Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Conversations #29: Alexander Payne

In our latest installment of The Conversations, Jason Bellamy and I discuss the films of Alexander Payne, from his debut Citizen Ruth to his acclaimed, recently released The Descendants. We talk about Payne's satirical targets, his balance of comedy and drama, and the performances in his work. And of course we focus on what seems to be the big critical question regarding Payne: the debate over whether or not he's condescending towards the types of characters who frequently appear in his films.

Join us at The House Next Door for the full conversation, and be sure to leave a comment with your own thoughts.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Monday, December 26, 2011

Du côté d'Orouët

Jacques Rozier is one of the unfortunately forgotten filmmakers of the French New Wave. He finished his debut film, the excellent Adieu Philippine, only with difficulty and some monetary help from his friend Jean-Luc Godard, and afterwards he wouldn't make another feature for over 10 years. His second feature, Du côté d'Orouët, is, like his debut, a charming and moving depiction of young people on vacation. Ambling and nearly plotless, the film meanders through two and a half hours of beachside antics as three friends — Caroline (Caroline Cartier), Joëlle (Danièle Croisy) and Kareen (Françoise Guégan) — take their September vacation in a seaside cabin owned by Caroline's family. It's a relaxed and simple film, and also a really beautiful one, progressing slowly and organically from carefree goofing around to the rich and subtle emotional complexity that begins to develop later in the film. Rozier is paying tribute to the joys of youth, the pleasures of a month-long escape from the day-to-day mundane slog of work and normal life, but as in Adieu Philippine there's a subtle undercurrent of melancholy that, as the film goes along, is increasingly laid bare beneath the surface giggling and good times.

This somewhat more serious subtext is first hinted at early in the film, soon after the three girls first arrive at their summer villa. They've been laughing and goofing around nonstop throughout the whole trip, even laughing breathlessly all through a steep climb up a sand dune, lugging their suitcases step by laborious step up its slippery slope. Then they arrive at the house, throwing open its shutters to let in the slightly chilly September sea breeze, and Caroline and Joëlle go running off to look at the rooms upstairs. Kareen walks by herself into a side room, suddenly quiet and introspective: she was childhood friends with Caroline, and the two girls used to spend summers here when they were very young. This is the first time she's been back since then, and a flood of memories come pouring in, bringing her back to her girlhood. Suddenly, Rozier cuts in for a series of probing closeups in which Kareen's face fills the screen, and she looks into the camera and whispers her thoughts about being suddenly overcome by nostalgia, recognizing all these little details from her childhood vacations. It is the only moment in the film when Rozier breaks the fourth wall like this, and the only moment when he so directly and intimately reveals the inner thoughts of these young women. The effect is all the more striking for its status as a solitary stylistic break in the film's aesthetic, a lone moment in which the intensity of emotion necessitates total unguarded honesty and confession. Later, the women will keep their emotions more veiled as they throw themselves into a month of fun and laughter and silliness.

They're joined on this vacation by Joëlle's boss Gilbert (Bernard Menez), who is obviously attracted to Joëlle and surprises them by showing up in the town where they're staying, then tagging along and eventually pitching his tent right in their garden. His presence provides the first hint of fracture within the group, as Joëlle, who's all too aware of his interest in her, doesn't want this tension on her vacation, while the other two girls just delight in tormenting and mocking Gilbert, who at first seems slightly stiff and serious around the giggly girls. Gilbert provides the comic relief initially, as the butt of their jokes — they wake him up one morning by playing cacophonous music on a trumpet and drums right outside his tent, then entangle him in fishing nets — but he becomes a more poignant character later in the film. He hoped to finally form a relationship with Joëlle on this vacation, but instead the girls treat him like a servant, having him fetch things for him while they sunbathe, or leaving the dishes for him to wash while they run off to the beach.

In one sequence towards the end of the film, Gilbert and the girls return from a fishing trip with a big fish, which he prepares for an elaborate meal. Rozier, whose sense of pacing is always unhurried, spends several long minutes with Gilbert as he cooks, swigging wine and looking a little tipsy when Rozier captures him in closeups. He is putting a lot of effort into the meal, juggling large pots on a crowded stove with only two burners, carefully slicing up the fish, preparing vegetables and sauce to go with it. After all this preparation, the meal is received with lackluster indifference, as Caroline and Joëlle, exhausted from a long day of fishing, pick feebly at the food before falling asleep right at the table. Joëlle, additionally, is withdrawn and upset because Kareen has earned the attentions of the sailboat-owning Patrick (Patrick Verde), who Joëlle herself had wanted. Kareen's absence from the table, out on a date with Patrick that's gone way later than they'd expected, hangs over their uncomfortable silence, and at times Joëlle seems on the verge of tears while Gilbert gamely tries to lighten the mood and encourage the girls to eat. Instead, they sleep and the next morning Joëlle, who seems to realize how desperately Gilbert wants her to like him, can barely meet his gaze.

The film acquires a great deal of poignancy by its end, though the shift is mood is subtle and gradual, and doesn't really come until the film is nearly over. Earlier, it's all charming days in the sun, aimless days with nothing to do but chat, argue over what to eat, go on little trips that never lead anywhere. The girls have fun dressing up at home, pretending like they're going to go to a nearby casino they've seen signs for, dancing goofily in wooden clogs. When Gilbert finally does take them to the casino, dressed in a tuxedo and fussing with his bowtie, the casino turns out to be a converted and rather ramshackle farmhouse located in a muddy field. A sailboat expedition with Patrick is more successful, and Rozier spends a great deal of time watching as Caroline and Joëlle hang on through the waves, leaning off the boat to keep it from tipping, laughing and screaming the whole time, while the camera rocks and shakes with the waves.

The film's style is loose and verité, unobtrusive but nonetheless striking. Rozier shot in ragged, grainy color, in the Academy ratio, which gives the film the look of home video vacation footage. Its looseness is appealing, though, and there's an offhanded beauty to many of Rozier's shots. His images, in their unforced beauty, capture the sense of a late-season beachside resort where the vacation traffic is slowing down, most people starting to leave for home just as the girls arrive. It's windy, maybe a little chilly, and the beaches are usually all but empty except for the three girls and a few other stragglers. The season is integral to the film's sadness, a part of the sensation that things are winding down, that this isn't quite the peak, and by the end of the film, as all the local businesses are being shuttered for the winter and the boardwalk is even more desolate than ever, the melancholy becomes almost overwhelming.

This sadness is especially apparent in the character of Joëlle. Rozier never gives her the moment of unguarded confession that he gives to Kareen early in the film, but her sadness slowly shows itself anyway. At one point, after the group has gone horseback-riding and returned home for dinner, Joëlle silently observes as Kareen and Patrick whisper conspiratorially across the table from her, quietly making plans for the next day. Rozier shoots across the table, over the shoulders of Kareen and Patrick, framing Joëlle's face between them as her sad eyes dart back and forth between them. Gilbert praises Kareen's riding skills, and Patrick agrees, saying that she's so light that she almost flies. It's an offhanded remark but Rozier's emphasis on Joëlle captures how much it must sting her; throughout the film, she been very self-conscious about weight and dieting, and the compliment to Kareen feels like a slap to her. All of this plays out very subtly, without anything overt being said. It's simply Rozier's acute concentration on Joëlle's face, his attention to her unspoken emotional state, that makes this little moment and others like it hit so hard.

The film's final half hour uses the end of the summer holiday as a metaphor for the other endings and missed opportunities that underscore this elegiac conclusion. First Gilbert leaves, sick of being treated like "an imbecile," and then Kareen leaves as well, having quickly grown tired of her brief fling with Patrick. Only Caroline and Joëlle remain at the end, sulking through the cold final days of vacation, closing up the house and returning for home and work in a downcast mood. These scenes are gray and overcast; winter is coming, chasing them away from the beach, away from the freedom and irresponsibility of summer. There's a sense of loss in the film's final act that's hard to pin down. Is it that these women are on the verge of having to grow up for good, to leave behind the girlish fun that Kareen remembers from her childhood and which they're recreating here? Is it the sense that soon they'll get married and settle down? Or is it simply that now, as another girl says at the very end of the film, they have to wait 11 months for their next taste of this freedom and adventure, as now they return to the work and routine of the rest of the year? Whatever the case, it's an affecting coda, as the haunted-looking Joëlle watches Gilbert, who has now given up on her, flirt with another girl, talking about vacation plans for next year.

Du côté d'Orouët is a sweet and ultimately sad movie that builds a great deal of emotional richness from what initially seems rather simple. The sadness in the film is not as explicit or as specifically defined as Rozier's first film, Adieu Philippine (in which a vacationing young man was poised on the brink of military service in the Algerian War) but there's nevertheless a sense that Rozier sees the summer holiday as an opportunity to examine, simultaneously, the joys and the anxieties of youth. The vacation is a metaphor for youth itself: sunny, fun, consequence-free, but always finite, always with an end point after which the vacationers will have to return to the real world, to work and responsibility and seriousness. That constant awareness of the end, which at first seems so distant and soon comes to loom very close indeed, is what makes the film so poignant, so bittersweet, so joyous and so melancholy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Je, tu, il, elle

Chantal Akerman's first feature-length film is a striking, minimalist work about love, loneliness, desire and gender. Actually, "minimalist" doesn't begin to do justice to the film's narcoleptic pacing and sparseness of action. The film opens with a young woman played by Akerman herself (named as Julie only in the post-film credits) alone in her room. In a series of long, mostly static shots, this woman sits on the floor in a corner, eats sugar from a paper bag, moves her furniture around, writes letters, strips naked and walks around, looking out the window or examining her body in a mirror. The camera occasionally tracks to follow her, when she's actually moving, but more often the camera sits as patiently still as the protagonist herself, locked into stasis and repetition. It gradually becomes apparent that she's recovering from a breakup, missing her lover and writing letters that she'll never mail.

This portion of the film, which last around a half hour, is a powerful and suffocating depiction of loneliness and depression. Akerman perfectly captures the sense of being locked into stasis, alternately numbed and pained, unable to break free of a series of repetitive, minimal tasks. She writes the same letter over and over again, crossing out most of it and then starting again, periodically laying all the pages out on the floor in front of her. She unthinkingly spoons sugar into her mouth as her only sustenance, then spills it on the floor and methodically spoons it back into the bag. The black-and-white photography is high contrast and alternates between crisply defined daytime sequences and shadowy scenes where Julie/Akerman is just a silhouette, her face hidden by her long dark hair. The pacing of this sequence is slow and patience-testing; it is quite deliberately empty of incident, and as a consequence the smallest movements, the smallest shifts in the familiar patterns of nothingness, have great impact. These scenes are accompanied by a voiceover in which the protagonist describes her time alone in her room. Tellingly, the action onscreen often lags behind the narration by a good amount of time, as though the narrator is anticipating what she'll do next — and it then takes a supreme act of willpower to actually go through with these tiny, insignificant actions. This disconnect between narration and visuals thus enhances the impression of a woman struggling to force herself into action, to break free of this self-imposed black hole.

In the second segment of the film, Julie abruptly decides to leave the apartment, flagging down a passing truck on the highway and hitching a ride with the driver (Niels Arestrup). This sequence is initially as static and tranquil as the scenes in the apartment, as though the woman has still not fully emerged from her exile into the world. But soon the driver asks Julie to give him a handjob, and after this extended and strangely compelling scene — in which Akerman films the man's profile while he dispassionately narrates the experience from start to climax — the driver becomes more talkative. In an intense and rambling monologue, he talks about his wife, his children, his jobs, his brother and his cousin who are both more successful than he, his thoughts while driving late at night on his cross-country truck runs. It's a great piece of writing, all the more startling because it's the first extended verbal sequence in the entire film, coming well after the halfway mark. Throughout this sequence, Akerman holds a static shot on the driver, smoking a cigarette and occasionally looking away from the road, bathed in the grainy, shadowy quality of the image, which is packed with dancing, shimmering film artifacts that counteract the static shot.

The subtext of the driver's monologue is male discontentment and the impersonal nature of sexuality. The driver has been married a long time and long ago began to see sex with his wife as an unexciting duty; he is more excited, he says, by random hook-ups with hitchhikers in his truck, and also by the simple experience of driving, alone, at night, getting an erection for no reason as his truck drifts through the night and his mind wanders. His descriptions of his sexuality are all tangled up with his boredom with his marriage, his ambivalent thoughts about his kids, his jealousy of other men who have gotten better arrangements for themselves, and his feelings of duty as a man with a family. It's a remarkable speech, and the dysfunctional view of sex presented here, in which sex is simply a needed release found outside of any emotional bond, sets up a contrast against the much different view of sexuality found in the film's final act.

Julie takes her leave of the truck driver shortly after this scene, arriving at the apartment of the lover (Claire Wauthion) who she had missed so profoundly during the film's first half hour. Julie's girlfriend tells her immediately that she doesn't want her staying the night, and the subsequent scenes are full of awkward, hesitant interaction: they embrace, the girlfriend makes Julie a sandwich and serves her some wine, and they stare at one another while Julie chomps on the sandwich. Then Julie reaches across and unbuttons the other woman's dress, while her girlfriend smiles and shakes her head, not as though saying "no" but with a faint air of admonishment and disbelief that they're going to go through this again. Akerman then cuts to the two women naked in bed, caressing and kissing one another, rubbing their bodies together and rolling around so that sometimes one is on top, sometimes the other.

Sensuous and sensual, passionate and joyful, tender and desperate, it's a forceful answer to the mechanized orgasms of the truck driver, a vision of a much more beautiful kind of sex built on real emotions. Those emotions can sometimes hurt and wound those who give themselves up to them, as they did to Julie during the film's opening, but that's just because the stakes are so high, and the rewards so transcendent. This lovingly filmed and lengthy sex scene can be read as a feminist/lesbian rejection of heterosexuality and marriage, but it can also be read as simply an ode to the beauty of real loving sex, no matter who's involved, as contrasted against sex as duty and sex as simple biological imperative. All of the film's patient minimalism was building towards this sequence, and when it's finally over, the next morning, Julie simply gathers her clothes and sneaks out, leaving the other woman sleeping peacefully, and the film ends. Je, tu, il, elle is a simple film in many ways, as symbolic and schematic as its title suggests. But for such a small, quiet film, it has a lot to say in its silences and its stark, still images.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Third Man

Harry Lime. Harry Lime. Harry Lime. The name is spoken so frequently in Carol Reed's The Third Man that it becomes a mantra, a way of signifying the continuing importance of a man whose absence defines the film and drives its plot. The war is over, and as the pseudo-documentary introduction describes it, the city of Vienna is in turmoil, bombed-out and divided, split into sectors by the victorious Allied powers (just getting ready for the colder war to follow) and rife with corruption and black market dealings. The pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in the city at the behest of his friend Harry, who has offered him a job, but virtually the first thing that Holly learns when he arrives in Vienna is that Harry is dead, the victim of a strangely suspicious traffic accident. Harry's left behind Anna (Alida Valli), the beautiful girl who loves him, plus a string of business associates who seem very shady and evasive, and a dogged police inspector (Trevor Howard) whose interest in Harry's illegal activities hasn't quite faded now that the man himself is beyond his jurisdiction.

So Holly — who Anna instinctively and repeatedly calls Harry, evidence of Harry's ubiquity and also a suggestion that she's already beginning to think of this newcomer as a possible replacement — stumbles into a shadowy, foggy Vienna where sinister dealings are obviously happening down every dark alley and in every night club. The people Holly meets, his friend Harry's former associates, like the solicitous "baron" Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), radiate menace and sinister intentions, drawling out seemingly banal dialogue that barely disguises the unspoken threats and insinuations hiding just behind their friendly surfaces. It's instantly obvious that something strange surrounds Harry's mysterious death, something much more sinister than the traffic accident that everyone insists it was, and Holly becomes particularly obsessed with discovering the identity of an unknown "third man" who carried his friend's body away from the accident along with the baron and his fellow conspirator Popescu (Siegfried Breuer).

Interestingly, this mystery, which gives the film its title, ultimately seems incidental to what's really going on here, and isn't even resolved explicitly within the film. The film's first half is driven by mystery and investigation, but the specifics of this mystery don't seem nearly as important as the general sense of tension and intrigue generated by Holly's attempts to discover the truth. The script, adapted by Graham Greene from his own novel, crackles with suggestive, potent dialogue, particularly in the exchanges between the mourning Anna and Holly, who is clearly falling in love with his dead friend's girlfriend even as he probes deeper and deeper into the sordid truth about Harry Lime. Although Harry himself is the central, unseen presence for much of the movie, Anna and Holly (with his strange name so resonant with Harry's) get most of the screen time, dealing with Harry's absence and trying to make sense of life now that he's gone. In one great scene, a tearful Anna asks Holly to tell her things about Harry when he was younger, and Holly tells a series of incomplete, faltering stories that amount to moments and glimpses rather than full scenes in themselves. It seems even when he was alive, Harry was a somewhat enigmatic figure, difficult to understand or describe. (Much like the "third man," who is described by the one person who saw him as entirely normal and non-descript.)

Of course, in the movie's final third it turns out that everything is not as Holly and Anna had thought, and after being an unseen presence/absence for over an hour, Harry Lime himself finally makes his first appearance, incarnated in the smug smirk and cheery eyes of Orson Welles. Harry's first appearance is iconic and unforgettable, first as a shadow in the night, a pair of shoes standing in the shade of a doorway, the rest of his body vanishing into the surrounding shadows. Then a light comes on and illuminates his face, and there's that playful smile, those twinkling eyes, devilish and rakish, a sinister face hovering in the darkness. Having an actor as powerful and iconic as Welles play Harry, and holding back his first appearance for so long, really intensifies the effect. The audience is as stunned as Holly is, in a way, because just as Holly is shocked to find his friend alive, the audience, who might have suspected as much, is simply shocked by the impact of Welles' arrival and the oversized charm that he brings to Harry.

That's even truer in the subsequent scene, later in the film, where Harry finally gets his first lines — and is revealed not as the loving boyfriend idealized by Anna or the fun, steadfast friend described by Holly, but an amoral sociopath who willingly snuffs out lives just to make some money. Harry feels no guilt that the black market medication he was selling killed many and drove others mad. As he and Holly ride a ferris wheel, he looks down and speaks as though he's a god, as though other people are simply abstract dots to him, their lives and deaths of no import to his schemes. Harry is a real product of the war, a lowlife echo of the Nazi indifference to life and the god-like delusions that drive some men to believe their desires are more important than the very lives of others. Harry is a demon, a charming demon, and the sinister vibe of his friends is echoed in his own demeanor. His first conversation with Holly is infused with just-barely-unspoken threats and telling looks. He maintains a casual air as he opens the ferris wheel's door and tells his good friend that he has a gun, that he could eliminate him if he wanted to. And then, when Holly tells Harry that the police have dug up the latter's grave and found the man buried inside it — essentially telling Harry that his problems wouldn't end by getting rid of Holly — Harry's demeanor changes entirely, and he once again becomes solicitous and charming, the menace in his voice replaced by syrupy good cheer and friendly offers. He's good old Harry again, the merry prankster Holly had earlier described in those fragmentary stories from the good old days.

The film climaxes with a crawl through the sewers, in which the witty dialogue and insinuations are replaced by a nearly dialogue-free chase sequence in which Harry is pursued by an army of police with dogs and flashlights, with Holly accompanying them. The sewer sequence is a marvel of noir style, all striking angles and shadows, occasionally pierced by the blinding white light of the pursuers. Harry's face, now not so dashingly confident, is striped by shadows in the dark of the sewer, his eyes wide with fear as he runs this way and that, hemmed in and cut off everywhere, attempting with mounting desperation to find a way out. His earlier smirk is replaced by a grimace of terror. In the sequence's most unforgettable image, a wounded, crawling Harry reaches for a sewer grating, and Reed cuts away to the street above, where Harry's fingers stick up through the grate, waving around like stalks of grass in the wind, which whistles by on the soundtrack, the eerie only noise. It's a haunting ending for a legend who was disappointingly revealed as just another corrupted man, a sad echo of the war's evils.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Munich is a film of exceptional moral ambiguity and inquiry from a director often known for his tendency to tie his films' morals up in neat little bows at the end. Steven Spielberg resists, for the most part, that temptation here, and the result is one of his best films and certainly one of the best of his more self-consciously "serious" films. The film concerns the aftermath of the 1972 terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich. Spielberg's film is based on a book by George Jonas, about the Israeli government's secret response to this act of terrorism. A group of operatives are gathered and sent off with the names of 11 Arab men who had planned and been involved with the Black September terrorism in various ways. Led by a young and inexperienced low-level Mossad operative named Avner (Eric Bana), this secret group moves around Europe targeting and killing these terrorists.

It is a film about revenge and the cyclic nature of violence, but it is also a compelling, taut, and tightly constructed thriller, a visceral espionage movie in which each kill is meticulously tracked from the planning stage through to the often troubled and frenzied execution of the plan. Spielberg is a master director of action, and part of the reason that Munich is so successful is that there isn't a schizophrenic disconnect between Spielberg the Hollywood crowd-pleaser and Spielberg the "serious" moralist, as there is in so many of Spielberg's other late films. Instead, the action is the content here, and Spielberg uses the crisply executed action scenes to build the moral foundation of the film. It's a seamless and organic process that makes Munich work on multiple levels, as a straightforward historical thriller and as a moral consideration of guilt, revenge, and political assassination.

One of the best scenes in this respect is the sequence where Avner and his team plot to kill one of their targets using a bomb in a telephone. They plant the bomb, then wait outside the man's apartment one morning, watching his wife and child leave, then call from a pay phone, waiting for the target to pick up so they can set off the explosive. The plan goes wrong because a moving truck pulls in front of the bombers' car, blocking their view of the apartment, so that they don't see when the car carrying the target's daughter pulls up again so she can go back inside to fetch something she forgot. The Israelis go forward with their plan, calling the apartment, one of them poised with the detonator, but when it's the little girl that picks up, not the father they intend to kill, they realize their mistake. Spielberg deliberately draws out the tension here, cutting back and forth from inside the apartment, where the girl strolls around trying to find what she'd left behind, to outside where the commandos prepare to carry out their kill. It's harrowing: each number dialed on the pay phone outside gets its own shot, interspersed with images of the girl, and after she picks up, as two of the commandos scramble to warn off the man with the detonator, it's not at all obvious whether they'll be in time or not. It's an especially potent use of Spielberg's instincts for Hollywood-style suspense: the moving truck that blocks the commandos' view is certainly a Hollywood contrivance, and the emphasis on the cute little girl who may soon be blown up is also deliberate heartstring-tugging, as is the earlier moment where one of the commandos, in the apartment posing as a journalist, sees her play the piano and smile at him.

Spielberg's use of such devices isn't just empty manipulation, though. Scenes like this one — and the later scene where a honeymooning couple are injured in the overly powerful blast that kills another target — drive home just how delicate such missions of vengeance are, just how easily the ethos of eye-for-an-eye can lead one astray. It's not only the possibility of unintended collateral damage: this mission of murder begins to weigh on most of the commandos, with the possible exception of Steve (Daniel Craig), who says that "only Jewish blood matters" and as a result doesn't feel any remorse at extinguishing the lives of those who threaten his people. Steve's Zionism and nationalism give him an unshakable faith in the rightness of this mission that makes him eerily parallel those on the other side who are also so convinced in the essential rightness of their cause, who also believe that murder is justifiable in pursuit of their objectives. Not incidentally, many of the Arab terrorists depicted in the film also see their mission as one of revenge for Jewish attacks on their people.

Indeed, Spielberg's parallels between the Arab terrorists and the Israeli commandos hunting and killing them excited much outrage from Jewish and Israeli groups, upset by the film's conflation of terrorism with counter-terrorism. But that's missing the point. Spielberg's film is about not forgetting the value of a human life, and most importantly it's about not falling for the delusion that violence can beget peace. Several times in the film, the characters count up the record of Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli reprisals, as though keeping a tally on some morbid scorecard. The more men they kill, the more they question their actions, as they see that even while they're in Europe killing terrorists, others immediately take the place of those they kill, and high-profile attacks are still carried out, killing Israelis and other Westerners all over the world. Seeing no tangible result of their actions, no benefit, they begin to wonder if all the bloodshed is worth it, or if they're simply sacrificing the moral high ground, the goodness and decency that allows them to live with themselves.

In one key scene, the Israeli commandos are unexpectedly surprised at a safehouse by a team of PLO soldiers, because the double-dealing French spy Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who set up the location, had, accidentally or on purpose, double-booked it. The subsequent standoff and fragile peace between the two groups (with the Israelis pretending to belong to various European terrorist cells) is another of those Hollywood contrivances that Spielberg turns into a productive opportunity for moral inquiry. (Though the scene where Steve and a PLO operative stage a symbolic battle between East and West on a radio dial is a rare goofy, heavy-handed misstep.) Avner has a late-night conversation with his opposite number, Ali (Omar Metwally), in which Ali expresses his sincere belief that soon Israel will fall, and that the whole world will have to go along with the creation of a Palestinian state. Avner looks at him uncomprehendingly, unable to grasp that this man actually believes that this will happen, actually thinks that terrorist attacks and bombings will somehow convince the world of the rightness of the Palestinian cause. Ali thinks that violence will wake people up, will make them see what's going on, but Avner is starting to understand something very different: that violence only causes more violence and entrenches people even deeper into their established ideologies, making them less, not more, open to compromise or change. What this conversation also yields is a reminder that the Palestinians really do want a home, that whatever else this fight might be about, the primary stakes are the right to a feeling of rootedness and belonging. Avner can't deny Ali the right to want that feeling, for himself and his descendents, and the conversation ends, typically, with nothing resolved, with the two sides remaining separated from one another by a seemingly irreconcilable conflict in ideas and desires.

At times, Spielberg is almost aggressively even-handed. Early on, when the news mistakenly reports at first that all the Munich terrorists were killed but all the Israeli hostages survived, Spielberg shows relieved Jewish families and sobbing Arab families. When the news changes and the reporters have to correct themselves and announce that the hostages have also been killed, then everyone on both sides is crying, mourning their dead. The effect is not, I don't think, to equate terrorists and their victims, but to suggest that there are families and human connections on both sides, even for those who perpetrate terrorist acts. This is a recurring theme in the film, the importance of family and home, because the justification for all the violence and war and terrorism and reprisal on both sides is always that everyone involved is fighting for their families, for the right to a homeland. Avner's wife and daughter appear at several key points in the film, as reminders of his humanity and his home, but terrorists like Ali are also fighting for what they believe they need to do for their families. It's telling, too, that at the end of the film Avner's Mossad contact refuses to "break bread" with him; governments and their political agendas are largely disconnected from such domestic concerns, though they also perpetrate their acts in the names of their citizens and their families. That's why the family-focused Louis and his father (Michael Lonsdale), who run a global espionage, information-dealing network, refuse to deal with governments, with their abstract motivations and distance from the passions that drive individual fighters.

What's great about Munich is that, atypically for Spielberg, all of these moral questions and entanglements are dealt with but there's no definitive resolution for the contradictions and doubts that dog the Israeli commandos during their mission. The film simply confronts, head on, the cycle of violence that marks the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one scene, which epitomizes the film, Avner comes face to face with one of his targets, having a pleasant chat on adjoining balconies at a hotel, while in the background a passionate couple kiss and grope one another on a third balcony. Avner is just waiting for this man to go to bed so he can give the signal to blow him up, and he knows that the man is a terrorist responsible for many horrendous acts, but for a few moments he's confronted with both the humanity of his target and the potential innocents who could get caught up in this attempt at retribution. Spielberg even layers Avner together with the target and the innocent couple within a single shot, so that the link between Avner's signal and the murderous consequences will be absolutely clear. Vengeance, the film suggests, is never a simple thing, but rather part of a network of causes and effects that tie together family, politics, religion, history, and more, making questions of right and wrong far more complicated than mere binary values. Never before has Spielberg seemed so acutely aware of such complexities, and never before has he so powerfully portrayed them onscreen.