Guilt. It’s a dish often served by Important movies that are Edifying for you. Waltz with Bashir serves up heaping helpings and makes you feel ashamed of being part of a human race that can do unspeakable things to other human beings–and then not even draw them well when you tell the story.
Disappointingly, the much-ballyhooed Waltzis more lecture than movie. It’s undoubtedly morally good for you to endure it, but the animation is second-rate. Structurally, the film is a lot like Richard Linklater’s far superior Waking Life, in that it used a series of conversations to try to distinguish the “truth” of real life from our collective dream world. But Linklater used Rotoscoping inventively to make the interviewees come alive. By contrast, Bashir’s writer-producer-director Ari Folman seems to want to deaden his characters. They come across as a bunch of sleepwalking zombies, and I suppose that’s the point.
Israeli conducted a war in Lebanon in 1982, or rather took advantage of a civil war to further its interests. Folman uses the story of his own supposed difficulty in remembering what he did during the war as a metaphor for Israel’s collective amnesia about the conflict. What’s most striking about the film is how weirdly surreal the conflict was, how life continued on the home front as if nothing was going on. Waltz with Bashir is at its strongest when it portrays how easy it is for a society to remain removed and insulated from a proxy war. America’s version, of course, is the war in Iraq.
But I didn’t believe for a moment that the story really played out the way Folman tells it–that his memories of the war were masked by post-traumatic stress disorder, surfacing only when he undertook the therapy of making the film. And while his indictment of Israeli complicity in the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps is thorough, viewers unfamiliar with the complex Lebanese civil war will find the particulars murky. The result is a movie both confusing and highly contrived.

I found myself comparing the Israeli soldiers (and citizens) who stood by and did nothing while the Christian Phalangists in Lebanon murdered the refugees to the Germans who failed to act to prevent the Holocaust. Because serendipitously, the same weekend I saw Waltz with Bashir at the Michigan Theater, I caught Valkyrie at the Briarwood Dollar Movies— which, I am happy to report, is doing booming business showing second-run movies for a couple bucks in comfortable theaters. Valkyrie makes the point that there were Good Germans who tried their best to stop Hitler, some by trying to assassinate him. Apparently they failed because they were composed of Tom Cruise and several British actors. Cruise plays his anti-Nazi German as an apparent victim of extreme constipation, and Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Kenneth Branagh don’t bother to look or sound or act even remotely Germanic.
Valkyrie is another Edifying movie based on a True Story–but if that’s what you’re looking for, you’d do much better checking out Defiance and The Counterfeiters, two other recent (and quite good) films about resistance to the Holocaust.
After all these films plus The Reader, I am suffering from a bit of guilt fatigue. I am also wondering if anybody will ever have the courage to make a movie about how Americans have done absolute nothing for six years to stop the war in Iraq. I expect I’ll be waiting for that wallow into guilt much longer than Israelis waited for Waltz with Bashir.