Munich Movie Review

It's been a long, tough road watching Steven Spielberg grow up. Too often, the great Hollywood money machine seemed to flip self-consciously back and forth between his serious work (Schindler's List) and the popcorn flicks (The Lost World, The Terminal). For better or for worse, though, 2005 will be remembered as the year when Spielberg finally and resoundingly merged these twin desires into unified works of serious entertainment, first his stunning War of the Worlds, and now Munich, a less complete piece of work, perhaps, but the most ambitious of Spielberg's career and truly something to behold.

What makes Munich even more ambitious than films like List or even Empire of the Sun is that it's not as recognizable a film as those classically-structured epics. This film is part spy thriller and part meditation on violence but not completely either. The result comes out as somewhat scrambled by the end, with the pieces of about a half-dozen lesser movies mixed around inside, but there's rarely a moment when it's not grabbing you by the collar and demanding your undivided attention. We should have more of this kind of thing.

Munich is based on the aftermath of the September 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September. A long and harrowing reenactment brings the whole sordid and sad spectacle back to life, most vividly the infuriating ease with which the terrorists pulled it off and the Germans' pathetically disorganized response. The film jumps to Israel, where Golda Meier (played with stiff brio by the indomitable Lynn Cohen) lectures the tense military and intelligence men gathered around: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." The members of Black September are identified, photos shuffled about, files collected, and a team assembled, to kill them all.

The first sign that this is not going to be a Bruckheimer revenge fantasy is the mournful tone which this first stretch takes, no chest-thumping adrenaline-stoking, just an inevitable countdown to death. The ad hoc group Mossad puts together for the mission are even less action-film-ready, the team's head, Avner (Eric Bana, soulful and wounded-looking), a quiet family man who just wants to get back to his pregnant wife. But nevertheless, they all find themselves in Europe, no contact with Israel save for a safety deposit box occasionally refilled with cash ("I want receipts!" barks one Mossad officer at Avner), a list of men to take out, and no clue how long it will take.

Much of Munich follows the team's long campaign of assassination, as they track the Black Septemberists from one European city to the other. The morbid ends of this campaign are verifiable by historical fact - one man killed by a bomb in his telephone and another by a booby-trapped mattress - but the how had to be mostly concocted by screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth, since the Mossad isn't telling. Given that Kushner has more experience exploring the soul on a Broadway stage than in staging cloak-and-dagger missions, it's not surprising that occasionally the film's thriller element goes wanting. However, it's still exhilarating to see how this John Le Carre-era spycraft was conducted in the old, pre-digital days, how resolutely hands-on and improvised it had to be.

It's not just the '70s accoutrements that bring to mind Le Carre, however, there's also the moral shadings of grey which Kushner and Spielberg wash the film in. At the beginning of the mission, one of the team worries about thinking of himself as an assassin, only to be curtly told, "Think of yourself as something else, then," a poor solution at best. While Munich never explicitly questions the validity of Israel's right to assassinate the Palestinians - which will likely earn the film condemnation from many quarters - it also never wavers from showing the devilish effects of what the campaign does to the men who wage it. It isn't long before the team is being hunted by unnamed people, buying information on them from the same ideology-free dealers that Avner buys intel on Black September from. Also, for every man they kill, a worse replacement is quickly found, and the Palestinians' terror campaigns just continue. Haunted by his mission of death, Avner asks his contact Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush, brilliant) what the point is of killing these men if they'll only be replaced; Ephraim's real-world response is simply, "Why cut my fingernails? They'll just grow back."

This is a film that leads you in loops, denying easy answers. Just as one starts to wonder about the necessity of this mission, Spielberg cuts back to a continuation of the Olympics massacre reenactment. Then, just as you may be getting too comfortable with it, he introduces a Palestinian character to argue with Avner (posing as a Basque terrorist) about the plight of his people. There's no action without reaction, no cause without effect, no easy answers after the pulling of a trigger or the refusal to do so.

It all ends in shellshock and despair, as any honest film about war must do. Even though Spielberg loses his way at times in the existential labyrinth he's constructed, and a few of the later espionage episodes are not entirely convincing, he's made a brave attempt to wrestle with the impossible here. Unmissable.

Walkin' in Munich.


Munich Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2005


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