Tuesday, December 27, 2005


There's a reason why Steven Spielberg is one of the most respected directors in film, and anyone who's seen Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., or Schindler's List knows what that is. He's not a "do-no-wrong" director - who is, really? - but even his failures can be interesting. I don't think all of his well-received films are necessarily good - I can't stand Saving Private Ryan, for example - but when he shines, boy is it stunning. And I believe he shines best when there's some kind of pressure, be it in the form of time constraints or "the shark isn't working" or whatever.

Munich does not feel like a "Spielberg film." Gone is any of that Peter Pan sensibility that made E.T. and Close Encounters and even Schindler's List feel like safe moviegoing experiences. This is a taut (despite the nearly three-hour running time) suspense thriller and a symphony of paranoia that is wonderfully understated and feels absolutely real at every moment.

My father remarked recently that it's strange to see movies about things you clearly remember happening, such as the massacre at the Munich Olympics, which inspires this film. I suppose it's because those events - in however small a way - are a part of your life, if you were alive to witness them. Munich begins with a reenactment of the terrorists breaking into the Israeli athletes' hotel room. Before we get a chance to see much bloodshed, the news footage takes over, and we watch as people all over the globe witness the proceedings on their television sets. (Side note: It was somewhat poignant to hear the late Peter Jennings' voice as a prominent figure in the news coverage.) We see more of the massacre later on through Avner's dreams (or nightmares, rather).

If you've seen the trailers, you know the impetus of the mission. Avner (Eric Bana) is a family man who is called on by his government to help avenge the Munich attack. He is assigned a team of specialists - a gun man and driver (Daniel Craig), an explosives expert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a forger of papers (Hanns Zischler), and a "clean-up" guy (Ciaran Hinds). One of the things I really enjoyed about this film was the relationship between these five men. It starts very pleasantly, the five of them sharing a meal together or celebrating the success of their first assignment over drinks. Over the course of the movie, as things get more complicated, their relationship starts to crumble and fall apart, as they lose their trust in one another and start to be picked off by their enemies.

Even though these men are professionals, the reality of what they're doing intimidates them at first. And you can feel their fear when things don't go exactly as planned and they have to improvise. Their job is fairly delicate, because they're supposed to take out the targets without killing civilians. Of course, as time goes by they find reasons to bend this rule.

This is not really a "message" movie. There is a message, but it doesn't drill itself into your gray matter in every scene. It isn't a political statement either. Its message is more of a warning about the consequences of killing for a cause, and it might just as well have been taken from a great speech by Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter:

It's 1183 and we're barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.

Like syphilis, indeed, and it has slowly been killing us for thousands of years. There are no answers in Munich. No happy ending where we know Avner and his family will be alright. Even though he is assured by the only people he has reason to fear that he will not be harmed, he will never be alright again. He will never walk down the street without worrying if a car is tailing him. He will never have another good night's sleep. That is the price he pays for the decisions he has made.

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