December, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Steven Spielberg

Starring:Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric, Gila Almagor, and Moritz Bleibtreu

In a medium more inclined towards commercial profitability than artistic insight, some of the best American movies of 2005 provide an unusual level of cautionary observation about trends in contemporary society. While box-office remains the principal focus of Hollywood, consider the following: Capote ponders the price a literary genius paid for his manipulation of the subjects in his masterpiece, the lingering effects of brutality on those exposed to it haunt A History of Violence, Good Night & Good Luck reminds us of the price the United States paid when demagogues rode our fear of Communism to political power and Syriana elevates Eisenhower’s forecast of a “military-industrial complex” to acidly-etched political paranoia. In this, the last major film of the year-end holiday season, director Steven Spielberg delivers a surprisingly thought-provoking examination of whether revenge and retribution can be both morally acceptable and politically successful responses to terrorism. 

Using the political thriller as his framework, Spielberg examines the motivations and subsequent actions of the Israeli government in its decision to assassinate the members of the Palestinian Black September terrorist group responsible for the deaths of the Israeli Olympic Team at the Munich Games in 1972. Although it’s overlong and occasionally a bit too slick for its own good, this film is unquestionably the most ambitious of Spielberg’s long, successful career and its honesty an abrupt departure from his usual efforts to please the audience rather than make it think. Here, he’s created a movie that will anger, irritate and prod discussion, all signs that at last, he’s created something which strikes a nerve - - and the result is both courageous and very valuable. 

In the days following those devastating events in Munich, (which Spielberg brilliantly encapsulates by mixing his story’s own footage with historical television clips) Goldia Maier’s government decided to detach members of its secret service to form a clandestine unit, based in Europe, to stalk and eliminate those believed to be responsible for the massacre of Israel’s athletes. A team of 5 assassins was assembled, led by Avner, (Eric Bana) the son of a prominent Israeli general. Despite the fact that he was about to become a father himself, he was formally removed from the government’s payroll, stripped of his official rights as a civil servant and sent to Switzerland where private bank accounts had been established for the operational expenses he and his colleagues incurred during their search for and destruction of the eleven individual deemed responsible for the Munich attack. Over many months, the team disposed of the majority of those on the list, shooting the first then blowing up the rest in incidents which caused a good deal of what we now euphemistically refer to as “collateral damage.” Finally, retaliation against his team and second thoughts about the morality of what they’re were doing led Avner to abandon his mission; he rejoined his wife and infant daughter, (sequestered during his absence in Brooklyn for their safety) and rejected his superior’s offer to live again Israel in order to be closer to his parents and friends. 

Spielberg seems incapable of making movies that don’t flow; in over 30 films since 1971, he’s exhibited a flair for both visual clarity and storylines with mass appeal. The commercial success of his work has become the stuff of legend; from “Jaws” to “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” to the Indiana Jones & Jurassic Park trilogies, he’s demonstrated time and again a gem-cutter’s ability to slice through a storyline and produce popular entertainments that resonate with audiences all over the world. But that desire to please seems to afflict his more serious work; (The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan) in those instances, a lack of nerve often results in tales laced with pious platitudes - - childhood can be difficult and lonely, patriotism is laudable, slavery, racism and anti-Semitism offensive etc. Couple that with the fact that his films’ scripts rarely provide the kind of complex character development required for superb performances and you have a body of work that’s always competent and commercially successful without being particularly noteworthy. 

Munich stands in stark contrast to that assessment; Spielberg’s consciously designed it to examine the morality of a profoundly ambiguous issue and he delivers the goods with subtly and passion, thanks in no small part to Tony Kushner’s acidic script and the director’s insistence on rigorously balancing the seductive excitement of the executions with penetrating observations about their inevitable consequences. Kushner, the playwright who gave Broadway the stunning “Angels In America” a few years back, makes some of dialogue here run on as though it were designed to be presented on stage, which makes the members of Avner’s hit-squad frequently sound like spokesmen for a given point of view rather than real characters. But the screenplay doesn’t flinch when evil is being considered as a policy choice, even when it’s justified by the words Kushner put in the mouth of Prime Minister Maier; “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”.  

Munich repeatedly examines how that type of relativistic double-speak not only caused specific deaths, but also erosion in the standards of civilized conduct in a people that have been so terribly dealt with throughout Western history. “That Munich so boldly examines the implications of this self-serving justification makes it both exciting to watch and important to think about after you’ve left the theater.  

Spielberg’s camerawork is, as usual, crisp and visually interesting and his ability to make you flinch even when you know what’s coming hasn’t lost any of its punch. But there are times when he just can’t seem to refrain from making his point too sentimentally; Avner’s motivation is repeatedly presented via a series of flash-back memories about the final minutes of the Munich slaughter, (which he didn’t personally experience) culminating in a final love scene with his wife that’s as cheesy as it is improbable and the middle men who provide the team with weapons and information about their targets often take on the guise of philosophical oracles. But Kuchner’s ear for the telling accuracy of a Jewish kvetch puts an authentic punch into much of the dialogue with the result that the whole is far greater and more important than the sum of its parts.

When Avner stops killing people and returns to the warmth of his small family, the director has the good sense to just let the movie wind down out of sheer exhaustion. There’s no neat resolution of the issue here, no grand statement of emotionally satisfying or politically justifying purpose; Avner’s become a stranger to his own land and countrymen despite being praised by his mother as someone who’s helped make it possible for “Jews to leave in peace, in their own country, surrounded by other Jews”. Yet Avner doesn’t believe he’s accomplished that at all; his confusion and pained resignation at what he’s become make this movie a gripping thriller with a moral focus that demands our attention; with it, Spielberg steps out of the ranks of successful directors and into the medium’s truly important ones.    

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