If 2005’s War of the Worlds was Steven Spielberg’s look at 9/11, then Munich should be considered his examination of the aftermath. What could be more relevant today than a film about combating terrorism, violent reprisals, and where a government leader says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values?” Anyone seen the news lately? Spy eavesdropping, prison abuses, hemming and hawing on what the definition of torture is, it’s all compromised values in the name of security. This is our world and Spielberg analyzes the costs of war. Munich is visceral, haunting, thoughtful, and compelling as both an idea piece and as a mainstream thriller. It’s Spielberg’s most mature work in a decade.
In 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the Munich Olympics. The world watched as the standoff stretched for hours, finally ending in a firefight at the airport and the terrorists throwing grenades into helicopters housing their hostages. Every Israeli athlete and Black September member had been killed. “They’re all gone.”
But it doesn’t stop there. Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynne Cohen) recruits Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) to run a secretive counter strike. Avner is to assemble a team, track down the architects of the Munich massacre, and assassinate each one. Their mission is only known by a select few, and their only contact is via a handler (Geoffrey Rush) and a safety deposit box that fills up with money. Joining Avner are Steve (Daniel Craig), the South African with a hot-head, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitch), the toymaker turned bomb maker, Hans (Hanns Zischler), the document forger, and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the clean-up man. The men crisscross the globe hunting down their targets, and with each successful kill there is escalating retaliation by Black September. Soon Avner’s group becomes a target themselves and he questions if the men they are snuffing out have any connection to Munich.
When I first heard about Munich I thought it would be a dramatization of the hostage situation, and Spielberg does revisit the sequence in horrifying and bloody flashbacks. The film’s focus is on the aftermath of Munich, though it does not pretend to be fact. This is a made up story based on rumors. As new evidence clears, it looks like the Munich retaliatory slayings were unrelated Palestinian men.
For events that began in 1972, Spielberg punctuates his drama with a gnawing sense of timeliness, closing his film with the very image of the World Trade Center in the New York skyline, connecting an invisible line from Munich to our world today. This is a mature, meditative examination on the retaliatory response to terror. Munich is even-handed in its views and dives into challenging territory where an easy answer is an insult. This isn’t a pro-Israeli movie or an anti-Palestine movie (though it’s already earned condemnation from fundamentalists on both sides), and every side gets a moment in the spotlight to effectively argue their case. The result is a movie that thoughtfully and reflectively looks at the cost of vengeance and compromising our values. Munich, even with its glut of important messages and mouth pieces, never forgets to be entertaining. The cameras are often handheld and Speilberg’s winding shot compositions give a visceral feeling to the events.
Bana (Troy) is the moral anchor of the film and gives a staggering performance. He begins proud and humbled, living in the shadow of his father’s name, an Israeli war hero. As the assassinations play out, each changes Avner and Bana expertly expresses his character’s turmoil, finally succumbing to paranoia and fear. The final act has relatives telling Avner he has done right, that his dead family is smiling with approval, and Bana’s sad, haunting eyes tell the full story of what he truly believes. He looks like he’s aged ten years in such a short time span. Each member of the hit squad fills out their role nicely, with Craig (Layer Cake) imparting tough, hip savvy, Kassovitch (the director of Gothika, oddly enough) is nebbish and the first to morally crack, Zischler is stoic button-lipped,and then there’s the fantastic Hinds (Julius Caesar on HBO’s Rome), an experienced man that?s so calm and knowing and wryly warm-hearted. He’s such a delightful onscreen presence. Rush is only onscreen in spurts but is brash, humorous, and unsentimental to the very end. He’s an actor that rarely misfires, if ever.
Too often we bandy about the term “evil;” our enemies are “evil,” atrocities are brought about by “evildoers,” but by painting in such broad, simplistic strokes, demonizing the enemy as “evil” (and conversely implying you are the side of good) you strip away the reality of the situation. The worst thing you could do in this war on terror is simplify the situation. These are not evildoers; these are people deciding to commit atrocious acts. If they are dubbed monsters or simply evil then we’ve reduced the argument to a kindergarten lesson. Munich doesn’t show the Palestinian targets as mustache-twirling evil doers (no one is spotted tying a damsel to railroad tracks). These are men with convictions, family, and humanity. “Evil” is too tidy a term, and Spielberg understands this. Are evil acts necessary to combat evil? Do we become our enemies when we resort to their ruthless tactics? Robert, shaken from a recent kill, pleads that Jews are supposed to be righteous, that’s what separates them from their persecutors. Assassination is not a righteous act, despite what Pat Robertson may spout off on TV. In the end, the only trustworthy people in the film may be a strange French family that sells information to the highest bidder, regardless of politics.
There’s one moment in the middle of Munich that will stick with me forever. There’s only one pure vengeance murder in the movie and it involves a female killer (Marie-Josée Croze). It’s a kill the audience is thirsting for and demanding; the other assassinations were murky, men unknown to have any involvement in terror other than being a name on a sheet. This is an instance where the audience wants revenge and then Spielberg gives exactly what we want and disgusts us. The kill is so sharp, so uncompromising that the violence is startling and, more importantly, it hurts. The reality of it is painful to watch. Spielberg has masterfully turned our quench for violence and shown the ugly reality.
Munich also succeeds as a thriller, pulsing with immediate danger and drawing the viewer in. There were key moments that I was chewing on my knuckles because of how taut the suspense was. As a thriller, Munich briefs us on these men’s mission like all good spy movies, brings us into their fraternal order, and then we watch each assassination play out, many never going according to plan. What elevates Munich is how real everything feels and how dangerous every moment comes across. This is a thriller that it makes the heart pound but also courses with subtext, and exquisite dialogue by Tony Kushner (Angles in America), who magnificently frames his characters with the tiniest details, who crafts deft symbolism in moments of doubt and paranoia, and who, channeled with the film’s masterful acting all around, creates a stirring study of the cost of violence and the broken bodies it leaves behind, even those that live to ponder another day. Kushner’s writing is a perfect match for Spielberg’s effortless artistry.
This is Spielberg maturing as a filmmaker, despite some missteps here and there, mostly with the length and a late sequence where he juxtaposes the final Munich hostage flashback with Avner climaxing in coitus with his wife. The characters are sharp, the acting is resonant, and the thrills are palpably engrossing, giving the film a refined sense of danger where anything could happen. Munich is more than a thriller and more than a think-piece. It’s a close examination of the cyclical nature of retaliation and reprisal, dooming both parties into an endless bloodbath. Don’t be frightened by all this heady talk because it’s also a very entertaining movie. Munich isn’t the best film of the year; it’s pretty good but it’s definitely one of the more important movies of the year and worth seeing.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on December 27, 2005, in 2005 Movies and tagged cirian hinds, daniel craig, eric bana, geoffrey rush, oscars, period film, religion, steven speilberg, thriller, tony kushner, true-life, vengeance. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.