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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Munich (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush

"You'll do what the terrorists do." Any doubt you might have had regarding the position the film would take to the story of the Israeli government's retaliation against the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics is pretty much set to rest in that one line, spoken by a Mossad official. That position made Munich controversial in certain circles when it was released, but the questions it raises shouldn't be ignored.

The film begins with the events at Munich, when members of the Palestinian militant group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage in an attempt to force Israel to release 234 "political prisoners." The scene at Munich is pure chaos and results in all the athletes and most of the terrorists being killed. The film does not elaborate a great deal on the events at Munich, but rather allows it to haunt the periphery of the story (for a more comprehensive discussion of just what a gong show the whole thing was I recommend Kevin Macdonald's documentary One Day in September), helping to drive the protagonist towards madness through frequent flashbacks. There is a sense of obligation for him to avenge those lost men that never goes away or lessens no matter how his feelings about his revenge mission start to change.

That man is Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), the leader of a top secret squad of Israeli assassins out to kill 11 men connected to Black September. His team includes Steve (Daniel Craig), Hans (Hans Zischler), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), and in Paris he makes contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric), an informant who puts him on the track of the men they're hunting. With the first few targets Avner is more or less content to accept the government's word that these are justified killings, but as time goes on he begins to question that and to ask for proof. He also becomes angry as he realizes that they're killing terrorists only to have them be replaced by worse terrorists. This isn't a solution after all, it's just an escalation.

Given the politically fraught subject matter, Munich makes for a provocative film and director Steven Spielberg (working from a screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) doesn't shy away from the big questions or from taking a solid stance. It's important to Avner that he only kill people directly involved with Black September and not collect any collateral damage (though this become less of an issue for him as time goes on). On one mission he realizes that the daughter of one of the targets has gone back to the house and he rushes to stop the bomb from being detonated so that she won't be killed. Since the film is from the same director who brought us Schindler's List, it can't be meaningless that the little girl is wearing a red sweater in this scene. Blood for blood is still blood, murder for murder is still murder.

Spielberg tells the story in an efficient and engrossing way. The scenes in which the team carries out its assassinations (and attempted assassinations) are incredibly well-crafted, Spielberg at the absolute top of his game. The ending is a bit limp compared to what comes before and that's really the only issue that I have with the film (well, that and the fact that I think Marie-Josée Croze is wasted in a minor role). Bana, who has never really made much of an impression on me, delivers a great performance that expertly navigates the moral dilemma and competing emotions and loyalties that Avner is facing. Overall this is a very strong effort from one of our greatest living filmmakers.

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