Rules It Exemplifies:
- A Hero Needs Special Skills Learned in the Past: The lesson of Lincoln, and Lincoln, is that the greatest weapon a president can have is the ability to disarm (and thereby defang) his adversaries, which Lincoln does with an endless stream of inappropriate (but pointed) back-woods humor. (This is a weapon that LBJ and GWB also wielded expertly, for good or ill). Kushner and Day-Lewis masterfully recreate Lincoln’s canny charade: folksy hick on the surface, quick-eyed political mongoose underneath.
- A Movie is About a Person’s Problem: Kushner famously started out by attempting to cover 1863-65, but he got though hundreds of pages without making it to 1864, so he started over. Then he tried to just cover the four months of 1865, which turned out to be 500 pages! (Somebody publish that version please!) Spielberg, to his infinite credit, got to page 100 and said, “Hey, that’s a movie right there, let’s just stop at the end of January.” This isn’t really a bio-pic: it’s just the story of one problem: the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House. Of course, in Kushner’s capable hands, that’s enough to give a full and rich portrait of the man with the plan.
- Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic: I talked here about how every step of this process is deeply ironic, but…
- The real Oskar Schindler was just as heroic but far less saintly than the movie version, and he would have made for a more complex and human movie.
- After a nice tense scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the platoon is left riven with doubt about whether or not they should have let that German go, he helpfully comes back and kills off a few of them, eliminating all ambiguity…
- …and my all-time favorite example: The titular reports in “Minority Report” (indicating uncertainly about what the future will bring) turn out to be mere red herrings, and in fact Tom Cruise was falsely fingered for the crime not because of any unknowable gap between fate and free will, but simply because he was framed by his boss.
My reflexive distaste for Spielberg is still strong enough that I give most of the credit for this movie to Kushner and Day-Lewis, but I am nevertheless willing to admit that the old duffer left me very pleasantly surprised this time around.
I think Spielberg's chief problem with irony is that he's often conflating it with a lack of clarity. He never wants his audience to be lost or confused on any level -- from the visuals to the narrative -- which is different from not wanting his work to be layered. There are plenty of crystal clear directors from old Hollywood who nevertheless infuse a dramatic and thematic richness into what play on the surface like very digestible tales. It's nice to see Spielberg stretching his talent by working with real writers like Kushner. I hope he keeps it up. You've still not said anything about MUNICH where the justified retribution for a ruthless act of terror leads to ambiguous and ironic results.
I totally agree about the irony/clarity confusion.
Like a lot of people, I admire "Munich" without loving it. It's Spielberg's most complex and sophisticated movie, and I certainly appreciate its sensitive handling of a very controversial subject, but ultimately Kushner's script is *too* circumspect: he's too respectful of the dead on both sides to get us invested in rooting for or against either one, so we can only watch passively, regretting everything and hoping for nothing: The most suspenseful sequence revolves around the question of "Now that the guy's little girl is in the building will they call off this bombing in time?"
Yes, there's tons of ambiguity, but is it really ironic? Bana's character starts off unenthusiastic and doesn't seem very surprised when the whole things turns out unsatisfying. There's not a lot gap between expectation and outcome on anybody's part.
I'd say another one of Spielberg's sins for me is his inability to let go of an idea for a big scene or a clever gag, no matter how much it impacts the tone of the whole film. I'm thinking specifically of the "chasing my eyes" gag in MINORITY REPORT or the farcical apartment jetpack scene or the car assembly joke. Then there's the single worst scene in MUNICH, the "so, looks like we booked the same safe house as our mortal enemies" coffee klatch, which might have worked in a Tarantino film.
Still, I think you're underrating MUNICH. And you're being unfair to the protagonist's arc. He starts out relatively gung ho, if a bit of the strong silent Gary Cooper type about it. He's committed to defending his country to ensure the safety of himself and his growing family. By the film's end he's willingly gone into self-imposed exile and feels completely unsafe and totally alienated from his country. His journey hasn't done wonders for the stability and happiness of his family either. Aside from the scene I've already mentioned and the bad chopper/sex montage near the end, there really aren't any more bad scenes. There are plenty of other suspenseful moments you're giving short shrift.
I wouldn't say that Kushner's writing here is as noncommital as you make it out to be. To me it's more like Le Carre's take on the Cold War. In each novel we're clearly following a certain hero and rooting for him to solve his problem. However successfully or ironically the individual hero's problem gets resolved, Le Carre and Kushner maintain a healthy skepticism of the whole bloody endeavor. Yet you'd still never catch either one endorsing the Soviet KGB or the Palestinian terrorists just because they condemn the conflict or the tactics often used by the ostensible "good guys."
Part of the problem is Bana, who has a deer in the headlights look at all times, so it's hard to see him as gung-ho at the beginning, and therefore hard to see the end as much of a transformation. In retrospect, of course, they should have put Craig in the lead.
Just saw this excellent Book TV with Kushner. Lest you think your own self-proofreading schedule is too demanding, keep in mind that he personally checked every word of dialogue in the script against the O.E.D to be sure there were no verbal anachronisms.
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