02 January 2006

current cinema: Munich


starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Geoffrey Rush
written by: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, from the book by George Jonas
directed by: Steven Spielberg
R, 164 min, 2005, USA

At the 1972 Olympics, the world's grandest statement of peace, eleven Israeli athletes are taken hostage and killed as Peter Jennings reports live. The world watches in rapt attention, rooting for either death or salvation with a fervor beyond that which any event could muster. Once the word comes that they are indeed dead, Israel moves quickly, assembling a team of assassins led by Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard of the Prime Minister. Their task is to as publicly as possible eliminate eleven Palestinians who helped organize the massacre, so that the world may know that the killing of Jews will no longer be tolerated, that Israel's vengeance will be swift and severe. The inexperienced team is well-funded, but they do not officially exist. As they work through the list, they become better assassins, but in many ways they also become worse patriots, beginning to question their country's motives and developing the paranoia of the hunters becoming the hunted.

It is this evolution of the assassins that serves as the film's true narrative core. Bana and his team begin as idealists, men who have signed up for this mission because they could not imagine living with themselves had they not. They are willing to throw themselves headlong into certain death, if need be, out of a pure sense of loyalty and duty. By design none of them are trained for this sort of thing[1]. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the bomb maker who's bombs tend to malfunction, is a simple toy maker who has some training in dismantling bombs, but none in building them. They start to get better at it, though, and with that experience comes the knowledge that not everything is as it seems. They begin to recognize hidden agendas and affiliations the way a spy would, which leads them to begin asking questions. But beyond that the team (Avner especially) begins to be both tormented by the repercussions of what they're doing and as members of the team start dying, a growing paranoia that they may be next. Even a man throwing a cigarette out the window of a moving car is enough alert Avner's sense of panic. Bana's performance here is better than anything he's done since Chopper (2000) and merits serious consideration in the Oscar race. He is given the herculean task of being the film's conscience and acquits himself brilliantly.

To say Munich is an important film is to state the obvious, as parallels to the War on Terror exist in its very DNA. Spielberg frames his tale as a vintage 70's thriller, and with the help of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski crafts a taut, engrossing thriller. It is flawed where it needs to be flawed, seamless where it needs to be seamless, and save for the somewhat unfortunate sex scene[2] at the end there may not be a wasted shot in the entire film. By any standard, this is a very good film, and by some standards it is a great one.

It would be easy for Spielberg, the world's most famous Jewish filmmaker, to approach a film about the 1972 Olympics from an entirely pro-Israel standpoint, to anoint the group as an extension of God's righteous wrath, both terrible and just. But he doesn't. At multiple turns he questions Israel's motives, their evidence, even their fundamental choice of revenge. He allows the targets every opportunity to establish their humanity, and it is the humanity that plants the seeds of doubt in Avner's mind. It isn't hard to look at a photo of someone who's been called a terrorist and shoot them from a distance, like in a video game, but watch that same man kindly lecture outside a bookstore or make small talk with him on a hotel balcony and he becomes a real person, not just a target. Even the most brazen killer may hesitate before killing someone with whom he's shared a moment, no matter how small. As things progress and he gets sucked deeper into this world, Avner begins to realize that while his allegiance still lies with his home, that home is no longer a plot of land in the Middle East that's been designated as Israel, but with his family, where he can live in peace with his wife and child.

There's an old saying that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind", for it creates an entire cycle of violence that has no logical end. Did the Israeli government really think killing eleven of the terrorists would be it, that Palestine would say fair is fair and ask for a truce? Perhaps. But in that assumption they fail to see that the Munich Massacre was no doubt a response to something else, like the way Israel has treated the Palestinians in the years since being awarded their own country. To them, Munich evens the score for a previous transgression, so any response from Israel is a fresh assault on their people. Is that the healthiest worldview for Palestine to adopt? Perhaps not. But what's so refreshing about Munich is that Spielberg doesn't spend time taking sides with a country. Instead, he takes the side of peace, because when peace wins, everyone wins, and men like Avner can sleep at night.

[1] The idea being that this will help them fly under the radar easily.

[2] I won't get into it here, since everyone else seems to be spending so much time talking about it, but it was a bit tasteless, although somewhat effective. I understand what he was trying to convey, but he lost me on the slow-motion shot of him soaking wet.