Thursday, January 19, 2006

Munich / **** (R)

Avner: Eric Bana
Steve: Daniel Craig
Carl: Ciaran Hinds
Robert: Mathieu Kassovitz
Hans: Hanns Zischler
Louis: Mathieu Amalric
Papa: Michael Lonsdale
Daphna: Ayelet Zurer
Jeanette: Marie-Josee Croze
Ephraim: Geoffrey Rush

DreamWorks SKG and Universal Pictures present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. Based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas. Running time: 164 min. Rated R (for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language).

About ten years ago Sting released the album Mercury Falling, arguably his finest effort. At that time, I was talking to a musician friend of mine about the album and he asked me, “What happened between Sting and his wife? Did they divorce or something?” They had not, but the theme of broken love that permeated the album and was executed so astutely suggested that it must have come from some deep personal turmoil in Sting’s life. While watching Steven Spielberg’s latest film Munich, I couldn’t help thinking Spielberg must have been affected by some similar deep personal trauma. What secret war did Spielberg fight? Was it really like a game of terrorism to get your foot in the door of Hollywood in the early seventies? Although the story in this film is inspired by the real life terrorist situation at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games where 11 Israeli athletes lost their lives after being taken hostage by the Palestinian terrorist organization calling itself Black September and the aftermath that saw 9 of 11 men held responsible for planning the attack assassinated by Mossad agents of Israel, it seems Spielberg must have had some deeper personal investment in this film fiercely rooted in family, home, loyalty and the price everyone must pay for vengeance.

Spielberg begins this tale inauspiciously enough. Without glorifying the events at the Olympiad, he and screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (The Insider) give the audience just a taste of what happened on that fateful day. Utilizing much of the ABC sports/news coverage, the effects of the terror can be witnessed. The filmmakers do not introduce the terrorists or the hostages as characters, but only show us the beginning of their ordeal so we can also understand the violence and the personal terror involved. They stop short of involving us in these events at this time, but will return to those grizzly proceedings throughout the course of the film as needed, as this is not the story on which Spielberg is embarking.

The story of Munich involves the politics involved in sanctioned (however unofficially) terrorism; and the personal sacrifice, struggle and avarice of those who give the orders and pull the triggers. Based upon the George Jonas novel Vengeance, a most appropriate title, the film’s protagonist is Avner, portrayed by Australian actor Eric Bana (Hulk), a soon-to-be family man chosen by the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, The Station Agent) to head a team of five men to execute the 11 men determined to be directly responsible for the Munich attack. What is immediately noticeable about all of the characters in the film, from the soldier of Israel to the Prime Minister, is how average they all seem. Cohen’s Meir looks like the grandmother who bakes those wonderful cookies from down the street as she considers, not without some sense of gravity, ordering the deaths of these eleven men and most likely the team she sends to do the job. Even the political end of the Israeli’s actions is presented like a meeting of some 100 person population village town council; although there is some question as to whether these eleven men set for assassination are truly the men responsible for Munich or merely random people on Israel’s dream hit list.

The ordinariness of the people involved in what seems like some plot out of a James Bond movie or a Tom Clancy novel extends into the assassination squad itself. Avner is about to be a new father and seems to have done the unthinkable by leaving his family just as it is getting started; the unthinkable part not being lost on Avner himself. Steve, played by the actual new James Bond Daniel Craig (Layer Cake), just wants to shoot all the targets rather than mess around with the bomb plots their government would prefer them to use for their high profile impact. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz, Birthday Girl), the team’s bomb builder, is a former toy maker. Hans (Hanns Zischler, Ripley’s Game) is an antiques dealer. And Carl, carefully realized by Irish-born Ciaran Hinds (HBO’s Rome), expresses his doubts about their mission’s morality from the beginning. None have ever done anything like counter-terrorist work before.

They learn as they go, so it doesn’t always go smooth. During their second mission, their first bombing mission, Spielberg recalls one of his own images from a previous film Schindler’s List of the little girl with the red jacket in the daughter of the victim, who inadvertently answers a phone that has been rigged to explode when her father picks it up. The assassination team scrambles to stop the chain of action that will set off the bomb. When the team succeeds in saving the daughter’s life from their device, Carl asks, “Are we still on?” The cold clarity of their ideology comes crashing to the street with the shattered glass from the victim’s window in the next shot.

A good deal of controversy has come down on Spielberg for his lack of condemnation of either the Israeli actions or the Palestinians over the course of the film. It is clear that this mission of death is not viewed as all good even by the characters committing these acts in the film, but at several points in the film good arguments are made to justify at least the ends behind these means. As a sort of payback lesson from the team’s information source, because of a job that was not executed in the manner the source would have liked, Avner and his Mossad cohorts find themselves sharing a hideout with a Palestinian terror cell. Spielberg gives this predicament a sort of standard “we can all learn to get along” treatment with a member of each team battling over what music to listen to on the radio, and finally compromising with some American R&B. But then he follows up this lighter motif with a conversation between Avner and Ali (Omar Metwally) where Ali argues the case for Palestine’s right to their own homeland.

Home has a great deal to do with the actions of everyone in this film. As America has become so well rooted, it is hard for us to remember a time when we had to fight for our home, we mostly fight for other people’s rights in their homes now, but at one point in history we had to fight for home and family. Spielberg has been criticized for allowing that this is what both Palestine and Israel are doing, and have done for so long. But Spielberg also brings this global issue down to a more intimate setting as Avner struggles to remain a part of his own family while he is off fighting for his family of Israel. This is where Spielberg’s face in this story becomes more obvious. The story has earmarks of Spielberg’s favorite familial settings as Avner comes from a broken family. Avner’s father is in prison, he moves his wife and daughter to Brooklyn so he can visit them while he is Mossad, his mother is proud of his actions as Mossad but cannot understand why he would move his family from Israel. There is detachment and commitment in every mention of family. To give the best for family, you must sacrifice family. This is a truth that so many know but would rather not.

There is so much more to this film than has been said here. I haven’t even mentioned Avner’s case worker Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush (The Life and Death of Peter Sellars), who alternately articulates the necessary cold calculation of war such as this and formidably defends this course of action through speeches of caring and patriotism. Munich is a monumental film that encompasses tough questions of morality. It is easily the best film Spielberg has made since Schindler’s List over a decade ago. Perhaps it captures the essence of human nature, the dichotomy of our creative and destructive leanings. One character describes himself and Avner at one point, “Oh, we are magic men. Butcher’s hands, gentle souls.” This is the nature of man we can never escape.

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