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Matt's Munich Review
Spielberg directed seven films in the 2000s decade, Munich is probably my favorite of those. In an era where terrorism is a popular subject in film, Spielberg took a slightly different approach in tackling the subject than other directors. He set his film during the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Massacre. 11 athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists during the Olympics that year. It was a huge public spectacle at the time. Israel felt the loss particularly because 9 of the 11 athletes were Israeli. The Mossad responded with a covert operation which involved killing the terrorists responsible, and that is what Munich is about. As its centered in on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there are other complex issues at stake, and there’s an interesting layer of complexity added because its from the point of view of the Israeli Mossad, as opposed to the US. The end result is what I consider to be the most sophisticated study of terror on terror violence. It’s also the best spy film I’ve ever seen.
- This subject matter is highly political and controversial. At the time of its release, we were 4 years out from 9/11, and 2 years into the war in Iraq. With the war on terror in full swing and the entire middle-east in a state of discord, it’s not that surprising that the film provoked debate. One of the criticisms leveled at the film is that it doesn’t seem to take sides at all. The protagonists slowly become cold-blooded killers over the course of the film, and the Palestinian terrorist targets are humanized over and over again – one of them is an artist and writer, another a family man with a young daughter. Who do you sympathize with? It’s a fair question. This is a very tough film, with principle characters committing shocking and brutal acts of violence over and over again. No one can commit such acts or live in that sort of environment without eventually suffering psychological repercussions – which Avner clearly does. This is one of the main points of the film.
- One thing I will say about this film that continues to frustrate me is how many questions it raises, with so few answers. From what I’ve been able to glean from interviews with Spielberg, this is intentional. The point was to spark discussion, not to answer the prominent questions. What I think the movie is clear on, is the idea that terror on terror violence is a vicious cycle that could go on forever. Munich stipulates that almost nothing was actually accomplished by killing those responsible for the Munich Massacre, and subsequent to the Munich Massacre, Black September carried out multiple other terrorist attacks against the Israelis. The cycle continues.
- As a spy thriller, this film was well above the curb. Don’t forget that the Mossad is, in fact, an intelligence agency. This is one of the best I’ve seen in terms of paranoia and realism. Realism is probably the biggest factor that sets this above films like Mission Impossible (1996), Ronin (1998), and other similar action-oriented spy fair. Munich doesn’t have action sequences, so much as violence. The biggest “action sequence” in the film is the Beirut scene, which plays more like a combat sequence in a war film than an action set piece from say, one of the Jason Bourne movies. It’s messy, and it’s ugly, and it should be.
- Everybody’s human. There is no one in this film that is without flaw, and in an environment where trust is so difficult, it’s hard to know who’s side everyone is on, and more important, what their intentions might be. That being said, I think most will sympathize with the principle characters. All the members of Avner’s team reflect starkly different attitudes towards the work they’re doing, some are fully committed to revenging themselves against the Palestinians, some are more scrupulous and reluctant, and all go through subtle transformations as their work continues. These are mostly normal men recruited into this business because they wish to serve their country. They are not trained field operatives. I think that fact alone adds a certain dimension and accessibility to this film and these characters. Imagine yourself in a similar situation, what sort of questions would you ask, if any? How would you behave under those circumstances?
For my last bullet point in this section, I’d like to talk briefly about a specific scene in Munich that has turned out to be one of the most hotly debated topics regarding this film. For those that haven’t seen Munich yet, this section will contain SPOILERS and I strongly advise that you skip down to the “Performances” section of this review.
- The Dutch woman – This was a brutal scene, brutal to the point that many viewers had trouble sympathizing with any of the characters once it was over. Spielberg knew what he was doing when he shot this scene, he staged it in the most shocking, horrifying, pitiless and repellent way imaginable. She was undressed, unarmed (her gun sat useless in its drawer), and most importantly, we never actually see her do anything remotely threatening. The fundamentals of how I view this scene are these:
o She was not just a harmless cat-lady. She was a completely business-minded assassin who killed one of Avner’s team members for money. And she admitted what she was before they shot her.
o Yes, she was unarmed, but she had a gun in the drawer that she was reaching for.
I think what makes this scene difficult is, it’s hard to reconcile what we see in the film with what we are told. We are told what she is, but we don’t actually see it for ourselves. The real question is, why is this scene in the film at all? I think the answer is to show just how far these men have come from who they were at the beginning. Also to further the point of how ugly the business they are in actually is. It was unsettling, for sure, but I think the subject matter demanded that this film be somewhat unsettling in places.
Spielberg always works with great actors, and this time is no exception, he assembled a great cast for this film, all of whom turned in fine performances.
- Eric Bana is the main character, although he has plenty of help carrying the film from the rest of the cast. 20 years from now, this could potentially be considered the performance of Bana’s career. Certainly this is the best and most complex character I’ve ever seen him portray.
- Daniel Craig has an interesting turn in this film, this is pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig. He turns in a strong and intense performance, at times likable, at times slightly off-putting. At the end of the movie, I wasn’t sure how much I liked the character, but it was a strong performance non-the-less.
- Geoffrey Rush’s acting chops are beyond criticism at this point, and he handles his role here with all the care and nuance of a veteran performer, he’s fantastic.
- Other faces to look for are Ciaran Hinds (Phantom of the Opera), Michael Lonsdale (Ronin), Mathiu Amalric (Quantum of Solace – but he’s way better in Munich), and Ayelet Zurer (Angels and Demons), rounding out the ensemble nicely. As a performance piece, this movie works well, and Munich wouldn’t be nearly as good if that wasn’t the case.
Music, Cinematography, and Special Effects
- John Williams, need I say more? He does some of his most haunting work in Munich, he adds a lot of weight to many scenes that probably wouldn’t have hit as hard otherwise.
- And now for the first time since I’ve started writing reviews, I’m actually compelled to cite a cinematographer by name: Janusz Kaminsk. He’s done a lot of work with Stephen Spielberg over the years, and here he exhibits some of the most gorgeous camerawork I’ve ever seen. This is not a colorful film, the colors are somewhat muted – although not to the level of films like Saving Private Ryan. What little color there is, though, is very noticeable. The way Munich was shot adds a somewhat aged, and documentary feel to it. Munich is so well shot that even the critics that panned the film at the time of its release, often had a tendency to grudgingly admit the cinematography rocked.
- Special Effects – as per usual with this sort of film, it’s all about being as convincing as possible. I thought they did a fantastic job. In fact one scene in this film featured one of my favorite explosions of all time.
The Bottom Line
It’s almost impossible to keep political bias out of this film. Spielberg specifically made this film to jumpstart conversations on all sorts of topics related to terrorism and religious conflict in the Middle-east. As with any film related to religion, this ruffled more than a few feathers, if you look at this film on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or the Internet Movie Database, this movie is rated significantly lower than it deserves to be in my opinion. The anti-heroic nature of the characters make Munich one of the least accessible films that Spielberg has ever done, and yet, because it’s Spielberg the film remains very watchable. I love this film, it puts the world of intelligence in a whole new light and raises some good points on the subject matter. 9/10