At this stage in his career as Hollywood’s most commercially successful director, one might have expected Steven Spielberg to take it easy. In some ways he has. His most recent efforts (Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal) have been well made but nothing to really compare with his best work and if anything suffered from excessive sentimentality. The same cannot be said of Munich. A densely constructed and gripping drama, its technical brilliance is only matched by the brave and unflinching way it looks into one of the world’s most charged political and religious conflicts.
Based on George Jonas’ 1984 book Vengeance, it dramatises the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 games and the mission of retribution that followed. The film starts with the massacre at Munich (later returning to it in flashback) and we eventually see the creation of a covert hit squad led by Avner (Eric Bana) a young Israeli intelligence officer. Briefed by a senior Mossad agent (Geoffrey Rush), he is asked to leave his pregnant wife and hunt down the 11 men accused of masterminding the murders at Munich. The squad travel across Europe carrying out their orders, but as the death toll mounts they slowly start to question their mission.
Before we go any further it is worth pointing out that Munich is a work of historical fiction. Although it is based on real events, the central plot features many characters that are either composites or inventions. With that in mind, Spielberg has opted to examine the fallout of the Munich massacre in an unusual but effective way. Instead of the more measured approach to history he adopted in films like Schindler’s List and Amistad, we are plunged into a visceral 70s style thriller in the manner of The Conversation and The Parallax View. It might seem an uncomfortable angle through which to approach such a weighty subject, but it works brilliantly and manages to keep us thinking and guessing about the underlying issues right until the end.
As each assassination attempt unfolds, the viewer is subjected to the gruelling tensions that surround it: the possibility of things going wrong; the awful aftermath of explosions; the dangers of retribution and the moral questions that inevitably follow. All this is done with such technical skill and unflinching attention to detail, that the audience is also forced to consider the consequences of what they are watching. The Munich massacre itself is a good example. Staged with a precision that makes it hard to watch, the seamless integration of existing footage and some ingenious editing drag us right into the horrors of what happened in that fateful night. The sequence bookends the film and serves as a constant reminder of why the targeted assassinations became unofficial government policy.
As you might expect from a Spielberg film, the technical contributions are first rate, but here they deserve special mention. Rick Carter’s production design is a remarkable recreation of 70s Europe, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography gives each location a memorable look and feel, whilst Michael Kahn’s editing lends depth to the more introspective moments and energy to the set pieces. As for Spielberg, he successfully manages to fuse different thematic and narrative elements so that we have neither a straight thriller or intelligent drama but a powerful combination of both.
In the lead role of Avner, Eric Bana gives an excellent performance that portrays a kaleidoscope of emotions as we see him progress from raw recruit to a haunted killer. The supporting cast are equally as good: Ciarán Hinds exudes an aura of experience as the man who cleans up after each killing; Daniel Craig highlights the angst and anger of the group as Steve, the South African driver; Mathieu Kassovitz (himself an accomplished director) as the bomb maker is the nervy voice of guilt; whilst Hanns Zischler highlights the civilian nature of the team as the quiet forger.
Munich is a brave departure from what might be expected of Hollywood’s most high profile filmmaker. The film’s stark look at the problems faced when dealing with terrorism resonates strongly today and it is partly the topicality that has helped fuel the response from some critics. It also provides uncomfortable questions for those on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Who has the moral high ground? Is violence the poison or the cure? What will it take for the conflict to end? Such questions anger people on both sides, because they are convinced of their own position.
Some have attacked the film for being ‘soft’ on terrorists or being ‘even-handed’ to the point of condoning what happened at Munich. Such criticisms seem to me to be largely without merit and appear to reveal more about the biases of the observer rather than anything about this film. But what in the end is Munich actually saying? The principle theme would appear to be the limitations of revenge but if anything the overwhelming feeling at the end of Munich is one of despair, of people trapped in a nightmarish vortex of violence they cannot escape.
To the credit of Spielberg and his two credited screenwriters, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, the film doesn’t offer any easy answers or ‘sentimental solutions’. The climax and striking dénouement of the film (especially the closing shot) is sure to provoke a lot of discussion, as it is more ambiguous and disturbing than might be expected. But in an age where any kind of intelligent discourse is frowned upon in some quarters because it may lead to the ‘betrayal’ of a political or religious belief, surely we need more films like Munich. Not only is it amongst the most challenging films of the last 12 months, it is one of the most accomplished of Spielberg’s illustrious career.
> Official Site
> IMDb Link
> Reviews of Munich at Metacritic
> Wikipedia Article on the Munich Massacre
> Spielberg interview with Christopher Goodwin in the Sunday Times discussing the aims and criticisms of the film
> Screenwriter Tony Kushner defends the film in the LA Times
> The Observer’s veteran correspondent Neal Ascherson on the film
> Michelle Goldberg in Der Spiegel reports on the criticisms of the film
> Time magazine’s (then) exclusive interview with Spielberg (via The Hot Blog)
> David Thompson with an intelligent dissection of the film in The Independent
> Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine is angered by the film
> Yossi Melman and Steven Hartov dispute the facts which inspired the film in The Guardian
> A detailed discussion of the plot at The Hot Button (spoilers)
> Cinematical on the BAFTA DVD screener screw up