.) When Ennis and Jack are apart and unhappy, you see them indoors, cramped in unlovely quarters. The contrasts between the two men are similarly bold. Ennis is light-haired, square-faced, mush-mouthed, stolid; Jack is dark-haired, long-faced, talkative, impatient.

So the scheme of the film was made as elemental as the characters themselves--and as open to depths of feeling. Having eliminated all clutter, Ang Lee could allow two extraordinary actors ample time (and unforgettable space) in which to develop an emotional interplay that is all but unknown in today's movies, and that carries you right through Brokeback Mountain.

Another new archetype for the screen, this one so basic that it doesn't even include actors: the closing shot of Brokeback Mountain, which cuts the screen in half. On the right, glimpsed through a mobile home's window, is a patch of western landscape. On the left is a shadowy closet--a shrine, actually--holding a lover's relic. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could say more.

Why did Woody Allen choose to make a contemporary version of An American Tragedy, and why did he set it in London with an Irish-born tennis pro as the protagonist? The answers to those questions still elude me, weeks after seeing Match Point. Is there no social climbing in the United States today, no lust, no heartless crime? Is there no opera, for that matter? (Another departure for Allen: the use of Donizetti and Verdi on the soundtrack, rather than Bechet and Ellington.) I can see that Allen might have wanted a break from his routine, but I don't understand the relevance of his decisions to anyone but himself--and to anyone who might want to watch his most absorbing picture in years.

There is much to puzzle over in the movie, including an unelaborated gay subtext thick enough to have added another hour to Brokeback Mountain. But from the moment Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as the tennis pro, walks in on Scarlett Johansson as a tough-talking, Ping-Pong playing American, Match Point has a dirty-minded energy that just won't be stopped. "You've got a sensuous mouth," the observant Rhys Meyers says, more or less by way of hello. "So do you," Johansson might have replied--not that it matters. Her response is tawdry enough; and the doom that blossoms from it deserves to be called sensuous, too.

* * *

The holiday movie season that began with the Narnia lion has reached its climax with the giant ape--and you can guess which beast I'm rooting for.

Writer-director Peter Jackson, relaxing after The Lord of the Rings, has slacked off by making a King Kong that runs a mere three hours, involves only a dozen or so major characters (plus uncounted extras) and deploys just enough special effects to rebuild 1930s Manhattan, with an entire prehistoric world thrown in. Jackson knows he cannot re-create the meaning of the original but only reflect upon it. (If he keeps the Empire State Building, he uses something that is now an icon of nostalgia, not modernity. If he decides instead to go contemporary and have Kong scale the Petronas Towers, he makes too telling a comment on our distance from the era of Merian Cooper.) So, not trying too hard, Jackson has retold King Kong as a Depression-era story, but with improvements. If Cooper had Kong wrestle a dinosaur, Jackson must have him fight three--while caught midair in a tangle of vines, juggling Naomi Watts.

She's so splendid, by the way, that she upstages the special effects, as Jackson would have wanted. Her talent, and the soulfulness of Kong (animated on the model of Andy Serkis), make this a movie fit for adult audiences.

Well, that and the mammoth carnivorous worms.

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