A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #7

RANK: #1


2005, R, 164 mins.

Avner: Eric Bana / Steve: Daniel Craig / Ephraim: Geoffrey Rush / Robert: Mathieu Kassovitz / Carl: Ciaran Hinds / Hans: Hanns Zischler / Louis: Mathieu Amalric / Louis' papa: Michael Lonsdale / Jeanette: Marie-Josee Croze / Avner's mother: Gila Almagor / Golda Meir: Lynn Cohen

Directed by Steven Spielberg /  Written by Tony Kushner /  Based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas

“If this film bothers you, frightens you, upsets you…maybe you need to think about why you are having that reaction.”

 - Steven Spielberg on MUNICH

MUNICH is a tough, unsettling, morally complex, and utterly invigorating masterpiece; a film that - as director Steven Spielberg himself has staunchly admitted - does not want to be a “pamphlet.”  It is one of those incredibly rare film going experiences that goes out of its way to pose a seemingly easy question to it’s viewers and then does not take equal pains to simply answer it.  In short, Spielberg asks the audience, “Do two moral wrongs make for a justified right?” 

The sheer genius – not to mention courage – of this film is that it does not pander down to viewer sensibilities and hammer home a definitive answer.  MUNICH is neither pro nor anti anything, really.  It’s remarkably much more democratic with it’s subject matter and themes, especially if one considers the hotbed of controversial issues this film tackles.  Spielberg has definitely plunged into films that have had disturbing and distressing subject matters before, but MUNICH just may be his most daring work ever.

Considering his career, I would find it truly difficult to seek out another Spielberg film that had the potential to polarize viewers more than MUNICH.  Even some of his most sensitive and emotionally charged films (more recent ones like SCHINDLER’S LIST, AMISTAD, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) elicited a more decidedly similar response from their audiences.  His 1993 Oscar winning film about the Holocaust – a powerful film experience to be sure – easily garnered our respect and sympathy for the characters that suffered at the hands of its savage brutes.  MUNICH, arguably, demands more from it’s viewers as it puts its cards all on the table and let’s us, ultimately, make up our own minds about it’s inevitable agenda.  The fact that it focuses so squarely on a crucial period in the history of the relationship between Israel and Palestine is noteworthy.  The film’s issues still reverberate today with a thudding and troubling ambivalence.  MUNICH reflects this sensibility at every turn; it’s a deliberate tour de force work at not supplying answers that many lay audience members (and political pundits) would usually demand. 

Some find it odd that a film like this has come out now, especially considering the earlier offerings that Spielberg has offered thus far in 2005 (his remake of  WAR OF THE WORLDS was a flashy but mediocre work so far removed from this film).  Yet, his pattern of past releases reveals a subtle formula of success for the director.  Remember, 1993 was the same year that he made one of the most popular action/thrillers of all time in the dino-invested JURASSIC PARK and followed that up with his most personal artistic work in SCHINDLER’S LIST.  1997 was the same year that he made the follow-up to JURASSIC PARK – THE LOST WORLD – and would later release the captivating story of American slavery in AMISTAD.

 2005 only reiterates Spielberg’s desire to be both a staunch popcorn, escapist filmmaker and an and artistic filmmaker with a distinct voice.  Yes, he can make movies with screaming people running away from dinosaurs better than anyone, but he is also daring, cunning, and confident enough to take on works with more relevant and thought-provoking issues.  For this, Spielberg is both one of the most popular and important film voices of the last 30 years.  The fact that he can successfully make grand adventure yarns alongside soul-searching films that deal with disconcerting morale issues only reinforces this.  No one can touch Spielberg’s range; last time I checked, not even Martin Scorsese can claim to making a sci-fi auctioneer and a thoroughly involving and transfixing historical thriller in the same year.

WAR OF THE WORLDS, in obvious hindsight, now could easily be seen as a warm-up for the socio-political thriller that is MUNICH.  In a year where he made a film with a crazed and chaotic Tom Cruise running away from deadly aliens in New Jersey, MUNICH is a film that Spielberg easily did not have to make.  Yet, he did, and by not taking the road-most-traveled by similar inferior political thrillers, Spielberg opened up perhaps a larger can of worms than he anticipated.  Yes, a lesser director with distinct box office clout could have easily made more films involving a crazed and chaotic Tom Cruise running away from deadly aliens in New Jersey, but Spielberg’s desire to put his stamp on MUNICH reveals him to be a serious cinematic auteur with a social conscience.  He makes films that thrill and excite audiences, but he also wants to make ones that challenge our views and our own moral barometers.  

MUNICH has been shamefully blasted as being many things – anti-Israeli and/or anti-Palestinian – yet it never seems to take a conscious side.  The film deals seriously, thoughtfully, and intelligently with pertinent (both past and present) Middle Eastern concerns.  Now, I say “presently” in the way the film opens up a discussion for modern dilemmas as well.  At the center of it is a simple issue: if a country commits an act of aggressive and violent terrorism on your soil, what do you do?  Do you match aggression with aggression, pound for pound?  Do you respond with even more aggression?  Or, do you do nothing?  Either way, in MUNICH I think that Spielberg says, inevitably, a country compromises it’s own values and principles with any action.  If one does nothing, it’s a sign of weakness.  If one does something, what are the costs?  Political figures that are taken out will be replaced, often with reprisals on their enemies.   As a result, stalemates ensue and peace remains illusive.  Spielberg has been described as being “no friend of Israel” by making MUNICH.  On the contrary, he is neither friends nor foe with any party in the film; he’s even-handed and remarkably neutral.

MUNICH begins with a powerful introduction that includes a pulse-pounding and shocking re-enactment of the kidnapping and deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics (Spielberg masterfully marries both real news footage and his own shots seamlessly).  Following this incident that stunned the nation – if not the world – Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) deliberates a possible response and course of action for her country to take.  In short, she decides to “forget peace” and firmly plan a plot of revenge.  Soon, the Israelis form a secret, off the grid revenge/assassination squad to murder all of the people that were responsible for the Munich deaths.  Here lies the troubling and central debate of the film – was this act justified and necessary?  A Biblical school of thought would easily surmise “An eye for an eye,” but Spielberg easily points out in the film that those that have been taken out will be replaced, often by more vile and dangerous terrorists.  The spill over affect can even be seen now in our volatile geo-political climate.  What, ultimately, can be gained from these actions?  Yes, the Israeli athletes that were killed were avenged, but at what high price?

Eric Bana (never better than here) plays Avner, a former bodyguard to the Prime Minister who is essentially made team leader of the killing squad.  He assumes the responsibility rather easily, despite the fact that he and his men will have to effectively live without any official existence.  He and his men, in turn, are lead by Ephraim (the commanding Geoffrey Rush), who assists Avner by managing his group.  Avner gets assigned four distinct teammates, all with their respective talents.  The first, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), is a toy maker that also has skill with bombs.  The second, Carl (Ciaran Hinds), is the man that can erode any evidence after a successful operation.  The third is Steve (newly anointed James Bond, Daniel Craig), a trigger-happy SOB.  Lastly, we have Hans (Hanns Zischler) the man who can make passports and fake documents. 

The team moves from one world capital to another, in search of the men that they have targeted for assassination.  It is here where the film gets distilled in some of the best, most taut and gripping scenes of the year.  Avner and his crew go all over with phony names and passports and oftentimes pay bounties to odd and peculiar figures for the whereabouts of their targets.  They get some good – but highly costly advice – from a suspicious Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric), as well as his father (played brilliantly by Michael Lonsdale).  Louis’ father was once a member of the French resistance, but now is jaded and disillusioned.  Still, can he be truly trusted?  Can anyone, for that matter?

Needless to say, Avner and his men are, for the most part, proficient assassins, only when they don’t make colossal blunders.  One nearly catastrophic error comes in a montage that would have made Hitchcock approved.  During one particularly suspenseful mission the team waits for their target’s little daughter to leave the home to go to school so they can blow up her father and his home.  However, when the members of the team fail to see her re-enter the home, it’s as gripping of a moment as any you’ll find all year, and Spielberg plays the audience like a master film conductor. 

Another truly great sequence involves a coincidence of nearly comical proportions. It seems, at one point, that Avner’s team have accidentally been stationed at the same safe house as the PLO.  From here Avner grows increasingly alarmed and disheartened by his mission and the windfall that it’s creating.  Should Jews do wrong because their enemies have done wrong?  Moreover, would the more prudent and noble course of action be to simply arrest these targets and have them rot away in jail?  After all, with each new target that gets eliminated there seems to be deadly reprisals – bombs, shootings, stabbings, etc.   As the missions progress killing seems to become easier for Avner, but his own morality and sense of judgement gets knocked disastrously askew.  He never questioned the morality of Prime Minister Meir’s doctrine of violent response (“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values… Forget peace now. We have to show them we're strong.")  At a certain crucial point in the film the line between the terrorists and those that fight the terrorists is decidedly grey.  It soon becomes clear that there are not black and white heroes and villains in the world.  The BIG question is “Why bother, then?”

Spielberg does not answer this, but only drops hints here and there to lead the audience to find their own way.  I think that Spielberg supports a war on terror but perhaps disagrees with the methodology.  MUNICH brings this aspect to the forefront.  Can a war on terror ever be won?  After watching MUNICH, I am having my severe doubts.  The film is a window to current issues more than many have let on.  After Avner and his team have killed several of the 11 men on their list, vengeance is gained but new enemies have cropped up.  If the US, for example, captured or killed Osama Bin Laden would that honestly end anything?

Spielberg is sensitive to every side.  He appeases Israel by showing men and women that are fiercely patriotic and love their country.  Yet, the inner conflict that Avner develops shows a regret and acknowledgement of the repercussions and terrible side effects of his actions.  In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Anver manages to have a heart-to-heart intellectual debate with a Palestinian terrorist, who simply tells Avner that his people have been left with the only options that have be left open for them.  They will wait generations for a land to call home, seeing as they have no real home.  Spielberg does not come to the defense of this Palestinian terrorist as much as he simply gives him the opportunity to have his equal say in the film.

As tense and resonating as MUNICH’s narrative is, the film also benefits from a universally stellar cast, all who churn out great performances.  Eric Bana deserves serious Oscar consideration as Avner and he plays his conflicted assassin with the necessary blend of pathological energy and compassion.  I liked Daniel Craig’s fiery and cagey intensity (he will make a great Bond, in this film and LAYER CAKE are any indication), as well as Geoffrey Rush, who plays his overseer role effortlessly.  Perhaps my favourite performance in the film is by Ciaran Hinds as Carl, who gives his role a dignity and introverted charm.  You sense both complete confidence and deeper, more penetrating regrets with his performance

Capping off the fine performances are the film’s amazing production design and period detail.  Films set in the 1970’s either over-do it to the point of making the proceedings look unintentionally funny or underplay the look to the point where it’s time period is not discernable.  Spielberg finds a middle ground and instead encapsulates the viewer so much in the mood, tone, and visceral look of the time that you’d swear you’ve taken a time capsule back 30 years.  MUNICH looks sensational and Spielberg’s directorial eye never misses a beat.  His trademark esoteric moves are here in abundance, but he’s looser in style in MUNICH, perhaps wanting to lend a sort of neutral, quasi-documentary milieu to the piece.  The film, as a result, absorbs its viewer in a way few historical films have done recently.

Spielberg, without a doubt, is one of the seminal filmmakers of his generation.  The fact that many of his films have made money is superfluous and has often be used against him when he looks to more serious stories to tell (can't great films be ones that are also adored by the masses?).  Some of his greatest films have been his most cherished at the box office.  He redefined the thriller and created a stir with JAWS.  He made one of the most popular and thoughtful science fiction films of all-time in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  He made RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which still is - for my money -  the most pitch perfect action-adventure film ever made.  More recent audience pleasers, like the terrific futuristic murder/ mystery MINORITY REPORT and the effervescently charming CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, solidified Spielberg’s willingness to satisfy what modern audiences craved.  His THE COLOR PURPLE, SCHINDLER’S LIST, and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN have forged a new path of critical respectability for him, as if he ever really needed it.

After a career that began earnestly in 1974 with his rookie effort THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and has progressed boldly into some of the cinema's most memorable works, I think that MUNICH all but solidifies Spielberg as one of the most compelling and perceptive directors.  The film, by Spielberg’s own acknowledgement, places huge burdens on its audience.  In a recent interview he stated, “There are no easy answers to the most complex story of the last 50 years.”  By detailing the trepidations and unsparingly troubling issues in MUNICH that has had further real-life manifestations in terms of the strife that has polarized nations, Spielberg has faced and dodged socio-political bullets that not too many directors could have done.  MUNICH is intelligent, thoroughly captivating, and endlessly debatable.  After a few less-than stellar films on his resume (like 2004’s criminally overrated THE TERMINAL and the aforementioned WAR OF THE WORLDS) left me concerned as to whether he has lost his touch, MUNICH represents Spielberg's assured return to form.  It’s truly a masterstroke work of importance that poses questions that - just maybe - can never be answered.

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