Munich 2005 film review: Steven Spielberg tackles political time-space continuum in wildly uneven but ultimately satisfying thriller
Alternately intriguing and irritating, thought-provoking and banal, subtle and patronizing, the biggest surprise about Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) is that it – however grudgingly – works.
The film, which Spielberg himself has referred to as a “prayer for peace,” follows five men contracted by the Israeli government to avenge the massacre of that country’s athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Sizable chunks of this political thriller with a Message (capital “M”) are simplistically written, clumsily acted, and handled with the director’s notoriously heavy touch, but the old adage – blood begets blood – even if somewhat muddled, is too timely not to make an impact.
Complex ‘Munich’ movie plot
Based on George Jonas’ 1984 book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, whose veracity has been questioned in some quarters, Munich begins as members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September gain access to the unguarded Olympic village and, after murdering two Israelis, take nine others as hostages. Following a 16-hour standoff, the terrorists demand safe passage, with their hostages, to Cairo. They are taken to a military airport where a West German squad botches a rescue operation so badly that all hostages are slaughtered by the Palestinians.
Enter Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who, with the support of the Israeli military and secret service, determines that Israel must avenge those deaths to discourage terrorists from killing more Israeli civilians.
“Every civilization,” she explains, “finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent whose wife is about to have a baby, is chosen to lead this mission on European soil, where the alleged Black September masterminds dwell.
With the help of a young French informant-for-hire, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), and his shadowy haut bourgeois father, known simply as Papa (Michael Lonsdale), Avner finds the whereabouts of his Arab targets. Thus, he and four other recruits – German document-forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), Belgian bomb-maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), South-African hitman Steve (steely-eyed Daniel Craig), and Israeli evidence-sweeper Carl (Ciarán Hinds) – begin a murder spree in European capitals that accomplishes its objectives all too well.
That is, notwithstanding a few minor inconveniences such as “collateral damage” and the fact that each time one of the alleged terror masterminds dies, another even more bloodthirsty leader steps in to take his place. Indeed, as the agents proceed with their work the number of terrorist attacks in Europe increase dramatically in direct response to the assassinations.
“Europe,” remarks Louis, “hasn’t been this interesting since Napoleon marched into Moscow.” (See Munich movie trailer further below.)
Most ‘interesting’ Steven Spielberg effort in three decades
Steven Spielberg, for his part, hasn’t been this interesting since Jaws thirty years ago. Beginning in the mid-1980s, the director then known as a sort of overgrown, bearded adolescent has been making a series of self-important (and generally well-regarded) movies meant to prove that he is capable of dealing with Serious Issues. But in my view, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence have only served to prove that Spielberg is a technically proficient director – one seemingly incapable of creating and maintaining intellectual and emotional truth on screen for more than a few minutes per film. With Munich, however, that has finally changed.
Obviously, that is not to say that Munich is flawless. Much to the contrary, as stated earlier in this article. Besides the issues briefly mentioned in the second paragraph of this review, the film suffers from an excess of repetitive situations, several bits of dismally flat humor (including, not surprisingly, a ludicrous ode to the unifying power of American pop culture), loads of stilted speechifying about tribal homelands and the true meaning of Jewishness, and that most pernicious Steven Spielberg vice: gooey family moments.
The director also makes a number of poor cinematic choices, the worst of which is a pointless crosscutting sequence that juxtaposes the massacre of the Israeli athletes with Avner having sexual intercourse with his wife.
But most importantly, Spielberg and screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth display an unsettling ambivalence about ethical and unethical behavior that is both Munich‘s greatest asset and its greatest handicap. (Kushner, I should add, won a Pulitzer for the politically charged play Angels in America; Roth won an Oscar for the politically challenged movie Forrest Gump.)
Director’s strings only sporadically visible
On the positive side, for the first time since Bruce feasted along the New England coast Steven Spielberg has made a film in which the strings are only sporadically visible. The fact that he had to rush through production in order to have Munich ready by year’s end – this is reportedly the first film he has directed without relying on storyboards – helped to give this philosophical actioner an edge it might otherwise have lacked.
As a plus, Munich‘s technical aspects are generally first-rate, while John Williams provides what could well be both the most understated and the most effective score of his career.
And since the film in question is a thriller, Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn keep the action moving at a steady pace. Its nearly three-hour running time notwithstanding, Munich is never dull. The set up for the bombing sequences, for instance, is as suspenseful as that of any good crime caper, but with a crucial difference: There’s a gravity to the proceedings that is supposed to prevent us from actually enjoying the suspense.
Arabs as human beings
Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Eric Roth (it’s impossible to pinpoint who was responsible for certain key elements in the film) must also be given credit for humanizing Munich‘s Arab characters. In the film’s climactic moment, for instance, the look in the eyes of the Palestinian terrorist who is about to slaughter the Israeli athletes is not one of hatred, but of despair. Paradoxically, by making the terrorist recognizably human Spielberg makes his actions all the more horrific.
And even though Munich maintains its focus on the Jewish side – the film’s chief victims and its nominal hero are Israelis – the filmmakers make a point of presenting the other side as well. One Arab character, for example, mentions 200 Palestinian refugees killed by Israel, while a Jewish character reminds us that Jews also had to fight and kill in order to create their nation-state.
We see Avner’s mother (Gila Almagor) telling her son, “We have a place on Earth at last, whatever it takes,” but we also get to see a dignified-looking PLO member (Omar Metwally) telling Avner that Palestinians are willing to sacrifice themselves for generations to come because “home is everything.”
Endless tribal violence
In another fine touch, Steven Spielberg never makes the deadly attacks against the Arab targets either exciting or titillating. In Saving Private Ryan, violence was also depicted in all its ugliness during the Normandy invasion sequence, but the victims were invariably Allied soldiers. In later scenes, when Americans killed Germans they were simply defending themselves; when they didn’t, they were making a big mistake. What a difference seven years make.
In Munich, violence, whether directed against Israelis or Arabs, terrorists or civilians, is invariably ugly and shocking. It degrades both the victims and the perpetrators. After one Arab man is torn to pieces by a bomb, Spielberg makes sure we see parts of his body dangling from the ceiling. Whether or not that man had indeed been a terrorist is irrelevant at that point. The horror and the disgust one feels at the bloody outcome are supposed to be the same.
Like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Munich reminds us that the use of force comes at a hefty price, and – in a clear allusion to today’s world and U.S. policies in particular – that societies who compromise ethical values for the sake of political or ideological expediency may be sacrificing much more than a few paragraphs of national and international law.
If only the director and screenwriters had stood on such firm ground at every level. Instead, when dealing with the realm of the personal the filmmakers insist that viewers sympathize with the film’s tortured hero-assassin.
Angst-ridden Mossad assassin
Handsome, beefy, intelligent, sensitive, and family-oriented, Avner is the ideal embodiment of all that is good about Jews everywhere. He is so devoted to his wife that even after years on the road he refuses to have a night fling with Marie-Josée Croze’s sultry Dutch assassin. His is the point of view we are supposed to share.
However, instead of making Avner someone both engaging and repellent, Steven Spielberg, Eric Bana, and company want us to love the Mossad agent and feel sorry for his inner travails. Thus, we’re offered a series of hokey family moments that allow Avner to display positive human emotions – affection, tenderness, vulnerability – in between government-sponsored assassinations. (His sobbing phone scene while talking to his baby daughter is an embarrassment to watch. Mercifully, no other Munich character is allowed that emotional luxury.)
A seriously miscast Eric Bana doesn’t help matters any. Bana may look great with his shirt off, but he fails to convey both Avner’s dedication to the fight and his ever-multiplying inner demons. While hunting down his targets, the actor seems as hapless as Inspector Clouseau, and each time he gets to kill someone, he looks as squeamish as if he were going to clip his victim’s really dirty fingernails. Worse yet, there’s the accent problem.
As in Schindler’s List, the casting of English-speaking actors as continental Europeans and Israelis robs Munich of some much-needed authenticity. Bana and a horrendously over-the-top Geoffrey Rush (as Mossad officer Ephraim), both Australians, come up with grating imitations of Israeli accents (plural) that are as distracting as they are irritating.
Steven Spielberg would have done his film a great service had he cast an Israeli leading man as Avner (Lior Ashkenazi of Walk on Water would have been ideal for the part) and used subtitles for those sequences in which people are supposed to be speaking a language other than English. Americans who will sit through a nearly three-hour political film surely have enough functioning neurons to read subtitles for part of that time.
Dutch assassin Marie-Josée Croze provides film’s dramatic highlight
With the handsome but lackluster Eric Bana at the center of the film, the real performances in Munich are to be found in the periphery. Veteran Michael Lonsdale, who had already been entangled with a hired assassin in Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal back in 1973, brings a marvelously subtle flair to his “ideologically promiscuous” French businessman, a respectable family man who sells deadly information to anyone (but governments) for a price. As his meticulously dressed son, Mathieu Amalric is appropriately creepy as the willing pawn in the big-money game.
Lynn Cohen creates a crafty though not unlikable Golda Meir, while Israeli grand dame Gila Almagor does beautifully as Avner’s mother in the film’s sole family sequences that ring true. Mathieu Kassovitz provides solid support as the tortured bomb dismantler turned bomb-maker, and so do both Ciarán Hinds and Hanns Zischler.
Tony-nominated actor Omar Metwally (Sixteen Wounded), for his part, manages to almost make believable his character’s long-winded declarations about a Palestinian Fatherland. Considering that his lines are as stilted as they are well intentioned, Metwally’s sincere delivery is quite a feat.
But Munich‘s supporting highlight is French-Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze, the poignant heroin addict in Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions and an international superstar-in-the-making if there’s an iota of justice in the film world. Although Croze is on screen for only a few minutes – and despite the film’s frequent depiction of spurting blood and mangled bodies – no moment in Munich is as disturbing as her final scene.
Rare Hollywood production with ‘something relevant to say’
Its many shortcomings notwithstanding, Munich is a welcome addition to that all but extinct cinematic tradition: the big-studio motion picture with something relevant to say. At a time when simplistic and simple-minded worldviews are widely hailed as the unquestionable truth, Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Eric Roth have bravely created a world enmeshed in ideological complexities.
The film’s two basic premises – revenge doesn’t pay; societies that compromise their ethics are in fact compromising themselves – may seem much too mundane to those lofty souls who invoke God while detonating human and car bombs. They may also seem naïve to those worldly types who know that only Guantanamo-style gulags, Patriot acts, extra-judicial murders, and flag-waving wars to eliminate nonexistent weapons of mass destruction will eradicate tribal terrorism. But the Munich filmmakers know better.*
In Munich‘s memorable final scene, the camera lingers for a few seconds on the New York skyline of the late 1970s. Besides connecting the past to the present, that last moment also serves as a sobering warning. If we don’t act now to stop the bloodthirsty, power-hungry ideological zealots in our midst, in 10 or 20 years’ time how many existing structures the world over will have to be recreated on film through computer-generated imagery? Whatever happens, the responsibility ultimately lies with all of us.
* As found in The Washington Post, according to U.S. government figures, a record of 655 “significant” terrorist attacks took place around the world in 2004, the year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. That was up from the previous record of approximately 175 attacks in 2003.
Munich (movie 2005) cast & crew
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenplay: Tony Kushner & Eric Roth.
From George Jonas’ book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.
Cast: Eric Bana. Geoffrey Rush. Daniel Craig. Mathieu Kassovitz. Ciarán Hinds. Hanns Zischler. Ayelet Zurer. Michael Lonsdale. Gila Almagor. Mathieu Amalric. Moritz Bleibtreu. Marie-Josée Croze. Lynn Cohen. Omar Metwally. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. Yvan Attal. Ami Weinberg. Sharon Alexander. Hiam Abbass. Ohad Knoller. Yehuda Levi. Ben Youcef. Guri Weinberg.
Images of Eric Bana, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Marie Josée-Croze in Munich, and Munich movie cover: DreamWorks | Universal Pictures.