Phil on Film Index

Monday, January 30, 2006

Review - Munich

After three decades at the top of the filmmaking world, Steven Spielberg has taken on the most potentially troublesome material of his career. Munich is concerned not with the tragic events at the 1972 Olympics when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by the Palestinian ‘Black September’ terrorists, but instead examines the aftermath of that incident; when a group of Israeli assassins were ordered to hunt down and kill men who were suspected of being behind the terrorist attack.

Munich is a film fraught with problems. It has been adapted by the oddball screenwriting duo of Eric Roth and Tony Kushner from George Jonas’s book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team - the veracity of which has often been questioned - and the resulting script has difficulty maintaining a consistent tone while delivering a morally and ethically ambiguous take on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The main focus of Spielberg’s film lies with Avner, an honest, patriotic Israeli operative with a heavily pregnant wife who is asked to head up the assassination squad carrying out this mission. He has four men to use, each of which has different specialities. Avner is played by Eric Bana in his first really impressive performance since his electrifying debut in 2000’s Chopper. The rest of the squad comprises of Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toy maker turned bomb maker; Carl (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), the group’s cleanup man, and the squad is rounded of with Steve (Daniel Craig) and Hans (Hanns Zischler), whose roles are never as fully developed. “It is strange to think of oneself as an assassin” says Carl during their first meeting, “think of yourself as something else then” replies Avner; but for these men, distancing themselves from the acts they commit proves easier said than done.

The first hour of Munich is promising. Spielberg opens with a dramatic and convincing reconstruction of the terrorist assault at the Munich games. The director’s approach here is jumpy and tense, using handheld cameras to give his film the sweaty, paranoid feel of a 70’s-style conspiracy thriller. The film’s tight and nervy air continues as Avner receives his orders from the shady Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) and the group make their first hit; a superb set-piece in which Spielberg brilliantly expresses their inexperience, nervous energy and excitement. Unfortunately it’s not long after this before Spielberg’s grip on the film starts to slacken, and the less sure-footed sections in between the stylish set-pieces gradually becomes longer.

The problem with Munich is that Spielberg has never has been a natural political filmmaker. His gifts have always been his pure ability to tell a story, and his virtuosity with major spectacles, but in trying to deal with one of today’s most pertinent and sensitive issues he is playing to his weaknesses rather than his strengths, and it comes close to wrecking the film. Technically, Munich is a spectacularly well made film; Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is typically superb (despite Spielberg’s usual insistence on over-bright backlighting), the film’s evocative production design is exceptional, and the director himself handles matters with his customary slickness and professionalism.

However, this is supposed to be a film about ideas, about debate, and it’s here that Munich struggles. The film’s message seems to be that ‘violence begets violence’ and Spielberg argues that the policy of ‘an eye for an eye’ has left us all blind. This is a noble and important message for sure, but it’s not one we haven’t heard before and Spielberg doesn’t really bring anything new to the table with Munich. A number of contrived situations are enabled in which the words uttered by the characters sounds less like convincing dialogue and more like screenwriter’s points being forced into their mouths. In one scene Avner (pretending to be part of the ETA terrorist movement) has a discussion with a young member of the P.L.O.; and the group themselves have many discussions about the righteousness or otherwise of their actions. Few of these scenes ring true however, and the film gets bogged down for too long in unedifying ideological discource.

Spielberg may have had intentions to provide a balanced, even-handed film with Munich (although the script’s omission of the mistakenly murdered Norwegian waiter is a startling oversight which, combined with the sympathetic portrayal of the Israeli hit squad, seems to lean heavily towards a pro-Israel viewpoint); but his distanced approach lends the film an emotional coldness which sadly precludes audience involvement. I never really felt attached to the main characters in any way, despite the best efforts of the uniformly excellent cast, and for this reason the film struggled to maintain my attention as it ran through it’s needlessly self-important length. Normally one can expect a Spielberg film to play on the emotions before challenging than the intellect but, in trying to tackle this material which his is clearly unsuited to, the director seems to have sacrificed the usual economy of storytelling which has become his trademark.

Munich seems to bleed momentum from the opening hour onwards and Spielberg’s direction becomes progressively looser as the film hops from country to country and the kills stack up. The director can still orchestrate a set-piece as well as anyone, and there are some stunners here; an explosion which tears through a hotel and the moment a child nearly gets caught up in an attempted hit are vintage Spielberg moments, and the frequent murders are realistically, and bloodily, staged. However, only one of the many kills in the film really hit me with the intended impact, the murder of a female Dutch assassin which is one of the most shocking things Spielberg has ever done. She is not part of the plan and is murdered for revenge alone, and Spielberg gives the scene a horribly sexual aspect as she is killed while naked with incredibly phallic weapons. The scene is about revenge, sex and death, and it displays Spielberg doing what he does best - hitting our base emotions, not making political points.

Munich feels remarkably relevant, opening in the UK in the same week that the Hamas government was victorious in the Palestinian elections, but Spielberg muddles his messages and the film becomes an overlong disappointment. This is undoubtedly Spielberg’s toughest, most ambitious and interesting work since Schindler’s list, and there are frequent moments here when one can glimpse a great filmmaker at the top of his game; but it must unfortunately be marked as a failure. A noble failure perhaps, but a failure nonetheless.