|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 09 May 2006|
As he did 1993 with “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” in 2005 Steven Spielberg released two strongly contrasting movies, one a special effects extravaganza (“War of the Worlds”) and the other an examination of historical issues centering on Judaism.
At the Olympics of 1972, terrorists from the Black September movement invaded the hotel where athletes from Israel were housed. The terrorists demanded that Israel release some Arabic prisoners, but Israel never bargains with terrorists—and eleven young men were slaughtered. “Munich” opens with this incident, though only up to a point; the movie returns to further events occasionally, ending up with the deaths of the last athletes, machine-gunned in helicopters as they waited on the ground at the airport.
But the movie isn’t about that incident, which has been told before. It’s about what Israel did to show terrorists there were consequences to so wantonly killing Israeli citizens. At the direction of Israel prime minister Golda Meir, a team of assassins was formed. Their mission: kill those who arranged the Olympic attack. This story has been told before, in; the 1986 TV movie “Sword of Gideon” is based on the same book (“Vengeance” by George Jonas) that was the source of “Munich.”
This time, however, it is undoubtedly more memorably told by Spielberg and his screenwriters, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. (Tom Stoppard evidently did a dialogue polish.) The story centers on Avner (Eric Bana), whose wife (Ayelet Zurer) is pregnant. Avner is told by a small, prestigious group, including Meir (Lynn Cohen), that he officially has no connection with the state of Israel. His only Israeli contact is the ice-cold Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who replenishes a money-filled safe deposit box in Switzerland, and occasionally demands updates from Avner.
Avner’s team includes blonde, muscular Steve (Daniel Craig, the new James Bond), professorial Carl (Ciarán Hinds), explosives expert/toymaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and balding Hans (Hanns Zischler). The money pays informants, such as the cool, French Louis (Mathieu Amalric), and buys weapons, airfare, lodging, etc., for the team of assassins, who move freely about Europe.
“Munich” is suspenseful and well crafted, shot in dark, nighttime tones by Janusz Kaminsky, in realistically gritty city locations. There’s nothing exotic, special-agent-glamorous about these special agents. They’re men drawn together for a specific job; some, like Avner, eventually begin to question whether what they’re doing is just; others, such as Steve, never doubt the truth of their goals. The movie concludes with a last (for now) meeting in New York between Avner and Ephraim; Spielberg succinctly indicates the difference between the two—Avner has retained his human warmth, Ephraim has lost his, but doesn’t know it.
This exemplifies the point of “Munich,” which Spielberg explains in a brief introduction to the film. The movie is not a documentary, nor intended to be an exact portrayal of what occurred. The book was actually a novel, though based on interviews with members of Mossad (the principal Israeli intelligence force), some of whom were involved in the post-Munich assassinations. Israel has never admitted to anything, but most of the men responsible for planning the massacre of the Israeli athletes have been killed in the years since.
The movie received criticism when released late last year; some felt that Spielberg needed to take a strong stand, to declare that Israel’s deadly response was entirely justified. But “Munich” takes no such stand, nor does it even faintly condemn Israel for the actions it evidently took. “I am not attacking Israel with this film,” the director declares in his brief opening remarks. Instead, he wants to try to understand why many countries think that violence must be met with counter-violence—which in turn usually begets even more violence.
Here, the whole concept of terrorism comes into focus, but isn’t analyzed—it’s depicted. The horror of terrorism is that it is specifically targeted at non-combatants, usually everyday people. The murders in Munich were especially heinous because they centered on the Olympics, intended to be an international expression of a desire for world order. However, the movie also does point out that Israel itself was founded in blood, by some who might now be regarded as terrorists.
He also indicates that the Olympic massacre came at a time when it looked—however briefly, however indistinctly—that peace might be possible in the Mideast. The Olympic killings reset the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors back to zero, and it has remained there since.
At nearly three hours, “Munich” is probably too long, but it never drags, and time does pass quickly. Spielberg adopts a cool, almost remote approach, reserving emotion primarily for Avner’s contacts with his wife and newborn daughter. But there’s a troubling scene in which Avner meets his Arabic opposite (who thinks Avner is Russian); Avner realizes this young Arab feels exactly the same way about his country that Avner feels about his family. He later sees the young Arab gunned down in a street, by Avner’s own men. Again, Spielberg raises questions that he is not trying to answer; some commentators said Spielberg was being equivocal, that he had to take a stand—but as a Jew, Spielberg was taking a very bold approach to suggest that all this killing and counter-killing may be wrong. (He isn’t even stating it MUST be wrong.)
The opening scenes of the movie are fascinating as he uses videotapes of real news reports at the time of the Olympic attack, intercut with scenes of people in the U.S., Israel, an Arab country and elsewhere reacting very differently to the news reports. Not everything he tries works; intercutting between newsreel footage of the Israeli athletes arriving in Switzerland with photos of their killers is simply too right-on, too obvious. At the very end of the film, he somewhat mysterious intercuts between scenes of the final Munich airport massacre with Avner having intense sex with his wife. It’s unclear what this juxtaposition is to indicate, to engender in the audience.
The cast has no major names—at least none who are major yet; Daniel Craig will surely be anointed with fame for being the new James Bond. But as always with Spielberg, the actors are extremely good, and here, extremely realistic. Eric Bana is the lead but not the star; the story is the star. However, Michael Lonsdale, as the aging Frenchman from who all information Avner needs seems to flow, makes the most of his brief scenes, as does Geoffrey Rush as the baklava-loving Ephraim.
The DVD transfer is, as expected, of high quality; it’s a major film from a major studio, and has in this regard been given class-A treatment. But the disc has almost no extras; there’s that brief introduction by Spielberg, and that’s about it. But even that is unusual for Spielberg, who has almost always let his films do his talking for him. He seems to want to underscore the (seemingly obvious) idea that “Munich”—and its director—is not anti-Israeli.
It’s hard to guess if a more extras-laden “Munich” will eventually arrive. Until then, this DVD will have to do; it does give you the movie in very good shape, and until the advent of laserdiscs, then DVD, that’s about all home-entertainment buffs could expect from any video copy of a movie.