Following his half-hearted update of War of the Worlds, movie mogulSteven Spielberg puts away childish things to get back to serious filmingwith Munich. It’s a brutal and engrossing account of a covert Israeli hitsquad, commissioned to exact revenge on the 11 Palestinians suspected ofplanning the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
A Mossad agent named Avner Kaufmann (Eric Bana) is handpicked byIsraeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead the counter terrorismgroup, which includes a driven South African mercenary named Steve (DanielCraig); Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy maker who also makesbombs, an expert forger named Hans (Hanns Zischler) and Carl (Ciaran Hinds),the person responsible for making sure the targets are clean and collateraldamage will not become an issue. Though the government denies knowledge ofthe squad’s existence or actions, Avner must occasionally report to a hardline official named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush).
One by one, the targets are found and taken out. But as the “assignment”progresses, so does the fallout. Retaliation attacks begin to mount, whilethe moral ramifications of the group’s work begin to take its toll on Avnerand his team.
These days, if you make a film that is either based on real-life eventsor one that deals with politics (Fahrenheit 9/11) or religion(The Passion of the Christ), controversy will be smothering your projectbefore a single frame is shot or shown. Not surprisingly, Munich isthe latest film under such attack. Depending on whom you talk to,Spielberg’s film has been accused of being pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian andvice-versa. Members of the Israeli government have also protested that the filmdistorts facts, and a forthcoming book that claims Israeli hit squadskilled the wrong people is guaranteed to fuel the fire.
Like Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, is Munich truthful andaccurate? If George Jonas’ book Vengeance (the movie’s originaltitle) is to be believed, then the answer is yes. Since Munich is nota documentary and is “inspired by real events,” as the opening title cardproclaims, Spielberg and company could be expected to take dramatic licensewith events and characters in order to forward the plot. In regards to themajor details of the story, I am certain that Spielberg and company stayedtrue to what happened (the director apparently consulted the real life Avnerduring the film’s production).
Does the film take a side? Definitely, but it is neither Israeli norPalestinian. It is anti-terrorism. The thoughtful and layered screenplay byEric Roth and Tony Kushner goes out of its way to condemn not only the actof committing terror, but also exacting revenge. It also goes out of its wayto give everyone an even hand to explore both sides of the conflict throughcharacters that are dimensional, fleshed out and believable. There are noheroes in Munich, only victims, sufferers of a cycle of violence thatwill never end unless someone on the outside peacefully intervenes.
Munich is also Spielberg’s best work since Schindler’sList. His low-key and focused approach allows the script’s power to takecenter stage, and his vivid recreation of the Munich Olympics massacre andHitchcockian staging of the hit squad’s assassinations that follow arereminiscent of the gritty, intense, documentary-style thrillers made by thelikes of Costa-Gavras and William Friedkin in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
With his usual team of pros by his side, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski,editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, Spielberg delivers his mostmature film yet, one that sneaks up on the viewer and knocks them outwithout resorting to a cinematic bag of tricks, cheap manipulation orheavy-handed pretentiousness.
Eric Bana delivers an award-worthy performance as the conflicted butdedicated Avner, while Craig, Kassovitz, Hinds and Zischler offer excellentsupport as his fellow team members. Rush delivers another great performanceas the government hard ass that may or may not be entirely trustworthy, andMathieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale are terrific as two men who sell Avnerand his team vital information while possibly selling them out to theirenemies as well.
Munich does share common ground with another of this year’scontroversial dramas, George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. Whileboth are set in the past, they prove to be just as relevant in today’sworld. Both also address the truism that those who don’t learn from the pastare condemned to repeat it. With that in mind, it is no small coincidencethat the World Trade Center prominently figures in the film’s finalshot.