by David Cornelius
Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” is a film that deals in ambiguities. It has no concern for the simplicities of black and white, right and wrong; this movie prefers the grey areas. It refuses to glorify one side or demonize the other. In its study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its cycle of violence and retribution, it is a film that can be boiled down to one simple line of dialogue: “There is no peace at the end of this.”The film, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (and adapted from the book “Vengeance,” by George Jonas), seems at first glance to be about the tragedy of the 1972 Olympics in Munich; Spielberg’s opening scenes are a masterful recreation of the events, frantic, confusing, a whirlwind of information and non-information that builds to a panic.
"Another flawless Spielberg effort."
And yet the movie is not about Munich at all, but about how the kidnapping and murder that happened there was a launching point for a cycle of revenge. Avner (Eric Bana, in what is unquestionably his finest performance to date) is an unassuming, relatively anonymous Jewish agent called by his government to form a secret task force whose sole mission is to find and kill those responsible for Munich. Avner is not a particularly violent man, but he believes in his task. That is, he believes in it until he begins to experience firsthand the evils of killing.
The Avner we meet in the beginning of the film is a wholly different man than the one we see at the end. Pre-killing Avner is warm, kind, loving. Post-killing Avner is distant, neurotic, paranoid. Throughout the film, we see the Munich massacre as Avner envisions it, as he obsesses on it. This is his call to action, of course, and he keeps the moment locked in his memory - but as time passes, the memory continues to overwhelm him. Consider a scene late in the film, which alternates shots of Avner having sex with images of the final moments of Munich. The juxtaposition is off-putting to say the least (talk about a lousy sexual fantasy), but then, that is the point. Avner has been consumed by this moment, so much that even in what should be a moment of joy, he finds nothing but anger, violence, and despair. (One could argue that this scene acts as an exorcism of sorts, ridding Avner of his demons; I disagree, feeling instead that this is the point where we realize Avner will be lost forever.)
Watch Bana during all of this (it’s not like you’ll be able to miss him). Here is a phenomenal performance, one that delicately portrays an emotional downfall of shattering proportions. It is of course noticeable in the big “Oscar clip” scenes like the breakdown he has after listening to his child (whom he hasn’t seen since she was born) on the telephone. But pay attention to the more subtle moments - a glance here, a reaction there. This is a carefully constructed effort, and it catapults Bana from being a dependable talent to one of our finest actors working today. (To their credit, the rest of the cast is equally phenomenal, with every player turning in engaging performances. Still, this is Bana’s hour - he makes the film.)
In a choice that is unexpected and quite brilliant, the screenplay decides to juggle this psychological aspect of the story with a surprisingly fast-paced, nail-biting espionage thriller. It is the kind of thriller they don’t seem to make anymore; Spielberg creates a visual style purposely reminiscent of the late-1960s and early-70s, with gritty photography and quick zooms and an overall mood that manages to be both personal and distant at the same time. Several set pieces throughout lift the film into an entirely different realm, working purely on a suspense level, all politics kindly ignored for the time being. One sequence in particular, which involves a bomb inside a telephone and the little girl who might fall victim to this trap, ranks among the director’s most remarkable film moments, reminding us just how brilliant this filmmaker is.“Munich” carefully and expertly weaves these action-suspense bits with meditations on a winless war, and it’s the thrills that allow the movie’s points to be made without becoming forceful and preachy. We see how both sides are in the right and how both sides are in the wrong. We see how those committed to violence and revenge have to do away with the very values they hold dear, and we are asked if such a price is ever worth paying. It smothers us in greys, refusing us the comforts of black and white. It is a thriller with a heart, a message movie with suspense. It is smarter than most Hollywood films could ever hope to be, and it assumes the same level of intelligence in the viewer. It is a movie built to leave you angry, sad, wowed, and, above all, arguing. It is, quite simply, another masterwork from a master filmmaker.
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originally posted: 01/19/06 16:43:40