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Spielberg in the Aughts: Munich (2005)

I’m here at last with the long-delayed final installment of my Spielberg in the Aughts series with a look at Mr. Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. This was pretty much the only Spielberg film from the last decade-and-a-half that I’d unabashedly loved when I first saw it in theatres, and I’m pleased that I found the film to be just as strong when re-watching it last month.

In September, 1972, eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich were held hostage and eventually murdered by members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group.  Following those terrible events, the film postulates that an Israeli Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) is asked to lead a small, secret group of Israeli agents assigned to hunt down and assassinate the men who the Israelis hold responsible for the Black September plot.

I think that Munich is one of, if not the most, mature and emotionally devastating films that Steven Spielberg has ever made.  There’s no question that Mr. Spielberg is one of our preeminent masters of the pop crowd-pleasing adventure film, and he’s also shown great skill at tackling more serious topics in films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and more.  In all of those films, though, the lines between good and evil were very clearly drawn.  What fascinates me about Munich, and what gives the film a power equal to if not surpassing those films I just named, is that this story is all about shades of gray.  There are no clearly defined heroes or villains in this film, and while one might enter the film with pre-established sympathies for either the Israeli or the Palestinian side in these events, the film wisely avoids painting either side as entirely heroic or entirely villainous.

As Avner and his team set about tracking down and killing their assigned targets, we see not only how Avner and his men (who each begin the assignment with varying degrees of idealism and toughness) begin to feel the mental and moral effects of their bloody work, but also how their actions — however justified they (and some audience members) might feel them to be — serve to extend the cycle of violence.  When Avner’s team kills a target, it’s not long before another terrorist group strikes back against Israeli targets, and so on and so forth.

Note that the film’s making a point about how violence serves only to beget violence is a subtly — but critically — different message than saying that the actions of this Israeli team are entirely without justification.  I don’t think the film gives that message at all.  I remember reading some criticisms of this film, from Jewish perspectives, that took issue with what they saw as the moral relativism of the film.  They felt the film portrayed Avner’s team as just as bad as the Black September terrorists whose brutal actions Avner and his men set out to avenge.  But I didn’t get that message from the movie at all.  Indeed, throughout the film, whenever Avner — and the audience — begin to question his actions, the film flashes back to the horrible events at the September Olympics and the brutal slaughter of the innocent Israeli athletes, as if to remind us of what started Avner on his mission.  I don’t think Munich is arguing that the actions of Avner and his men were unjustified.  I think the film is arguing that, even if the Israeli reprisals are entirely justified (and can one imagine how the United States would react in similar circumstances?), those actions will not lead to a solution to the larger conflict.  That is the tragedy of the story of this film.

The final, controversial shot of the film drives this point home.  I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a surprising reference to more modern events that is on the one hand presented in a casual, almost off-handed way, yet once you realize the implications of what’s just been shown it’s a powerful gut-punch of an ending.  It could be one of my favorite shots in any Spielberg film.  It’s deliciously complex and troubling.

Speaking of endings (and troubling moments), I absolutely adore the scene that comes before that final shot.  I have often complained, in this Spielberg re-watching project, how I felt that many of his films were completely undone by his persistent insistence on happy, simplistic endings.  A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds are all pretty grim, brutal movies that are all pretty much ruined by their out-of-left field happy endings.  But here, finally, Mr, Spielberg has made a film whose ending is anything but easy or happy.  I found myself deeply unsettled, and even angered, at Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush)’s cold refusal to share a meal with Avner.  I’m not certain why he makes that choice — particularly if he really does want Avner to return to Israel.  Doesn’t he see how turning his back on Avner here will only further the schism Avner now feels with his formerly beloved homeland??  But it’s a powerful, complex way to end the film, and I applaud Mr. Spielberg at not shying away from such a down-beat ending.

Munich is based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas, though from what I know there are a lot of questions as to the veracity of that book.  As Manohla Dargis noted in her review of the film back in 2005 for the New York Times: “Munich is one of those Hollywood fictions that seem to befuddle those who miss the nuance in the words ‘inspired by real events.'”  I have no idea how much of Munich is real or not, and this is one of those instances where, to me, it doesn’t really matter.  The film FEELS real to me.  Not only because of the extraordinary production design (I was particularly taken by how incredibly the filmmakers recreated the feel of Israel in the 1970’s which, though I wasn’t there, totally matches my vision of the time-period) but because of the emotional truths found in the film.

The cast — as is to be expected from a high-profile film directed by Steven Spielberg — is wonderful.  Eric Bana turns in what I feel is his finest on-screen performance as the young Avner.  He begins the film so dedicated to Israel, so convinced that his mission is right, and watching him begin to sink into the morass of violence and paranoia is deeply heartbreaking.  The Australian Mr. Bana is entirely convincing as an Israeli (a “sabra”, as he’s repeatedly referred to in the film, meaning a Jew who was born in Israel), and he demonstrates tremendous emotional range over the course of the film.

Avner’s team consists of the tough, handsome Steve (Daniel Craig, adding to his ouevre of ass-kicking Jewish characters); Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood, The Road to Perdition) as Carl, the calm, studious “cleaner” assigned to make sure the team leaves no evidence of their presence or identities; Hanns Zischler as Hans, an older man responsible for managing the team’s finances; and Mathieu Kassovitz as Robert, the toy-maker turned bomb-maker.  All four men are absolutely phenomenal.  Each crafts a unique, indelible character for their member of the team.  Each character could be the star of their own movie, which is the mark of an excellent ensemble.

Geoffrey Rush has a small but critical role as Ephraim, Avner’s Israeli handler who is one of the few Israelis who know of Avner’s existence and his team’s mission.  Whenever Avner begins to doubt, Ephraim represents the voice of absolute certainty that Avner’s mission is righteous.  Ephraim is very businesslike, but he also seems kind and with a strong sense of loyalty.  (This is critically important in keeping the audience sympathetic to his point of view.)

Ayelet Zurer has a tough role as Daphna, the wife who Avner leaves behind in order to carry out his mission across Europe.  She’s beautiful and plays the role well (it helps that she’s one of the few actual Israelis in a lead role), depicting Daphna as a strong, independent woman who nevertheless is able to stay loyal to her husband despite his prolonged absences.  One might expect Daphna to be a shrewish woman harping on Avner for destroying the happy life they had in Israel, but fortunately the role is much better-written than that.

I was also quite taken by Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric as the French father-and-son purveyor of secrets who become a major source for Avner in his quest to locate his targets.  The films spends more time than one might expect with these two characters, and gives them a great deal of complexity.  Here again, these two could easily be the stars of their own movies!  I’d love to know more about these two fascinating men.  But what we get is meaty enough.  When Papa reveals to Avner, at the end of the film, that he knows his real name, it’s a shocking moment that is at the same time warm and also chillingly creepy.  (I wish that Mr. Amalric’s villainous role in Quantum of Solace has ben half as well-written as his much smaller role here.)

I keep commenting on how well-written the film is, so time now to praise screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth.  They’ve crafted a tough film that doesn’t shy away from the complex moral and emotional issues at play.

And, as always, Mr. Spielberg demonstrates enormous expertise behind the camera.  Munich is, in a way, a very episodic film, and yet Mr. Spielberg and his collaborators craft each episode into an incredibly memorable, well-crafted vignette.  So many sequences jump out in my memory as being truly haunting and astounding: the sequence in Paris in which the team must rush to stop a phone bomb from detonating when the target’s daughter returns home at the last minute; the killing of a female assassin on her boat; the meal with Papa and Louis in the French countryside.  I could go on and on.

Well, I’ve enjoyed this look back at the last decade-and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg.  Sadly, my initial impressions have mostly remained unchanged.  While I’ve enjoyed some of these films, Munich is the only one that I feel is truly great.  So I guess it’s nice to end my re-watching project here!  (Please note that I will not be subjecting myself to a second viewing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  My initial viewing was quite enough for me, thank you.)

Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: War of the Worlds (2005), The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad (1997), The Lost World (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985).

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