The Cinematic Constructions of Steven Spielberg: Disagreement with Film

· Films & Video Games

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in May, 2018.

The following article is subjective, deeply personal, and politically charged in ways that are sure to upset at least one person. If for no other reason than because I will begin my celebration of Steven Spielberg by first talking about a movie made by an anti-Semite.

In 2016 I reviewed Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and proudly proclaimed it as the best of that year. I stand by it. It was not simply a war story but a document of humanistic love. So deeply committed to profiling the god-like courage of a real human being thrust into an obscenely-violent depiction of hell, I found no other film that year so compelling.

This was especially the case for a year in which I had spent time searching my soul for the strength to withstand the pressures and temptations to debase my character as so many others were doing in politics. If Desmond Doss could hold fast to principles that were nearly impossible to have in a nightmarish setting that I will thankfully likely never find myself anywhere near, what was my excuse? I needed the shining example of Hacksaw Ridge, and as I look upon it with fresh eyes today, I only love it more.

As long as I’m praising a film made by a devout Catholic, let me offer a confession: I didn’t agree with it.

It is my actual opinion that the story of Desmond Doss is simply a near-impossible and unrepeatable outlier in the greater fabric of history. It’s awesome, but Doss stands out because humans are fallen creatures. If everyone in his company abided by his pacifism, they not only would have been slaughtered without mercy, but Okinawa would have been that much more difficult to win. Some wars need to be fought. Some enemies need a hard stomping. And those who serve by killing are just as brave for becoming the cold-blooded monsters who are needed for the mission so men like Doss can keep his principles. Sorry Mel, but it was World War II, and the Rape of Nanjing gave us a pretty good idea of what the Japanese did to those it defeated. It was a country that had killed nine people for every person they lost. Preventing more of that was worth killing a lot of them.

And yet, I still genuinely love that movie.

Disagreement with film is a subject I’ve had in mind to write about for a while but never quite had the right optics for. And it is with Steven Spielberg that I think I have found them. Though I disagree with both films, I love Munich, yet I strongly dislike The Post. And a big part of what split my reaction was the way each respective film treated its subject and debatable message.

Spoilers to follow.

It is on the above stark personal terms that I think we should consider the value movies we disagree with. The Ebert-ism of emphasizing how a movie expresses its core truth runs deep here. And there is no better way of showing this than by beginning with a movie that fails these terms on nearly every level.

The only thing The Post meaningfully offers us is an indulgent contemporary political allegory, exalting the nobility of the press and those who work in journalism against the crushing might of the corrupt regimes that thwart the cause of liberty.

It is my opinion that there exists almost no such nobility. Public manipulation and sensationalism have been the game of journalism since there was such a thing, and American history is flooded with almost cartoonish examples of this. Journalistic integrity and valiance in truth pursuit are as mythical as the worst lies we have told ourselves to assuage our guilt over treaty violations, slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, and everything else. The press has started wars, operated as an arm of the government’s propaganda machine multiple times (not just during wartime), campaigned for politicians, manufactured tragedies, assassinated characters, fanned fires, and reveled in the flames. This is not to say that journalism has never been important or that the press hasn’t performed vital services to the nation. Nor is it to say that a free press isn’t necessary for a democracy or argue for its muzzling. But the press is not worth worshipping.

And yet those are the stark terms by which The Post frames the full scope of its conflict. The first two acts combine Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep)’s ambition in the face of rampant workplace misogyny with the sentiment that somehow all economic incentives for the Washington Post point to quality and non-frivolity of journalism. If only everyone seized every advantage they had, took less trash from rivals, and spent more time hunting scoops of bad things than crashing Nixon family weddings, the Post would be more than just a second-rate newspaper. How incredibly convenient for a newspaper to have every reason to be a force for absolute good and nothing else while crusading against a hateful executive who resorts to further and further tyrannical and constitutionally contemptuous means of cutting them down. What serious grownup actually believes these are the terms of the relationship between the press and the government?

You can think (as I do) that the President of the United States is a liar, a con artist and unaccountable stooge of dangerous people who exploit his poor judgment. You can think that and also understand that one of the biggest reasons so many people thrill to him anyway is because they decided that the Press had somehow proven itself even less trustworthy than him. And all of this is compounded by the fact that the press is now an easily cut middleman between the government and the public thanks to social media. This ain’t your granddaddy’s newspaper anymore. The old models are dead and have been replaced effectively by anyone with a personality loud enough to generate a large internet following.

And, of course, there’s the White House Correspondents Dinner whose embarrassments remain fresh in the public memory and have done nothing but fuel the contempt on all sides. The Post could never understand an event like this or make sense of the actual conflict that it so badly wants to influence.

So you can see why “the how” is such a big problem. For a movie that wants so badly to lionize Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee as saviors of democracy and apply their legacy to current problems, there is no room for any complexity, ethics, or multi-dimensionality. Spielberg’s non-subtlety would work fine if the movie was Spotlight but it doesn’t work for All the President’s Men 2.0. All the brisk pacing and smooth, effortless acting by masters of their craft don’t save it from its own smug conceit.

To be sure, I am not finding fault with The Post for choosing sides between Nixon and the Press. For that time period, and given who Nixon was, the choice doesn’t get more obvious. And while the judicial opinions are a mess, I happen to also think that the Pentagon Papers case was decided correctly. But this subject matter desperately cries out for greater understanding and sobriety. We are badly in need of a faithful picture plunging into the foray of broken civic discourse with an open heart and a clear mind. Where is that nuance and maturity of worldview?

You won’t find it in The Post, for it cannot be seen as anything more than a cheap political cop out with tunnel vision. I cannot have a relationship with this film. Its core message is not truth, not even half-truth, but a juvenile fantasy with no room or patience for the skeptic. As such, I cannot find it compelling or even tolerable. It doesn’t challenge us. It doesn’t help us confront ourselves or extend empathy outward.

Which means that in the end, it feels like just a movie to disagree with.

Contrast that with Munich, which, much like Hacksaw Ridge, spoke to my soul in a deep and resonant way despite coming from a devout practitioner of a different faith.

I disagree with the core message of Munich because I think that in the big picture, Israel must win this conflict. I am a conservative; a real one. I support Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem as a wartime necessity, religious imperative, and geopolitical fact; and I think that moving the American embassy there belongs on the short list of noteworthy things the Trump presidency has gotten right. On Munich’s terms, I am firmly on the side of Ephraim and Avner’s mother.

I have no qualms about my realism here. Violence must be answered decisively, peace is realized through asserted strength and aligned incentives, and Jews have suffered greater total persecution throughout history than any other group, religious or ethnic. Anti-Semitism is alive and far too common on nearly every side of discourse, not just on the fringes. And while I won’t go so far as to claim that no criticism of Israel can exist without anti-Semitic attitudes (some of it is just naiveté), I think if we stop reasoning exactly where Munich does and retreat into false equivalence logic, we perpetuate, however infinitesimally, the consequences of anti-Semitism.

But my relationship with Munich isn’t solely political. Though I agree with Ephraim in the long haul, I still feel the sadness Avner feels when his offer to break bread is refused. I feel the film’s great labors of love and understanding, and it makes re-watching it in full genuinely difficult. There’s no one specific mic-dropping scene that I keep coming back to for vindication or indulgence because Munich isn’t a cheap political argument dramatizing a pre-9/11 counter-terrorism story in post-9/11 terms. It’s a prayer. It’s an anguished expression of Spielberg’s Jewish faith that is challenged and disturbed by the language of violence with which the two sides speak to one another until the ringing of gunfire and detonation is all they hear. It is a kind of color sequel to Schindler’s List.

Schindler’s List used black and white to confront the bitterest truths of the Holocaust as an immersive dramatic documentary. The girl in red stands out to us because she stands out to Schindler right as he’s at the height of his power as a business owner and literally atop a high horse on a hill miles away from the massacres. His empathy is extended in her direction, foreshadowing his eventual turn to see all Jews that way. Munich does the reverse. All sequences are in strong color with rich ‘70s textures, except for the Munich massacre itself in the nightmares of Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) which are only selectively in color. The attack is, in no uncertain terms, an unforgivable act of violence and cruelty darkening the harmony of the world. And as the story progresses, the color, texture, and saturation don’t shift simply to distinguish where our characters are. It’s a careful progression of the slipping humanity of a people as they relentlessly answer violence with violence, even if for the right reasons. The easiest example is the phone call – Avner’s dark hotel room contrasted with the warmth of Daphna’s kitchen. Schindler’s List brought in rare color to uplift us in showing what was saved or what love is gained. Munich slowly dampens and bleaches the wealth of its own color to make us feel what is lost.

It’s too easy to label Munich as just an exercise in equivalence. A movie that eager to flip off all sides wouldn’t be a near-three hour ethics drama trying to meaningfully engage them. Why give Avner more than two scenes in Israel or more than one scene with his mother if the goal is to cast him as a terrorist in kind? The “other” phone call sequence wouldn’t need to be as drawn out as it was if the movie wasn’t trying to show that these agents really are trying to mitigate collateral damage, despite making a media spectacle of each kill.

And this is where the anguish arises. A lesser film would just cut it all down and chalk it all up to “Israel stinks, the end” or “look how lame these idiots are, squabbling over a little sliver of territory and imaginary friends; aren’t we so cool for not being them?” It is instead the anguish not of screaming out narcissistically that everyone is wrong and need only listen to you the enlightened one, but of understanding that everyone might actually be right, and thus not knowing what can truly be done other than to make peace with the inevitability of those who must play out their parts. Munich has a genuine care and even affection for these people caught in the middle of it all and are acting out of honest grievance. It has empathy for Avner, for Ephraim, for Carl, for Steve, for Robert, and even for Papa, who could’ve been the scapegoat. It’s grappling with that central philosophical question: When violence is justified? What response is measured in the face of attack? Where the line between right and wrong is when dealing with a cycle as old as civilization itself?

Munich is Spielberg’s mature Jewish prayer for everyone.

I cannot emphasize enough how vital I find a movie like this, even when my conclusion doesn’t match its own. I’m in a place in my life right now where I take pride in often knowing that I know nothing at all, giving me a free high horse to sit upon and judge like Oskar Schindler nearly did. And this is exactly what I know I shouldn’t be doing, especially with so many microcosms of this agonizing conflict popping up in my own country. But this isn’t just about which tribe I decide to join. It’s about how they each see each other, how they each see themselves, and how they continue to act in utterly indecent ways against one another, not because they’re all just myopic fools but because they feel specifically aggrieved, wounded, and terrified. They feel what human beings feel the first time they experience a loss or injury they can’t understand. I see all of this here, just as I see it there, and I don’t know what’s to be done.

Munich may see things differently than I do, yet there it sits as an angel on my shoulder, reminding me of my better nature, my capacity to empathize and offer a prayer for those I can help. For that, I will always love it.

So what’s the commonality here? What’s the essential difference between the three films? How can I take strong positions that wildly disagree with the core messages for all three, yet come away only actually disliking one of them?

The answer is that Hacksaw Ridge and Munich see me. They reach me. They don’t put themselves above me for my disagreement and cast contemptuous judgment unless I see the world as a simplistic binary. They don’t do as The Post does, and paint an incredulous bubble of truth that no rational adult could take seriously.

They let me disagree with them, and then still invite me over to break bread with them.

– Vivek

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