RIORI Vol 3, Installment 72: Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” (2004)



The Players…

Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with (quite the supporting cast of) Barry Henley, Eddie Jones, Diego Luna, Chi McBride, Michael Nouri, Kumar Pallana and Zoe Saldana.


The Story…

All Viktor wanted to do was get home. But some stupid coup d’etat explodes in his homeland, and he’s stranded at Kennedy Airport, carrying a passport nobody recognizes.

What to do, what to do now? That answer is pretty basic. Since Viktor has no recourse, quarantined to the transit lounge, he simply goes on living. By his lonesome. Such as it has become.

But Viktor doesn’t have to go it alone. This is JFK International Airport, after all. Someone is bound to lend a hand.

Hands, rather.


The Rant…

Hey. Welcome back.

So you check out Munich yet? For those who did, bravo! For those who didn’t you’re most likely a newb here. Welcome anyway.

Today is a carryover from the last installment, my scrutiny of Steven Spielberg’s polarizing historical fiction Munich about how the Mossad waxed the “terrorists” who waxed the Israeli track team in the 1972 Summer Olympics in the titular city. This is the second part of a two-part study of the esteemed Steven Speilberg’s hiccups in the 21st Century. The first half, my intrepid examination of his Munich bore some fruit. After watching it (and thereby disturbed by it) illustrated the man has not strayed very far from his craft and/or muse.

As with a few earlier installments here, seeing the subject matter of this brief study we’re gonna divvy up some rations. I shall employ one intro pertinent to the matter at hand (Spielberg being the crop of the cream) and a second snarky, bilious intro based on my fevered, judgmental, feverish judgments. Thank you and you’re welcome.


First Intro…

The man’s an easy target.

In the pantheon of esteemed movie directors, Spielberg has earned his bones and has rightfully scrabbled to the top of the heap. In the grand scheme of cinematic things, such is no small feat. After all, “movies” took hold in France (depending on who you’d ask), and from the Francos theatre on the big screen usurped the eventual snobbery dividing the theatre goers against the cinemaphiles. Like all rivalries, you can’t have one without the other. There could be no Coke without Pepsi.

Spielberg’s cinematic dichotomy has been written into clay ever since his Jaws coined the phrase “summer blockbuster.” His CV wanders between fantastical and harrowing. Precious few of his outings cast an audience over the spell of “sentimental,” but that’s there. Sometimes it borders on treacle, but that Brit molasses is sweet and heady, therefore tough to resist. C’mon, you have to be made of stone not to at least sniffle when you see ET REDACTED by a helpless Elliot. But sometimes sentimentality can grow out of hand, curdle and become maudlin. Sorry Steve, but with Always your slip was showing. Same with Hook. Hell, especially with AI (Kubrick should’ve stayed the course, I tell ya).

So there are a few, minor bloops on the man’s resume that might tarnish his rep for when his heart was hiked up too far on both sleeves. Or until BFG 2 gets dropped. Whatever comes first. The matter there is that once you reach the top of the heap is finding a way to stay there, all the while keeping both your rep and cachet intact. Well that’s not possible. Even the most revered directors drop a turd in the punchbowl once in a while, blinded by the power and glory of their vision. It’s necessary though. It’s the Coke vs Pepsi paradigm: you can’t measure the good without having the bad rear its pus-filled head once in a while. Hence Pepsi Crystal.

The great many of Spielberg’s movies are like pizza: when it’s good, it’s good and when it’s not you still have some pizza. Like Lou Reed said, “My week beats your year.” In the final analysis, the man’s work speaks for itself, and in turn speaks to a lot of audiences. That can’t be denied. But sometimes—sometimes—the man overplays his hand as well as keep them cards too close. When it comes to establishing a personal, emotional grip on the audiences’ attention you can’t have it both ways; you can’t mix artsy-fartsy with Kleenex. Get too squishy that way and off the top of the heap you may slither.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve got a soft spot an AU wide for sentimental, treacly films. Gotta have those guilty pleasures, right? Forrest Gump, On Golden Pond, One Crazy Summer and so on. I’m not made of stone, either. But I can be pushed towards petrifaction. The envelope can only go so far. On more than one occasion (as I listed earlier), the man’s tried my emotional patience. Sometime for the good, though, but mostly it’s been lemon juice-dipped fingernails on a chalkboard hewn from pumice.

In other words: Steve, know when to rein it in.

Sometimes it’s good, if not fun to let a talented director to run riot with their treacly id. Once in a while. The other times when that goes down, said director better have a damned interesting script to back up their Hallmark moments.

That being said, The Terminal holds up better than Always. And far better than Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

That was a joke, you dolts. Show some emotion already…


Second Intro…

Air travel sucks.

I recently read a story in the New York Times op-ed section from a seasoned and presently retired commercial airline pilot. He spoke as to  debunk the myths surrounding the so-called luxury of the Jet Age. The man flew planes from the late 60s into the late 90s, and according to his experiences in the air and out, trade-offs were few, far between and interchangeable when it came to the “comfort” of flying the friendly skies. His argument was akin to Pete Townshend’s proclamation of, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” For the record, the FAA was the boss all along.

The pilot compared traveling business class today with its sardine-like seating and the dinky, ever fluttering screen embedded in the headrest in front of you with yesterday’s roll down trundle beds (that took up three rows of seats and cost as much) and panopticon movie screen scrolled down for one feature for the duration of the three day flight as not very far removed. At least these days passengers aren’t choked into lung cancer via open smoking recycled through the already recycled air. That and non-Whites are now permitted into First Class. With those roll-down beds and blowjobs. Kidding. There are no roll-down beds in First Class, just non-allergenic blankets. So I’ve heard. Now turn your head and spit.

Tee hee.

Anyway. According to the article, the only thing that has never changed in air travel is the being on the ground part. The waiting. In the airport. Being poked and prodded and x-rayed and having your gums inspected and it costs how much to weigh my bags? Now get in this line to get into that line.

Admit it. Sometimes when you have a layover it feels like it lasts longer that your actual flight, if it would ever land on time. You’re stranded in the terminal, what with all its food courts, book stores, communal charging stations and a billion foreign tongues chattering with urgency. It can be surreal. It’s like another planet. It’s disorienting. The only thing that can keep you metaphorically grounded is your aging flight pass and happy hour at the nearest watering hole. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?

Yeah, at your destination. Five days away. I don’t know about you…wait, that’s not right. I do know you. We’ve all been stuck with a layover if we travel by air. Sometimes it’s a few hours, sometimes it’s many, many, many hours. We’re talking sprawl out on the nearest empty row of chairs hours. You’re in fishbowl. It’s a given that it’s no fun to wait around for a flight, a matter completely out of your control, at the mercy of the aviation gods. It’s a test of patience. So chill. Ride along. Make the best of it. Watch the people scattering hither and yon, for you may be scattering some day also. Pulsing humanity. Big airports are a microcosm of the human condition in action. Seeking sanction and/or seeking escape.

Yeah, yeah. That truck sounds so heady. But (surprise) I got a tale to tell about the oddness of said human condition that happened to me in an airport. Seems relevant. That and it happened in Utah, so that carries some weight.

It was August, and I headed out the summer after graduating college to visit my then girlfriend who took a job as a park ranger in the Black Canyon in Colorado. Never been to the Rocky Mountain range, and was curious as to how she conducted business. She promised the elegance of Colorado’s high desert country, as well as an easy descent into said canyon beckoning one of those Ansel Adams-esque streams flowing at the bottom. Crystal clear water and a keen view of the rising Coloradan cliffs. Sounded good to me.

I departed Philadelphia International for a five hour flight to the Centennial State. The cross country flight was unremarkable. The three hour layover in Utah was something else. Believe it or not, whenever I had flown in the past I was mercifully spared super-long layovers. Maybe an hour at most. Even my high school jaunt to Ireland only trapped me in Heathrow for a bit over sixty minutes. Call me lucky.

Stuck outside Salt Lake City was a different story. Three hours. That’s the first set of a Dead show there. It was the late 90s. Mobile phones just made calls. No Wi-Fi. Michael Crichton still a hot topic at the local newsstand. Boredom set in quick, as well as getting all fidgety for lack of a traveling companion. That and queuing up in the proto-TSA security line made me edgy. Hope the crack team with the wands wouldn’t find that stash of hash crammed in my ears.

Kidding (I wish). I trudged my way along the line to get prodded in the name of safety, chatting up this young woman who was just as bored as I. Never caught her name, but we BS’d as we waited. We came through scott free—ears intact—and decided to kill some of a lot of time at one of the many bars. She recently finished school and welcomed me for a few. Over cocktails we talked about our destinations and where we were from. It was a real “single serving friend” moment, to quote Tyler Durden. She was en route to Colorado also, to start a new life. Something about recovery and living with her sister who had recently given birth to her first kid. Single mom, offered an opportunity for my single serving to get her head together. No judgments from me; I was intrigued.

I spewed my bile and she suffered me pretty well, probably since I offered to pick up the tab. We took in the scenery, the masses moving to and fro. I pulled my recent degree in English and Philosophy out of my ass and got all existential on her, remarking on the surrounding, pulsing humanity. She dug and told me more about her microcosm of addiction and hanging with “the wrong crowd.” She showed me a fresh tat on her arm, something tribal. She called it a milestone, a change in her life and what it might lead to. Sorta like true north. The whole chit-chat seemed to be all about where we were going, reflection—satori—in the busy shadows of hundreds chasing their flights.

We killed enough time for her to finish her layover. I ran with her to her respective gate and bid her good luck. “See ya around” and such. She embarked and that was that. Another nugget of humanity that could only get sifted through one of America’s many airport terminal screenings. Funny how a chance encounter with a stranger makes for some well-killed time in a building full of strangers hell-bent for stranger tides. I waited out my final hour of laying over thumbing through a journal or something, lamenting the batteries in my Discman were dead. Late 90s, remember?

Coda: almost a week into my vay-cay with the park ranger girlfriend, we had to venture out to the Costco for groceries. I wanted to stock up on the necessities of my climb down the Black Canyon. Clif Bars, bottled water, oxygen tank (that would come later, actually and really). I got into my head to kill some time back at her cabin we needed to build some Lego sets. No cable, no Internet, no nothing. Why not? Those esteemed Danes launched their new Ninja sets that summer, and I had a hankering.

While rifling through the boxes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I figured it belonged to my girl, ready to scold me for considering such a frivolous purchase. I was wrong. It was my single serving friend, smiling, pushing a stroller with a sleeping infant. I was so surprised to see her again I could only grin and say, “Hi!” F*cking backwoods Colorado, a lifetime away from Salt Lake, her new neice snoozing in the stroller. The damned Costco of all places. She smiled back, waved and made her way down the aisle. That was all.

Funny what connections can be made on the road. The passing parade sometimes lends you a chance to jump onto a float. And float is an apt term. Stuck in the melee of travel, you get get alone amongst hundreds of strangers. Not surpring how the desperate lonely there seek out some kind of connection, over drinks or no. Now that I scratch at that memory, I remind myself that my friend had only recently graduated high school. Nineteen years old. Far too young to drink in an airport bar. But I was paying, and vouched for her and the bartender left us alone. Figured she’s seen this setup before.

Funny what sticks, and what didn’t. All I knew about then is that I had a hangover for the record, and met another stranger who helped me out of boredom. With long distance travel, sometimes that’s all you need to make the wait not seem like waiting.

More about the ride back later. The apocryphal trip home…


Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is a man without a country. Literally.

During his stay in NYC political upheaval has torn his homeland asunder. To put it plainly his country of Krakozhia doesn’t exist anymore. Viktor’s citizenship—his very nationality—has been revoked. He can’t go back home, because technically it ain’t there no more. So now he’s stuck JFK airport’s international arrivals terminal for the long haul. A very long haul, until some loophole in customs come to light.

This isn’t that uncommon in the historical annals of international air travel. Sometimes travelers can’t get to their desired destination for myriad reasons. Political matters, yes, but at least there’s a place to go to. Normally Viktor’s plight would be handled with a minimum of fuss, drenched in paperwork, red tape and waiting on a phone call returned from the Krakozhian embassy.

Normally. There is a spanner in the works at JFK regarding Viktor’s exit: customs director Frank Dixon (Tucci) and his impending promotion. See, our castaway is a prime example—albeit of a unique circumstance—of what Customs tries to avoid. Prevent would be a better word. Displaced peoples. Dixon has been zealous in his duties, his reputation impeccable. His responsibilities keeping JFK ship-shape have never floundered, so Dixon’s on the deserved up-and-up.

Now Frank has Viktor. Quite the possible blemish on his sterling record. This will not stand, so to unload his misguided frustrations and ire, Frank makes Viktor’s non-life a bureaucratic hell. Sign this, sign that. Don’t do this and don’t do that. How dare does this backwater Eastern Bloc yahoo screw with his smooth-running airport?

Due to international law and basic protocol, Dixon can’t just toss the waylaid Viktor out onto the street, nor can he send him back “home” either. The guy’s stuck there in the IAB, forced to etch a new life as a refugee with no cash, no English, with just his luggage and the clothes on his back.

Oh, and his can of peanuts. Can’t forget the peanuts…


I had to watch The Terminal in two sessions. It was over two hours long, I got tired and had to get to work the next day at an ungodly early hour. That and my attention started to waver by the start of the second act. When I start watching the timer, such does not bode well for a positive critique of the weekly mangling.

My attention started to fail when I began to silently ask the movie, “Where are we going with this?” (perhaps also to the two or nine beers I had consumed). To put it quick, Terminal had got to be one of the most winding road trip movie I ever saw. And seeing our protag never gets to go anywhere outside the airport also made for a weird viewing experience. Don’t misunderstand that. The Terminal is about going places, but it’s all inward, revolving about our waylaid hero Viktor. The atmosphere is alluding to the guy finishing his journey, by hook, crook or redeemed passport book, but the whole process is akin to that Rush lyric (quit moaning): “The point of a journey is not to arrive.” Whatever that means.

But think about it. Another cliche: getting there is half the fun. Precious few films I’ve just given up on here at RIORI. Most because they were boring, insipid, poorly written or a melange of alla dat. I lose patience. The whole timer watching thing. Darted my eyes up and down between the film and the Blu-Ray readout. Like I said: does not bode well for this duck.

Then I remembered Terminal was a Spielberg flick, and the man often takes his time setting up the story. Beat as I was, I wasn’t so thick to give up so soon. The first act of Terminal was not boring, insipid, or poorly written. But it was rambling. Couldn’t figure where Viktor’s odyssey was headed. Barring the hook/Maguffin of the peanut can, The Terminal felt like rote Spielberg. Still I maintained enough curiosity to keep going. Even if it took two nights. Three, actually. I said I was late and it was tired.

Halfway through my viewing I remembered a short interview with Spielberg courtesy of AMC. It wasn’t a kitchen table thing, just a short-lived gimmick the network employed to promote new movie remakes (in theatrical or soon-to-be theatrical release) against the originals in their library. The example: dateline 2005. Steve was going to unleash his version of HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds that summer, so AMC did their due diligence in broadcasting Byron Haskins’ original 1953 outing about malevolent Martians laying waste to humanity one Saturday evening. Remastered!

I really dug the original, and sorry, forget director Haskins’ vision. This War was special effects guru George Pal’s baby all the way that time out (I believed after eventually watching Spielberg’s version, he paid more homage to Pal’s vision rather than Byron-what’s-his-tits). I learned later that Pal’s take was a thinly veiled allegory about Communist invasion—both mindset and body—seeping into post-war America, what with all it amazing consumer and technological advancements (read: modern conveniences. Who would’ve though self-cleaning ovens could shake the Iron Curtain so?). When I was 12, I just dug the tension, desperation and very cool, ahead of its time F/X. Did I mention that?

During those fateful weekend viewings, Steve shilled his new project between commercials. Naturally he laid much praise on Pal’s movie. More on the F/X, natch. He also shared his muse that drove his version. Perhaps also inspired by the second into third act storyline of the original film, Steve brought up the notion of the “refugee experience.” This left-field musing caught my attention (right before the sponsor Scope tore me out of my reverie). From an alien invasion film? Really?

Then I finally caught Spielberg’s version. Despite the violence, ear-crushing Dolby digital and an out-of-place Tom Cruise, I grokked to where the man was going. Great swathes of Spielberg’s film involved desperate humans bolting for survival, their country in upheaval, fleeing for shelter and REDACTED a crazed Tim Robbins. Folks driven for normalcy via wit, grit and both. Steve’s War in that light was a culmination of sorts regarding literal refugee stories like Empire Of The Sun and The Sugarland Express, if not Jaws and Close Encounters in a metaphorical sense.

The Terminal is a very literal refugee experience. But from the inside out. Within Spielberg’s healthy id and his sentimental superego. Viktor is the uber innocent abroad, but like Rush alluded it’s not Viktor’s destination that really matters, It’s how he manages to survive, a la Empire. On the run the whole time. Not from invading aliens. From time. And a dogged government official. Gotta respect the FAA.

Hanks’ Viktor is indeed a refugee. So when plunked into an environment not of his own making, what to do? Right. Create a suitable (new) life, if only to establish a new normal and keep sane. Once I woke up and carried on after the second act and into the third, my befuddlement leaned into empathy for our hapless hero. It’s made clear at the outset that Viktor is no rube. Sure, there’s a language barrier. But that’s it. I don’t know about you (and the following might be on the cusp of racist), but where I work a great portion of my co-workers serve English as a second language. Half of the time Spanish, Farsi and Arabic spoken there. I only know enough Spanish to know when someone is talking about me (“Se hombre tiene schnozzola grande“), and I’ve never had a three day layover in Riyadh, so there.

That irks me. Not the non-layover. But feeling dumb that I have this lingual deficiency. Constantly being reminded of my insular American-ness makes me feel like, well an American and a casual Trump disciple. So I’ve been accused. In Farsi. Our Viktor isn’t dumb, regardless of how Americans regard non-Americans who don’t savvy the language.

That being said, I harken back to a recent installment (#70, Garry Marshall’s Georgia Rule) where I offered to critic of that film a favor. I owe AllMovie critic Terry Seibert a dinner, too. This time with a glass of wine. Like I said, I was a tad befuddled by where the hell Spielberg was taking me with The Terminal. Seibert sent me on the course. That aforementioned curious tableau The Terminal offered with a two-plus day viewing demanded me to check out AllMovie’s take. Like I said I’m a “believe it when I see it (literally)” kind of guy, but once in a while I get all confuzed and need some insight. Seibert’s take set me straight.

Better put, Seibert gave me some perspective. Tom Hanks is a good, reliable actor. A 21st Century Jimmy Stewart. But Hanks CV has been rather spotty overall compared to his legacy contemporary. Sure, Hanks eventually hit a stride in the early-90s, but only after bumbling through his salt mine 80s. Can’t really think of many good Hanks flicks between being Kip for two measly seasons of Bosom Buddies and the doggie slobber that was Turner And Hooch. Not to say there weren’t some bright spots peeking from behind clouds of pratfalls and goony histrionics. There was Big, of course. A breakthrough. But also minor goodies like Punch LineSplash and to a lesser degree Nothing In Common, his first stab at drama. Why cite these and not the chewy goodness of Dragnet and The Man With One Red Shoe (better not to ask)? Listed above suggested the key to Hanks’ appeal that Seibert plainly said about the actor’s motivation in The Terminal.

Hanks is a good listener. Or rather, his characters on screen are good listeners. When they carefully take in the world around them—or dumped into, like Viktor—they take the necessary time to figure out what’s going on and what to do with it, as well as thoughtfully interact with the other characters. That’s when the Viktor’s of Hanks’ oeuvre take flight. Even when screaming at a volleyball.

Along with Big, Forrest Gump (a no-brainer, so to speak) and even Saving Private RyanThe Terminal gets its proverbial mileage from Hanks observing his environment and weighing the options offered up by people he meets along the way. The aforementioned films have ensemble casts, as does Terminal. The only difference is that our protagonist is not part of the ensemble. Not really.

Here’s how that works. Our setting—the titular terminal—is the real protagonist of the movie. Viktor’s just its avatar. JFK International a federal law teems. May not be Salt Lake City (but then again, where is?), but I’ll bet you a silk pajama that at least a million travelers tear through that airport each week in a running at full clip OJ Simpson fashion. In a good way (I think). And despite Viktor’s claustrophobic cultural exile, we sure can see a lot of space. Said space allows Viktor to “explore America,” get some bearings and permits our Cold War Gump to take us on the trip also. The terminal—a world unto itself—lets us be Hanks’ Link to JFK’s Hyrule.

You’re welcome, Switch users and abusers.

What I’m driving at there (“It’s dangerous to travel alone! Take this” Ha ha and sorry) is how the many lives fold into Viktor’s adventure. What I’m getting at here is the supporting cast. At heart, Terminal is a character study. Sure, Viktor is our avatar against the backdrop of the omnipresent terminal, but how he wends his way towards whatever depends almost solely on (as Blanche’s been over-quoted) “the kindness of strangers.” We have a lot of cool strangers indeed to rely on here. Barring Viktor, but not snubbing the principals, the motley, reluctant crew at his sides really makes Hanks shine. He’s a listener, right? At first glance, Hanks’ language barrier looks like only be used for derivative comic effect. It’s only later that we learn it’s his only defense against being regarded as some patsy or rube. Viktor ain’t dumb. He’s perceptive. Also earnest. To the people around him and later rally around him. Or don’t.

That’s good there. Let’s start with Viktor’s nemesis, Frank. Tucci is always great at being smarmy. It’s his signature, and it works wonders here as the antagonist. Frank’s not a bad guy, just a tad overzealous in his job. We know folks like that, worked for folks like that. Are folks like that. Tucci’s Dixon is a prime example of the old saw: characters don’t have to be likable. Maybe not even relatable (likable’s red-headed stepchild). No. They have to be interesting. What’s Frank’s damage? Beyond the demands of his (potential) new post? Felt kind of a Napoleon complex here, and not just cuz Hanks is 6′ and Tucci is a subaverage 5’7″ (really. Those stats are correct. I Googled it, and I’m a lame-o. That stat is also correct). Dixon’s the classic case of someone who has something to prove to himself by proving it to everyone. A real heavyweight. Against the patient, curious, resourceful and without a network Viktor, his ire and contemptuousness makes for a delicious brew of conflict. Sure, Tucci comes over as a bit over the top in his pursuit, but it feels…well, like natural acting. He’s slimy (for a good example, watch Big Night or The Core, covered here earlier). His slow burn works especially well as Dixon’s underlings begin to regard clever Viktor with more respect than their boss. Like I said, Dixon’s not a bad guy. He’s just a bad listener.

The supporting cast was awesome, and I’m not just talking the actors. Like the terminal, the folks on the fringes add to the world as human fishbowl microcosm (did that make sense?). As Viktor attempts a new life in exile, he bumps into a lot of other displaced persons along the way. Viktor may be alone in a crowd, but that makes him the ideal pinion for the often invisible people that make an airport run, run. Thanks to “local hero” Viktor we get to meet the “real New York.”

I must admit, I really loved the supporting players here. All touchstones of Viktor’s muddled psyche, and all trying to point the way, if only in a low-rent, surreal kinda fashion. Each minor player had their own fleshed-out story. Most ancillary players in an ensemble film are usually just chess pieces shoved around to keep the narrative dutifully chugging onwards. Not here. Chi McBride, of whom I am quite the fan (ever since his turn as cigar-chewing, philosopher king janitor Heavy Gene on The John Larroquette Show back in the ancient 90s) was a delight. Channeling Gene here, his baggage tosser Joe is brash, yet still savvy to the needs of the anonymous millions he disservices (and quite cagey in scoping out their valuable errata). The guy knows stuff and has no misgivings about waxing poetic about the basic needs of people. His whole schtick reminds me fondly of that Robert Fulghum essay about chicken-fried steak (visit your local library). Joe is the guru Viktor needs to get his sh*t together, while all the while gathering more “sh*t.” Namely, finding your place in the midst of life, wherever that place may be. Now play cards.

Diego Luna was not an actor I was immediately familiar with, but (as they say, whoever they are. They is usually me, and I don’t know anybody) he “has that face.” Right; I saw him in Elysium, also covered here (vol 3, installment 1) and did some voice work for the well-received Book Of Life. He also did this little thing later called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So that. Guy’s been around. Here? He’s the hapless romantic figure. An oft dodgy prospect in most roles of such ilk. But I giggled a lot here thanks to his performance. That’s right: giggled, and not in a down-the-nose kinda way. Luna’s Enrique was a sweet, hapless romantic, a la Roberto Begnini and starring towards piece of Viktor’s fractured presence.

Did I mention that thing? That I found the supporting cast as representing aspects of Viktor’s psyche? Like a Greek chorus? The terminal being the grey matter dictating Viktor’s adventure, the minor players serves insight into our hero’s fractured voyage. If Chi was the sage—a wiseass sage to be sure—then Luna was the romantic, soft for stalwart Saldana and using Viktor’s supposed innocence as an ideal Cyrano. Must’ve sparked something in Viktor’s imagination, as well as his unwanted isolation to attempt to get all close to Amelia.

Ah. Sorry to be so abrupt (no I ain’t. This yer first time here?). Here we take the pipe. Jones’ Amelia is too fluffy and not fleshed out, perhaps on purpose. If that’s the case, then boo, Steve. Right on, she’s nice on the eyes, yes, but as a valuable addition to the chorus? Not so much. She comes across as an afterthought; some sort of device—perhaps a MacGuffin—to bolster Viktor’s unwinding story. Don’t get me wrong. Jones’ is a decent actress, often sly and funny. Some claim she’s pretty. She’s neither here (not the pretty part. She looks like my wife when I want her to. Love you, Seej! Don’t change the locks!). I figure we gotta have some wart festering in a tale like this. A cast of tens needs at least one square peg, right? Uh, wait. Dixon filled that slot. Jones had only three distinct spots here, and almost all of it fluttery and spineless, like she knew her role was superfluous and either incapable or unneeded of rising to the likes of, say, Kumar Pallana’s Yoda-like Gupta.

He was a trick, meaning he fooled me. Y’ever come across a guy who’s a real pest? Well-meaning and sharp but lacking the social skills to know when to shut the f*ck up? I work with a guy like that. Maybe you do too. Story time! Yet again! Shut up!

The kitchen I sweat at has at least three utility guys on the clock all day long. Utility? Read: dishwashers. One of them is a loud, boorish, jabber box off the first water. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. For those not in the know, Asperger’s is a high-functional type of autism. Namely, those that make their way in the world by abiding to their personal rules that guide them through the day. Like most of us, which means we don’t call for V-E-R-N when Tom Cruise rifles through our library. Unlike most of us however, when something occasionally goes awry (as it sometimes does), we try to not get very pissy and only chill when homeostasis is re-established. When the flow is restored. No. All is well when the system is in place, on certain terms. Take that away and Hail Columbia. In the interim, you can’t talk to the guy. He’s a raging torrent of profanity who looks eager to take a swing at you. Sometimes he does. No matter. He’s pesky. He means well overall. And if he doesn’t shut his trap when all’s on the level again YOU’RE gonna get ready at bat.

Gupta was kinda like that to me (especially considering how he wielded his mop). Pallana was mouthy, sour and the ideal Spielbergian avatar as emotional center for Viktor’s chorus. He was my fave character, though not at first. He reminded me a bit too much of my proto-Rain Man co-worker (do not ever f*ck with the guy’s system about stacking pots. I have nine fingers now. Kidding. Eight fingers and a thumb). Eventually my patience was rewarded. Gupta’s sagacity reflected Viktor’s trevails, but in a subtle, rather crafty way. Gupta’s presence was a slow build. A very slow build. Like Vik, get patient. Don’t stack the pots yourself. Just listen to the scamp; he knows sh*t. Viktor’s good at listening. With Gupta, Viktor/Hanks learned how to be selective in what to listen too. We eventually learn through Pallana’s ultra-subtle acting/characterization that prickly can often be dismissed beyond empathy and wisdom. That being said, I learned how to replace the detergent block in the dish machine to make those agony-inducing, digital bleeping screams go away for a while. Viktor learned fast to whom should be heard.

Terminal might be the most angular film Spielberg ever cut, and maybe on purpose. Couldn’t escape the feeling of a message being conveyed. Not sure of the message, but so much of the film seemed deliberate. That’s not bad thing; angular does not necessarily mean absent of nuance. The supporting chorus paired against Viktor’s crafty self cured that…with patience. Still, beyond any obvious human condition thang and Speilberg trademark humanity, Terminal was approaching some kind of statement. Again, not sure what, but the smell of that lingered. Might’ve had to do with how clever the movie played out. That deliberate feeling reflected when Viktor REDACTED his adopted home. It felt like a crafty descent into being clever. The entire film is clever in a very cheeky way, but it takes aeons to figure that out. That being said, Terminal is a voyage into the human condition, stuffed illegally into the overhead compartment with a lot of emotion, coat-tugging, willful disappointment, a lame Catherine Zeta-Jones and a dedicated appreciation for jazz. Something for everyone. Just keep your ears as open as your eyes. And mind the pots.

In hindsight, Spielberg’s 1989 misfire Always (which I enjoyed, thanks to the great cast replete with the likes of Dreyfuss, Goodman, Hunter and Keith David [!]) feels like a dry run for Terminal‘s story of being “lost” and eventually “finding the way again” metaphor. Sure, it was a 15 year gestation, but certain things need to take their good ol’ time. In that aspect Terminal was a minor miracle. A tale of naked human emotion that didn’t need Kleenex. Instead of rubbing your palms together, genuflecting and demanding of the sky, “What does it all mean?” we got, “Huh…” and (hopefully) later, “Ohhh.” Then break out the peanuts, please.

Airports tend to be dehumanizing, as I said. We’re all but airfares and lemmings. That actual building, the one embedded into concrete is the real master of air travel. Public charging stations, fees for fees, Dan Brown paperbacks with Hanks’ mug on the cover and all them cat o’ nine tails upon the Carlin-esque pre-boarding process. After watching The Terminal, I took some small solace in knowing I wasn’t all alone in such massive spaces, whether in major hub Salt Lake or parking lot Durango, CO (with or within the lost single-serving). Sure, we see the passing parade at the time. On the streets, in a mall, even on FaceBook. But for a singularity of purpose—getting the f*ck away—enjoy a layover.

That might’ve been the message I was grafting onto the character study that was The Terminal. Could’ve sworn I heard something…


Epilogue…

Oh yeah. That return flight home.

You ever get lucky on a flight and have the entire row to yourself? Me neither, but en route back from Colorado I scored the next best thing: an empty seat between my rump and another poor schlub stuck on the same red eye. Never caught his name, but I remember being the first to suggest that we slap the armrests back and get some breathing room.

He was a software developer, from Seattle (hmm) on some junket and claimed feeling like he was paying rent here with so many whistle stops. I told him about me being a recent college grad and where I was departing from. From Montrose, CO to Salt Lake City—pushing three hours with the headwind—we chatted and joked about (then early) Internet tech, family, the delights of modern air travel, college and I shared my tale about my single-serving friend. Both our arms were crooked over the vacant headrest. We we able to swivel our legs inwards to maintain circulation as well as avoiding a brusque encounter with the errant beverage cart. The time flew. We had a grand conversation. Amazing what a bit of legroom could do. Best return flight ever.

He asked me about the Black Canyon. Always wanted to hike in Colorado but duty calls. He asked me if I recommended the Canyon to meet his curiosity. I ended that hike wheezing so hard I lost my cigarettes halfway up the ascent and found myself sucking on an oxygen mask like Ginger Lynn readying the money shot.

Of course I said yes. Wear the proper shoes. Worn out Doc Martin’s make for lousy climbing. You heard it here and it was the 90s.

You may now return your flight attendant to her full, upright position.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Be patient, my friends. The payoff will come. Hanks is a good actor. He doesn’t push and pull. He’s lost but hopeful. He’s patient. He’s a good listener. Be like Hanks.

Steve is also hopeful. Also patient. A good listener. He makes nice movies. His win awards. Good luck being like Steve.


Stray Observations…

  • “America is closed.” Says it all.
  • BORDERS. Kind of on the nose there. But I do miss that chain, sorry. I have another story to tell there about how I got married. I just need to see the proper movie to introduce that rant. I am strict.
  • “She’s a Trekkie!” No…way.
  • I got a feeling that Viktor’s awkward posture was a ruse. Can’t put a finger on how, though.
  • “I hate Tuesdays!”
  • Always took a shine to a resourceful hero type. Must be latent “MacGyver” nostalgia/fandom.
  • “He love that goat.” Wink.
  • That being noted, we got some odd humor going on here. Uneasy, jittery. Post-911 perhaps? Again?
  • “You don’t like fish.”
  • This is the polar opposite of Munich, right? Right?!?
  • “Success.” Irony not lost.

Next Installment…

If you thought one was bad, try dealing with Seven Psychopaths, Clarice.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 71: Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005)



The Players…

Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Clarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler, with Mathieu Amalric, Alylet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale and Lynn Cohen.


The Story…

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of healthy competition amonst nations, highlighting athletic prowess and cultural pride. It’s a show of goodwill amongst nations, to come together and cheer for favorite sons and daughters. It’s supposed to be almost familial, not political.

Supposed to be.

So when Palestinian terrorists hold hostage and ultimately kill a group of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the tragedy prompts the Mossad to track down the assassins and deliver justice.

Whoever wins this race will not get a medal.


The Rant…

Steven Spielberg. One of the most popular, esteemed directors in the history of American cinema. Heck, maybe the most popular across the globe. Man’s had more movie hits than Jordan’s had slam dunks. His style of storytelling is so wide-eyed and visceral audiences can’t help but be drawn into his many, many celluloid worlds. He’s done it all: suspense, sci-fi, comedy, drama, fantasy, everything save porn (and he probably has a project about that in the works. Historical drama, of course. With squeegees).

For a lot of you I’m willing to wager that Spielberg’s films taught you to love the movies. Sure did for me, if only for the fact the first flick I saw in a for-real theater was a Spielberg flick. I was six years old and properly damaged in head so that now you’re reading this snarky blog. Pros and cons abound.

I was six, knew nothing about going to the movies, simply because I had yet to go to a damned theatre. I was six, couldn’t reach the pedals. That’s what grown-ups are for, and my parents got hip to this new, big deal movie in theaters. They friends caught it, raved and insisted they catch it, too. This is how legacies are created.

For reasons lost to a spotty memory, mom and dad got the idea to bring me along to see this blockbuster. Me. Dopey, six-year old, when’s the new Lego catalog coming out me? Damn. This…this was something. My folks never invited my booger-eating butt out with them for grown up things. At least fun things. Meet The Teacher night didn’t count. Even being a mere stripling, my gut new this was something. Something BIG. I mean forget the babysitter big, li’l me was going out for a night on the town with mom and dad to see a MOVIE. In a THEATRE. With POPCORN and SODAS you drank from a wheelbarrow and above all else, staying up PAST MY BEDTIME (okay, it was a weekend, but still). I didn’t know about beer and sex yet, so this whole package was epic. In some ways, a bigger deal than booze and p*ssy, and a lot less messy, barring the cinema floor.

An aside: What the hell is up with that? You’ve waded through it every premier night. Is it Coke mixed with discarded Gummi Bears dappled with Velcro? Probably closer to the truth than comfort allows. Yick.

Anyway, speaking of a babysitter, didn’t need one that night. At least didn’t. My kid sisters were waylaid for the evening by the teen up the street. Big bro was gonna paint the town red. That’s what it felt like anyway. As a little kid I had no concept of what a big night out was, only that when the sitter was called on to watch my little sisters and “big” me while mom and dad trotted off into the night a came home super late (almost 9:30), something special went down when that front door closed shut. Even if it was merely for a new movie. An R-rated movie probably, so no kids. Sigh.

Keeping that in mind, the ‘rents invited me to see a PG movie. Okay for kids, right? So long the P’s provided proper G, all would be okay (y’know, like intense scenes that reflexively make go grab mom’s arm). That was my folks’ logic it seemed. Besides, this film got rave reviews, and a Spielberg movie to boot!

Um, who?

I was six, remind you. The peak of visual entertainment for me were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and the original Looney Tunes on the Bugs And Daffy Show that rounded out Saturday morning TV programming. I loved Chuck “How The Grinch Stole Christmas/Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote” Jones. Guess that showed a modicum of taste.  No clue what that name meant (please refer to the Sahara installment to better illustrate my cinematic ignorance). We didn’t own a VCR yet. Early 80s and such. The movies were the big time, and that being said Mom and Dad actually dressed up for this event. And me too. It would’ve been considered business casual nowadays, but being six doffed with a college prof turtleneck and khakis around my waist…hell, might as well have been a tux. To this day, even though I don’t get dressed up for it, going to catch a movie in a theatre is alwaysspecial event for me. It ain’t the Oscars red carpet, true, but I have access to a monster pouch of Twizzlers and the Afflecks do not. I win, always.

The place is lost on me, but I recall my parents taking me out to eat before the show. At a real restaurant. With menus! I was used to the occasional jaunt to McDonald’s (especially when they were giving away dinky Lego sets with the Happy Meals. Good times, good times), but this was another new experience. Namely,we had to wait for our food, at least longer that 30 seconds. Another experience of the kind of grown-up fun I was missing simply by being too short. Now life was happening.

We ate and left for the mall. That’s where the cineplex was. Like a dozen theaters. Big deal hub for a movie hungry crowd. To me it was like Grand Central, so many busy lines and crowds of people. It was the weekend, mind you. Not much has changed in the past 30-plus years when it came to venturing out to cinemaland on a Friday. Then I clung to my mom, praying I didn’t get lost, stomped on or stolen away to wherever kids are sentenced when they stay up past their bedtime, big boy khakis or no.

Never fear. The big people knew the way. They paid for the tickets and the popcorn (I got a f*cking bale of the stuff, bucket bigger than my pre-puber old head. Like I said, some things haven’t changed much), so they had the kings to the kingdom. They found seats. The theater was packed to the gunwales with eager cinemaphiles. Never I had seen so many people crammed into a single room, and the room itself was miles wide. It was like being in a hangar, minus the planes. Felt like thousands of people were attendant, but I was a kid. EVERYTHING in the place felt huge and out of proportion. Especially that screen. That big, big screen. We had a modest 24 inch set at home. Here, in the gloaming, amongst all the other grown-ups out “late” on a Friday, that massive screen was the Monolith and I was a mere, scrabbling chimp. A big deal.

I’ll cut to the chase. The lights went low, the previews played (probably a simple three, rather than the present half-hour plus parade these days, with NO commercials), and the declaration that as the letters encircled an image of Earth, Universal presented the movie. Funny what sticks.

I felt a palpable hush, an electric feeling of anticipation. I knew I had one, turtleneck vibrating. I was wedged between mom and dad, mutual easy access for an arm to cling to. This was PG territory, mind you. The big leagues. And big it was. The show began, the title faded into view and I strapped in.

It was called ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

What the hell was an “extra-terrestrial?” I was intrigued. And well-rewarded for my interest.

The rest is mystery. Welcome to RIORI.

Another aside: I feel it necessary to say the next film I caught that year in a for-real theatre (I recall it being a birthday thing) was Star Wars: A New Hope in re-release. Doubtless whetting fans appetites for Return Of The Jedi coming soon to a theatre near me. To which I felt after seeing Lucas’ space epic that I needed, neededMillennium Falcon. Alas, too short. Couldn’t reach the pedals or synch the hyperdrive. Probably woulda crashed into a moon anyway. Nuts.

So yeah, my first intro to Spielberg was my first film seen in a theatre. Not a bad way to start, and it probably explains a lot. Like this bilious blog you dolts keep on visiting. Thanks, BTW.

It’s understood that Spielberg is one of the most esteemed, popular and vital directors in film history. That goes without saying. And of course his ET properly tampered with my mind when it came to watching movies. I say tampered because the guy’s talent sometimes overrides common sense.

An example? For reasons only know to the cinema gods, I got wrapped up one summer as a teen with his Jaws. Watched it everyday, alternately enthralled and freaked out. It was almost an every afternoon ritual for me to watch Robert Shaw get chomped in two. At my grandparents’ summer place. On Fire Island. A postage stamp of a summer ville bookended by the Atlantic and the Great South Bay. Water on both sides. I steered clear of the beach and watched it over and over. I was a doofus.

Another example? This not nearly as dopey, but the Spielberg touch gave up the whammy again. I’ve spoke of this here before, but I feel it bears repeating.

Dateline: late summer, 1998. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is making the cinematic rounds, and gobbling up both critical praise and oodles of tickets at the box office. Hype could not be ignored, so my father and I caught it.

We indeed caught something.

Mom came home from work and saw us, post-viewing, chain-smoking on the porch. She asked how our day out was. We said it was good. She asked how the movie was. We said it was good. We kept smoking. She politely shrugged, went inside and let us be.

A more telling aspect of Spielberg’s light touch was when dad and I were in the theatre. The opening scene. The storming of Normandy. Bullets and screaming and amputees and blood and screaming. When Tom Hanks’ Capt Miller makes it to the beachhead and alternates between commanding his troops and relaying what the f*ck’s happening with the comm officer, when he sees the comm no longer has a face, me at 22 years old, reached over and clasped my dad’s hand. Hard. He squeezed back. Hard.

Good work, Steve. Good work.

*pant*

Let me reel it in now. Dad quit smoking. I go through a lighter a day. Damn you, Spielberg.

*sigh”

But after all my gushing, not all of Speilberg’s movies have been so compelling. By compelling I mean good. He’s had a few duds, mind you. Either outright lame-brained or stalled at the gates duds. To paraphrase Mick, even Jesus had his moment of doubt and pain. Which is why I called you all here today, and I ain’t talkin’ old time religion. Please adjust your turtlenecks.

Steve may have a golden touch, but you really can’t be regarded as a great director without having laid a few turds in your punchbowl. For every Vertigo, Hitchcock cut a Family Plot. For every Harold And Maude, Ashby cut an 8 Million Ways To Die. For every Paths Of Glory, Kubrick cut a Killer’s Kiss (betcha never heard of that one let alone saw it. Don’t) It’s the old truth: how can you gage what’s great if you have nothing bad to measure it against? You need a Vanilla Coke to chase that Crystal Pepsi.

Spielberg has had a few missteps. His proper cinematic debut was the loud, goofy and overly offbeat Sugarland Express. He followed with his breakout, the first blockbuster Jaws with the wondrous, engaging sci-fi Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (the best The Day The Earth Stood Still rip-off ever) with the, um, loud, goofy and overly offbeat comedy dreck 1941. Most of his stuff in the late-80s came across as stiff or underdeveloped, but not without ambition. The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun (which gave the world Christian Bale), even the remake of the Spencer Tracy vehicle A Guy Named JoeAlways had their merits, but without the verve Spielberg has been known for. Resting on laurels?

Perhaps, but there have been stone cold duds in his CV. Hook springs immediately to mind. The Lost World is another stillborn. The Terminal confused audiences (more on that later, like next installment). What he was aiming at with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and The BFG approached a retreat to six-year old kiddie fare wearing khakis.

*wink*

However, the missteps sometimes take time to sink in as decent films in the end run. Cinematic history regards Empire Of The Sun as a dry run for stuff like Schindler’s List and especially (you guessed it) Saving Private RyanThe Color Purple addresses lesbian love, albeit in a very PG-13 way. In the 80s. That counts for something I feel. And War Horse brought his fascination with military history full circle, like saying: “Hey. Important sh*t happened prior to my birth!” Then enter Lincoln.

The point I’m getting at (and I do have one) is that there might be a difference between bearing the mantle of one of the world’s greatest directors gauged against his failings. Here it’s not the “good vs bad” argument. It’s the influence against the expectation here. I equate this to an interview with writer Joseph Heller, author of the famed and seminal Catch-22. Something about him being accused of not writing anything else as good as 22.

His candid response? “That might be true, but nobody else has either.”

So go watch Empire Of The Sun. Maybe again. Back to China in the 40s and beyond.

Today, Germany in the 70s beckons.

So stay up late, clean the gunk off the microscope lens and put on your turtleneck…


A terrifying, despicable thing went down in Munich, 1972’s host city of the Summer Olympics. An act of terrorism. An act political reaction. An act of murder. Murders.

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of countries to hang up their differences, keep the sabers sheathed and work it out on the battlefield of athletic competition. It’s not supposed to political, at least not overtly.

A cadre of Palestinian terrorists feel otherwise, and in the dead of night break into the Olympic Village and take the Israeli track team hostage, demanding safe passage home as well making a statement to the world that Palestine wants its independence from Israel. So much for athletics over differences.

The camera crews are at the ready, the whole world is watching, and of course nothing goes well. The whole Israeli team is slaughtered. The ones who pulled the triggers escape. And leaves a mess of red tape interwoven an international crime to be solved.

Not solved. Avenged.

Enter lowly Mossad desk jockey Avram Kaufmann (Bana). A lifetime ago in his career he was a soldier, a field officer, the man with connections. Now, quaint domesticity, his expectant wife and a safe, albeit boring job. Life could be nothing simpler.

Then the Munich massacre. Enter Ephraim (Rush), the man with the plan.

You see, Avner has that certain something—namely being raised in Germany—which may loan some cultural insight as to how in the world did what happened happened. These terrorists weren’t acting independently you see. They were funded. About a dozen high-end Palestinian sympathizers funded this hit, and they need to be investigated, sought out and be brought to justice.

Wait, that’s not correct. They need to be executed.

This is not a mission of uncovering an international crime ring. Ephraim puts it plain to Avner, his chosen angel.

This is about revenge…


Munich was not Spielberg’s first foray into historical fiction. Well all know about Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan (which indeed was inspired by a true WW2 story) and maybe Empire Of The Sun. All great films via Spielberg’s lens. However Munich was the overtly dark historical fictions I’ve ever seen by the man. It was so intense, and beyond the actual investigation tactics and, well, murder tactics. Munich has got an equal amount of intrigue balanced by a lot of graphic gunfire and explosions. In some way, this stuff came across as more dire circumstances than storming the beaches of Normandy or a no exit train ride to Auschwitz. At least as Spielberg spun it.

I’m not downplaying what the man brought to film with above two. It’s just that Munich is a different beast. It’s ugly. I mean need a chemical shower ugly. List and Ryan had an element of hope attatched to them. Munich is as cynical as…well, me. And even I was disturbed. I mean, I never killed anyone in the name of vengeance, but after watching Munich I could sympathize.

Does that make me a bad person (beyond my bleak worldview)? I don’t think so. Munich hits you on a gut level, blurs the corners between good and bad and eventually throws the whole tale into the confusing, emotional Cuisinart. It gets jarring, but feels so pure you can’t help but not press pause even if to take a leak. Okay, admittedly I had to pee a few times. A two and a half hour viewing warrants that; I’m only human. Beer does that, but I felt a bit guilty letting this film wait for me. Munich waited for no one. And especially not my distended bladder.

Sorry. I was saying:

I’ve noticed a different aesthetic in his films he takes an emotional, personal, almost gritty stance then when he’s just having fun. The guy has a signature with “looking at things” with either awe, disgust and/or terror. It’s all about drawing you in and digest what’s going down. That being said it may go without saying: Jaws was fun to watch in a terrifying sense. Close Encounters was fun to watch in a mindbending sense. Raiders was fun to watch in a fun sense. Those stories invites empathy with the characters. But when the man ain’t screwing around he throws down the gauntlet. Mentioned before his historical fictions don’t mess around, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. Munich espouses no hope, and with all the engaging spygame, I think I know why.

Munich was too close to home, even if you weren’t extant in 1972. However I’m willing to wager you were alive in September, 2001.

Munich—couched in historical fiction—was the man’s (belated one may claim) 9/11 response. The film was one of the most telling, brilliant metaphor of the tragedy I’ve ever seen, on film or otherwise. Like I said, it blurs the corners. Over the course of 2-plus hours, the spygame goes from straight ahead to who are really the killers? The terrorists: are they the financiers of the slaughter? Or are they a reason for a crew of reactionary Israeli Jews creating elaborate hits to also make a political statement? The deeper you play, the more muddled the rules become. And at either end, it’s the dealer who walks away with the full deck. I got the chilling feeling watching Munich that its message (if there really was one) here lies within this question: “Who are the real terrorists?” The invaders or the invaded? Depends on the response/point of view. Like I said, an ugly-feeling notion, but he’s skilled at making you look at things.

Munich does feel like Spielberg, though. It’s a good thing here. It’s dark, cynical, deliberate and unnerving. Also good things (Always vs Raiders, remember?). It’s time then to chat about the technical things. One cannot have a melodrama of harrowing violence and a progressive examination of the futility of man without some flair. Despite Munich being a very un-Spielberg film at first watch, there are his fingerprints all over the movie. Duh, it still is his movie. Muted, but still.

Munich illustrates how the real spygame gets played. This ain’t no 007. Staging hits on the politically guilty is clumsy, grimy and messy most of the time being a slave to the watch. Bond may have been suave, and have the cool tech courtesy of Q getting his back, but Avner’s mission failed to have any Alfa Romeo ejection seat at the ready. As the movie moved on, every hit became less and less certain of “success.” More patchwork, damage control. Maverick. The crew getting more and more frantic, desperate. Almost all of Israeli nationalism on their sleep-dep shoulders. That aspect sorta had a classic spaghetti western feel; revenge, grease wheels for intel thudded against the wall, a motley crew of raw gunslingers, etc. It later feels like a dupe. Traditional Spielberg offbeat heroes against odds unsurmountable. That much is true, but foibles, mission and the aforementioned makes for some gripping tension.

Actually, smart tension may be a better phrase. Nothing here is flashy, like a la Bond again. No. It’s not visceral, either, though it may feel that way while watching. Here you can see what’s coming, but you don’t. There’s this edge. It’s the bleeding edge at the aforementioned blurry corners that bear investigation. We’ve learned over the course of the second act of the movie that Avner and co’s mission is a desperate one, but it might be a futile one. Sure, we know the terrorists are gonna get theirs’, but how about getting there? Everything is frail, fragile and could go off pop at any minute. It was made clear at the outset Ephriam dictated to Avner that he his on his own, and the Mossad knows nothing about Kaufmann, which makes his unique skills so viable. All are working in the shadows, and the shadows permits some mental downtime to consider…what? Who’s really the “bad guys?” Who’s the “avenging angels” of Israel (oh, yeah. For those non-partisan athletes who paid the ultimate cost)? Whose colluding with a very questionable informant giving up the intel for the next hit? Felt like a football’s field’s length away from Bond to me. Again, ugly and brilliant.

A great deal of this Spielbergian struggling empathy is channelled by our reluctant protag Avner. I’ll be the first guy in line to draw lots against Bana’s beheading, but after watching Munich, I quaver. Simply because I appreciate his steady, anti-slow descent invites him realizing anew a sense of purpose, if only his need to douse others’ sense of purpose, with booby-trapped phones and colluding with open secret crime families that market information. It’s established we don’t know who’s who, but Bana’s grim, renewed enthusiasm for being in the field again, fighting for Israel—his spiritual home—he begins to “enjoy” his job. It’s a fall from grace, and a grace from nothing else but equipped by a parachute of civic duty. And isn’t that what terrorists feel on the job? Yet again, ugly. Good work here, Dr Banner.

Munich is a spartan film, relentless in its self-examination yet we still never gauge who is who against what conflict. The whole nasty matter of the Israel olympians getting off is nothing more than an excuse to one-up one government against another claiming who has the bigger balls. Like what Israel claimed to Palestine here. Or what the US waggled to Iraq. Or maybe Iran. Maybe the Rothchilds. We all just don’t know, but there’s a “cause” out there we must fight for!

Finally, Munich is a film with many different shades, ultimately descending into charcoal. It’s very cynical, which attached to Spielberg might’ve led to its tepid response. Not to mention the insidious “terrorist sympathy.” Such stuff would’ve gotten the man on the blacklist back in the 50s. Fortunately today we only have to worry about the Tomatometer. Its shades makes one slowly scratch their head and maybe, just maybe peel away some scales. That might sound a big grand (and perhaps a bit sympathetic to the “other”), but the message squeaked through despite all the sociopolitical debris.

That is if you put aside this was a Spielberg film with no remorse as well as precious little hope.

It was satisfying, though. For all the post-viewing pondering.

So. To lighten things up, who’s ready for ET-X?

No? Okay. So will Tom Hanks work then?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately rewarding, Unlike other Spielberg’s “friendlier” flicks, you best watch this one by yourself, then come to your own reactionary conclusions. Go look in the mirror afterwards, then drain that lizard.


Stray Observations…

  • “I have the world’s most boring job.”
  • The period fashions (and haircuts) here are great. Not flashy, which is probably why the Academy snubbed that. Oscar likes shiny.
  • And that’s how you uncork a bottle.
  • “I’m proud of what you’re doing.” “You don’t know what I’m doing.”
  • Stalking terrorists is a risky business. Right…everyone?
  • “Everybody works for someone.”
  • Al Green makes everything okay.
  • You ever notice—barring the title card—almost all his movies never have any opening credits? Why is that? There must be a reason; I’m curious.
  • “It costs dearly, but home always does.”
  • “There is no medal or anything?”

Next Installment…

Part 2 of a 2 part study examining Spielberg’s missteps: Tom Hanks can’t fly home to his native land (since it don’t exist no more). Now he’s stuck on a layover from hell, his new home being The Terminal. Could be worse. He’s got Catherine Zeta-Jones to keep him company. We should all be so waylaid.