In his diatribe against Steven Spielberg's Munich, Leon Wieseltier writers:
The film is powerful, in the hollow way that many of Spielberg's films are powerful. He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings. Whatever the theme, he must ravish the viewer. Munich is aesthetically no different from War of the Worlds, and never mind that one treats questions of ethical and historical consequence and the other is stupid. Spielberg knows how to overwhelm. But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me? In other realms of life, this talent is known as demagoguery. There are better reasons to turn to art, better reasons to go to the movies, than to be blown away.
I do not generally count myself among Spielberg's defenders--there is something slick and hollow about many of his films--but I've just seen Munich (as well as The War of the Worlds), and I have to say that, while I've come to expect that Wieseltier's discussions of both films and fiction will be obstinately wooden-headed, the willful incomprehension in this "review" seems particularly thick. Although Wieseltier does at least in this instance make relatively clear the source of his discontent: he really doesn't care for art at all.
For Spielberg, Munich is a rather restrained exploration of moral ambiguity, although it perhaps does ultimately signal its theme--a man in a moral quandry--a little too intently. In my opinion, it does not in the least portray the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of "equivalence" or depict only "cruel Israelis with remorse and cruel Israelis without remorse," as Wieseltier charges. These are by now just the reflexive accusations always leveled at any treatment of this conflict that does not unequivocally take the side of the Israelis. (Note: I mostly take Israel's side myself. I think its cause is just, even while some of its actions have been counterproductive.) What it does is take the principle enunciated by Golda Meir early in the film--that the Jewish people must demonstrate they will no longer accept brutalities committed against them without a response--and examine how it actually plays out in practice. The film's protagonist decides that an eye for an eye is not itself an acceptable precept in a world where everyone has their grievances and innocent people cannot always be spared. This seems to me an entirely defensible response to his experience, and for Wieseltier to classify him as just another "cruel Israeli with remorse" is simply obtuse.
And, as even Wieseltier grudgingly admits, the film is very well made. In fact, in its understated exposition and its muted atmosphere, Spielberg risks alienating those in the mass audience who expect the usual bold-letter filmmaking from this director. So when Wieseltier complains of being "overwhelmed" and "manipulated" he is really protesting against aesthetic values in general. It's the same thing he did several years ago in taking John Updike to task for excessively pretty writing about 9/11/01 ("Such writing defeats its representational purpose because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. . .There are circumstances in which beauty is an obstacle to truth") and in reviewing Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, which in Wieseltier's world was too "cunning" and had the audacity to "come armored in ambiguity about its own character."
Ambiguity is something Wieseltier apparently cannot abide, especially when it comes dressed up as art, but of course ambiguity is the very essence of art. Without it, literature in particular becomes just another form of moral or political discourse (which is paradoxically what Wieseltier objected to in Checkpoint), but Wieseltier's aversion to being "ravished" by art is obviously so powerful that it is a price he would willingly pay. "There are better reasons to turn to art, better reasons to go to the movies." To be instructed in sanctimony, no doubt.
Leon Wieseltier is the sort of "moral critic" who makes me even more convinced that all approaches to art that don't first of all reckon in a conscientious way with its aesthetic qualities are just beside the point. He is a self-satisfied and self-righteous moralizer whose air of smug superiority hovers over every word he writes. "The only side that Steven Spielberg ever takes is the side of the movies," he proclaims, as if this was an appalling moral failure. But if the alternative is to accept the harsh and colorless conditions of Wieseltier's world, I'll sign up with Spielberg.