Perhaps the most horrifying act of violence in the history of the modern Olympics gets a stunning motion picture treatment at the hands of one of America's cinematic masters, according to Judge Bill Gibron.
This is the story of what happened next.
Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg made straightforward films. His cinematic experiences were wide-eyed spectacles, visionary efforts loaded with visual splendor and simplistic storytelling. Yet even as he delivered one hit after the other—Jaws, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.—critics were clamoring for the filmmaker to take himself, and his craft, more seriously. Not that they were suggesting Spielberg was sloppy or scattered. They just wanted him to turn his vast imagination on heavier, more dramatic fare. Yet his first real foray into serious storytelling—1985s The Color Purple—got lost in ancillary issues of race and realism. From there, additional examples like Empire of the Sun or Always argued both for and against his ability to handle adult themes.
Of course, Schindler's List changed all that. It made the director an Oscar winner (finally), more or less reset the respect meter, and proved that he could indeed translate his ethereal eye into almost any genre. Since then, he's wavered back and forth between the type of films that forged his blockbuster reputation (A.I., Minority Report) and issue-oriented entertainments with historical themes (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan). Additionally, he's started to pull back, closing that once open inner lens to be more evocative and suggestive. This was obvious in the two films Spielberg delivered in 2005.
For his version of H. G. Welles' classic War of the Worlds, Spielberg stayed well within lead actor Tom Cruise's frame of reference. Many of the set-piece extravaganzas occurred out of frame, that big battle over the hill staying safely unseen. And then there is Munich, a neo-noir political thriller involving the murder of Olympic Athletes at the 1972 summer games. Instead of focusing exclusively on the events of that day, Spielberg decided to illustrate what happened next. In his more than capable hands, Munich became an honest, harrowing experience.
Facts of the Case
On the 5th of September, 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists known as
Black September snuck into the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. Their target?
The Israeli team. Immediately taking 11 members hostage, a series of demands
were made. The response was immediate: there would be no negotiations.
Eventually the German government gave in and provided the group with bus
transportation and a fueled and ready to fly plane at the airport. Of course, it
was all a set-up and a failed rescue attempt left all the captives dead, and all
but three of the kidnappers killed. In response to the horrible events, Israel's
Prime Minster Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, Law and Order) assigned her
intelligence agency, the Mossad, to track down and murder those responsible.
One of the most amazing things to occur in the post-millennial maelstrom of online film criticism is the growing dismissal of Steven Spielberg. Not just as a filmmaker, mind you, but as an entity of any real significance in cinema. There was a time when no one would have dared argue such a position. Along with George Lucas (and a little help from Tom Laughlin and The Trial of Billy Jack), Spielberg invented the blockbuster, the must-see movie that had you aching for a repeat viewing the minute the final credits started rolling. The man literally reinvented the language of film, finding a way to mix action, imagination, and iconography into an entertainment experience that achieved an instant, addictive quality. Before big first weekend box office drove a movie's monetary success, return trips to the theater were the benchmark for continued cash register ringing. Films like Jaws and Star Wars, proved that storytelling and staying power were much more important than opening in an excessive number of theaters or making multiple test screening adjustments.
Yet today, Spielberg is labeled a shill, a soulless celluloid charlatan that uses artifice instead of artistry to forge his pre-packaged product. Twenty years ago this would have been tantamount to analytical blasphemy. Today, however, it has become the sadly accepted norm. Of course, there is a smidgen of expected jealously whenever anyone mentions Spielberg's name. He is an entire movie industry unto himself, a registered trademark of quality and success. Anyone looking for flaws could point to misfires like Hook or The Terminal to help feed this shortsighted and ridiculous rejection. But to base his entire significance on a couple of latter films is foolish. After all, Hitchcock made Topaz and Family Plot, and no one discards his importance to film. And this comparison is crucial, because Spielberg has films in his creative canon that are just as important as Strangers on a Train, Psycho, or Vertigo. No, it seems that his serious efforts have lessened the impact of his legend, undermining his fantastic flights of fantasy while proving him quite capable of making any kind of movie. And as long as the green-eyed monster of envy and its equally emerald brethren—money—are used as determining factors, this American auteur can't really win.
Yet, he is a moviemaking mastermind, and for its part, Munich is amazing. It is 165 minutes of unbridled brilliance. It takes a seemingly simple story—Israel's covert response to the kidnapping and killing of their Olympic athletes in Munich—and turns it into an epic examination of politics and personal ethos. At the center of the competing concerns is Avner Kaufman, son of an Israeli hero, lost among his obligations to family and country. When the offer is made to track and assassinate the members of Black September, terrorists responsible for the Olympic atrocity, it's the first time that Avner has been compelled to take a real stand. Chosen as much for his heritage as his humanity, Mossad operative Ephraim makes it clear to Avner that this is a continuing commitment, and at first we view his comments as temporal in nature. He is merely warning Avner that he will be gone from his pregnant wife for a good long time. But thanks to the layered narrative Spielberg spreads before us, we realize that Ephraim is speaking in equally important metaphysical terms. Avner has to decide what kind of Jew he is: one who excuses the violence against his people, or one who fights against it. Such a decision is, indeed, a continuing commitment. This ethical dichotomy is at the core of Munich, making it much more than a suspense thriller centering of revenge and righteousness.
The brazen Biblical notion of "an eye for an eye" will be the first hurdle many film fans have to overcome before enjoying Munich or its message. In our post-9/11 numbness, where war has been waged in response to attacks at home, it would appear we could easily accept such a retribution-oriented ideal. But because the backdrop is the unsettled Middle East, and because the arguments on both sides are so ambiguous, it's difficult to get a handle on the heroics. We know we're supposed to root for the Israelis, but when the Palestinians plead their case, we sense a somewhat valid position as well. Indeed, the entire movie is mired in the defense of dogma and the necessity of nationalism. Avner even asks his mentor if the men he's targeting are really responsible for the Munich massacre, or just terrorists who the government wants eliminated. Ephraim's answers indicate that both, or neither, may be the case. The moral haziness in Munich is blunt and has been cited as one of the movie's main stumbling blocks. However, the difference between a patriot and a terrorist is one of the story's most compelling quandaries. Avner and his crew kill several people, and yet their acts are not painted in the broad villainous strokes as the efforts of the PLO. As one Arab suggests, when they do it, it's an abomination. When Israel does it, it's an accomplishment.
This is partly Spielberg's doing. His Munich is a thriller that derives its buzz from internal, not external feats. Sure, we sit in suspense as a bomb initially fails to detonate, or when a planned murder comes face to face with a child returning home. But this is not supposed to be pure pulse pounding stuff. No, we are meant to fret over the implications as well as the incidents. Avner again asks Ephraim about the legal consequences of such vigilantism. After all, if these Arabs have indeed committed a crime, shouldn't they be arrested and extradited to Israel for trial? Ephraim's vague response reflects the real purpose behind Avner's acts. As Prime Minister Golda Meir states, these assassinations are not just a reaction, they're a warning. After all, terrorists are merely trying to intimidate their perceived persecutors into acquiescing to their demands. Yet isn't the right to live free from intimidation and pain an equal individual right? Spielberg shows us, again and again, how this cyclical conflict creates its own moralistic quagmires. Indeed, throughout the film the notions of violence begetting violence and might making right get a thorough debate and personal/political dissertation. But the dialogue never delivers a conclusive statement. It just states and restates the divergent beliefs until we're not sure who's right, who's wrong and—even worse—if there is even a way of making a clear determination.
It's easy to say that Munich makes more of the inner conflict than it does of the external events. The assassinations are carried out in matter of fact, occasionally clumsy fashion (from the killers, not Spielberg's trademark skill). We are supposed to view Avner's gang—including old guard members Carl and Hans, well meaning muscle Steve, and fragile toymaker turned bomb builder Robert—as unintentional operatives, capable but not the seasoned professionals of the fictional spy world. When they locate a female assassin, their work is wobbly and just barely gets the job done. Of course, this is in complementary contrast to the images we see of the Black September attack on the Olympic village. Just because one has passion to back up their ideological instincts, it doesn't mean they make for a flawless fighter. Indeed, Avner is always viewed as an inadvertent leader, capable of great decisions, and dumb ideas while mixed up in the most dangerous of government-sponsored games. Thanks to the excellent acting all around—including a magnificent turn by ex-Hulk hero Eric Bana as Avner—we believe in the individual conviction, as well as the occasional lapses into incompetence.
By casting mostly unknowns, Spielberg saves us from false heroics. Only Geoffrey Rush and Bana are readily recognizable, and yet the Oscar winner for Shine just disappears into his role as Ephraim, the Mossad manager of Avner's activities. No one here, from future Bond Daniel Craig as the free-wheeling Steve, to unintentional explosives expert Robert, as played by Mathieu Kassovitz, offers the ham fisted histrionics that the narrative could have easily slipped into. The closest we come to a raw display of scenery chewing comes in the personage of French middleman—and suspect seeker—Papa Louis (Mathieu Amalric). When he arrives on screen to deliver a sermon on the viability of violence, it's subdued showboating time. In a slow, stern monologue, he talks about the Nazis and the seeming acceptability of genocide against certain ethnic groups. It's not that his performance is over the top or mannered, it's just that we don't expect such a sudden, obvious statement of purpose within the story. Up until this point, Munich is another of Spielberg's dramas of misdirection. Instead of a nail-biting exercise in clandestine, covert operations, we are drawn away from the action and into the more humbling, human element.
This is one of the main reasons the viewing public found the movie initially troublesome. Instead of dealing directly with the events of that fateful day, showing how the terrorists infiltrated and then forced the international confrontation, Spielberg delivers mere snippets. Some of them are excessively gory, others are almost comic in their crudeness. In an introduction to the film, Spielberg makes it clear that his version of events is not a love letter to Israel, nor is he attempting to apologize for the actions of the Mossad or the terrorists. Some may bristle at that last bit, but it's true. He paints the Palestinians as more committed than crazed, especially in a scene where our genial Jewish hitmen find themselves sharing a safe house with a group of PLO members. Avner confronts the leader, asking him if the pursuit of a Palestinian state is really worth all the death. His answer is frighteningly fierce…and frank. We also get to hear a multitude of accusations leveled at Israel, painting the nation less like a passive, peaceful patsy and more like an equally aggressive defender of principle. When mixed together, all the opposing opinions and options create an evocative, understandable image of the entire Middle East muddle. All that's missing is the current religious fundamentalism that drives today's extremists, and you'd get the entire problematic picture.
In the end, though, this is Spielberg's show, from the lack of above-the-title stars to the unique narrative approach. Casting off many of his archetypal cinematic crutches, he delivers provocative, potent filmmaking of the highest level. The opening is an excellent example of his new, no-nonsense approach. Instead of explaining everything with opportunistic exposition, we are simply thrust directly into the siege, news reports both from the era and reenacted providing the necessary details. Similarly, Spielberg uses an unconventional approach to end his story. As Avner reflects on the deaths of the athletes, he finds himself in the midst of a passionate, animalistic act of sex with his wife. Many have complained about the juxtaposition of these images, but the truth is that they need to co-exist. Aside from all the obvious life/death, love/hate hokum, Spielberg is arguing for the reinstitution of passion into a human life. By the time we reach the finale, Avner is dead inside. He has seen so much, done so much, and lost so much that he's no longer connected to the world in a realistic, viable manner. But when experiencing the carnal connection between husband and wife and reflecting on the reasons behind what he did, he begins the process of purging his mind of the demons of doubt. As a result, Avner is reborn. And since sex is the act of procreation, the symbolism makes perfect sense.
Indeed, there is nary an artistic misstep by this always approachable director. Spielberg can be called many things (aside from a fraud), but subtle and subdued is not really appropriate. Controlled and considered would work a lot better when describing his last few films. Instead of showering us with fireworks and hyper-extending our imagination, a more matured Steven Spielberg is putting his heart where his art is. Munich is moving in ways unfamiliar to our typically manipulated mindset. We wait for the moments of hysterical heroism. We anticipate the showdown between good guys and the bad men. We just know the ending will be happy, and wrapped up in one of those glorified motion picture bows that this director is so obviously well known for. Amazingly, none of that happens here. Instead, Munich undermines heroics with hindrance and happenstance. No one is absolutely good, and very few are certifiably bad. The ending is open-ended and enigmatic, suggesting that terrorism and the response to same will only get worse, and the final shot—with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background—argues that this episode is only the beginning, not the clean conclusion, to the story of Arab/Israel instability. Munich may not meet with your spy thriller expectations, but what it does have to offer is true cinematic genius. To paraphrase the old saying, it takes one to make one.
Universal is currently offering the title in a pair of DVD packages. The first is a barebones single disc version, with just the Spielberg introduction and some trailers as added content. In the two-disc presentation, there is a series of featurettes that explore various elements of the story, the actual event, and the production. If you are a fan of the film (as this critic is), you will go out and buy the fully loaded offering immediately. Since the single disc was provided here for review, it is what will be addressed. Working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg delivers an image rich in golden vistas and sun-drenched, desaturated hues. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures it all in beautifully framed compositions. Near reference quality, with only a few moments of very minor edge enhancement, this is the type of release the digital domain does best. On the sound side, we are provided with an atmospheric and moody mix, captured in pure Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround fullness. The speakers really shake during the explosions, and John Williams's jagged score, loaded with outstanding aural cues, comes across loud and clear. If there is one minor quibble, it's that the subtitles used to elucidate several important foreign language conversations in the film are rendered in small, stark white lettering. They are hard to see, some of the time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Just a brief point of clarification: not all of Munich is true. Indeed, the veracity of the book upon which it was based, Vengeance by George Jonas, has been consistently questioned. For anyone interested in the details, a quick Google search can answer any and all questions. This review is based solely on the movie made, not the material left out or information that should have been included. Fictionalized, or just plain false, Munich still makes many important statements about terrorism and the response to same. As others have pointed out, Spielberg didn't make a documentary. Dramatic license is always an artist's prerogative.
Perhaps the recent race to dismiss Spielberg is merely a phase. Cinema occasionally rattles the rafters, knocking known quantities down a peg or two in preparation for their eventual re-ascent into the laps of the gods. As new generations step up to make their own voices—and choices—heard, they eventually fall back on the considered classics and begrudgingly accept them into their aesthetic fold. It's happened to Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola. It's just beginning for Martin Scorcese and Terry Gilliam. Like the regular rebelliousness of teenager to parent, rejection of the status quo has to occur before the validity of its victories can be appreciated. For his pre-'90s efforts alone, Spielberg stands as a master of moviemaking, with even his failures feeling more kinetic and creative than the work of other Hollywood heavies. But with Munich, Spielberg makes a clear and convincing statement for his continued relevance as a director of daring, originality, and spirit. The movie itself is unquestionably great, a future favorite in the director's extensive oeuvre. It walks the fine line between valiant and vile in artistically impressive, visionary steps. Only a true talent could create something this solid. Deny him all you want, but Steven Spielberg is an epic filmmaker…and Munich is a remarkable illustration of his dramatically deft handiwork.
Not guilty. Not even close.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Steven Spielberg
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