Spielberg Double Feature: Munich, War Of The Worlds, And The Darkness Of 2005
Though flooded with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's signature milky, heavenly light in many scenes, both Munich and War of the Worlds are at their most beautiful when they are at their darkest. Avner's first assassination, of the old man standing by his elevator in Italy, is lit spectacularly, concluding with the unforgettable shot of blood pooling into the puddle of milk. When Ray steps out of the basement to find the countryside covered in red vines made of human blood, it is surreal and gorgeous like a perverted Wizard of Oz-- and also one of the most sinister images Spielberg has ever concocted. Both films are shot roughly according to their genre, with Munich's zoom lenses and tight, emotional close-ups contrasting with War of the Worlds's massive action set pieces, but an abundance of night scenes and a bleak color palette imbue both films with the gloom reflected in their stories. They look fantastic, but unbelievably different from the poppy zip of Catch Me If You Can, the florid beauty of War Horse, or even the shiny, futuristic bleakness of Minority Report. They are rough and grim in a way that can't be separated from the present-- or the all-too-real past.
There is one shot in War of the Worlds in which Ray looks strikingly like Avner. Having killed Harlan, he crumples on the stairs of the basement in exhaustion and shock. Rachel (Dakota Fanning), having been blindfolded throughout the ordeal, goes to sit next to Ray, offering comfort to a father who has failed to connect with her at all until this point. Ray killed Harlan to protect Rachel, and Avner killed to protect family as well-- though not the wife and daughter who are now safe in Brooklyn. In their meeting at the beginning of the film, Golda Meir pointedly tells him, "Truth to be told, you don't look much like your father. Your mother is who you resemble." Later, his wife says it even plainer-- "Now you think Israel's your mother." It's that step removed, of being asked to consider an entire nation of people your mother, that makes Avner's fight so difficult-- killing others in the name of a flag, not the daughter who will comfort you after. At the end of War of the Worlds Ray reunites his family, and though he's still distant from his ex-wife, he has her gratitude. At the end of Munich, Avner has his final conversation with Geoffrey Rush's Ephraim, a representative of his "mother" who has to reassure Avner she is not trying to kill him. Avner asks Ephraim to break bread with him and his family; Ephraim walks away.
In nearly all films, Spielberg's included, killing in the name of family is the noblest, most necessary choice there is. In Spielberg's previous war films killing and dying in the name of country was just as vital, or at least respected-- but not in Munich. It is not just blockbuster genre standards or Tom Cruise starpower that makes Ray the clearer hero of Spielberg's 2005 films. It's his choice to fight for the only thing that matters-- family-- and to avoid any conflict beyond it. That's not the attitude Spielberg had with Saving Private Ryan, and it's not what he'd express six years later in War Horse, but it was the only one possible in 2005, when death and disaster and quagmire seemed endless in Iraq and in Israel's own ongoing conflict. It's jarring to look back and find the big-hearted, humanist Spielberg there; you want to jolt him forward to 2012 and the passion for American exceptionalism he showed in Lincoln. But pairing War of the Worlds and Munich provides an unforgettable, sobering portrait of America in the middle of the last decade, when heroism seemed so distant that the best choice was to hold close to loved ones and wait for the storm to pass.
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