In honor of the release of Steven Speilberg’s Bridge of Spies I am publishing a few of my old Steven Speilberg reviews including this 2005 review of Munich starring Eric Bana.
Despite my liberal politcial tendencies, I have always held one particularly conservative point of view. That Israel is justified in its actions in protecting itself from Palestinian terrorists. The Palestinians have, in my opinion, never done a very good job in presenting their case that the land that is now Israel should belong to them. It’s impossible for me to sympathize with Palestinians who target civilians with suicide bombers over Israelis who react to such attacks with a righteous military assault.
So when Steven Speilberg set out to make Munich, a film that presents a message about how violence only leads to more violence and that Israel is not as righteous as some, like myself, perceive, I was fascinated. Munich is now part of the public discourse and while it is a thoughtful and well-made film about the futility of violence and vengeance, it is easy to understand why some Israelis might find the film to be little more than liberal hand-wringing.
Munich stars Eric Bana as Avner, an agent of the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Avner is a former bodyguard to Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) and through this connection Avner is offered an assignment like none he has ever been given before. In the wake of the Palestinian terror attack on Israeli athletes at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, the Prime Minister has decreed that vengeance must be taken and Avner will lead the covert operation to gain that vengeance.
With a list of 11 names, each somehow linked either to planning Munich or belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization which assumedly backed the terrorists at Munich, Avner meets his team and sets about his grisly task. Along with Avner are fellow Mossad operatives Steve (Daniel Craig), the driver; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker turned bombmaker; Hans (Hanns Ziscler), a forgery expert; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), an expert in covering up after the fact.
Once the team is assembled Munich unfolds like a spy novel complete with covert meetings, shady informants and precisely planned operations. What separates Munich from your average spy movie, however, is the often surprising lack of skill involved in the first few operations. These covert ops are messy and, at times, convoluted. On one occasion Avner himself is nearly killed by a bomb that was much too large for the task at hand. In arguably the film’s most breathtaking moment a young girl returns home in time to intercept a phone call on a booby-trapped phone meant for her father.
Speilberg’s skill for mass appeal entertainment serves him well in crafting the moments of spy intrigue and operational misfires. The script for Munich by playwrite Tony Kushner provides the film’s intellectual underpinnings though not as effectively as Speilberg’s action scenes. Kushner’s taste for speeches that state the obvious and underline the same point again and again grows tiresome by the fourth or fifth time you hear it.
The point that Munich wants to make is that the continuing retalliatory strikes between the Israelis and Palestinians are futile. No progress can be made by continuing to kill one another. As Avner experiences in the film, killing one terrorist means another possibly more committed and horrifying terrorist takes his place.
The film questions, quite effectively, the moral grounding of Israel’s wont for vengeance. How does one rectify vengeance with their religious beliefs. Not to be to cute about it but ‘What would Moses do’?
Eric Bana delivers his first mature and focused performance since his star-making turn in Black Hawk Down. Bana’s Avner is nothing like his special forces officer Hoot Gibson, a brash and confident killer who never questions his mission even as it goes horribly wrong. Avner is an efficient killer who is committed to following orders but he is not afraid to question his motivation and express remorse and even guilt for what he does. The two performances together show why so many in Hollywood believe in his leading man talents even after the dual disasters of The Hulk and Troy.
The film’s two best performances come from two peripheral characters. Mathieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale play French operatives who help Avner locate his targets for a price. Where they get the information from, who they work for, and why they do what they do are mysteries the film does not need to solve. Leaving those questions open brings tension to every scene they are in. They leave tantalizing details at every turn like intimations that the Palestinian terrorists at Munich may have been financed by the CIA! The Frenchmen may be the films most fictional element but also its most intriguing.
Munich works well as a civics and morality play and as a thriller but I would not call it popcorn entertainment. While Steven Speilberg is trying to change the world many an audience member will yawn awaiting the next exciting action sequence. No matter your feelings on the conflict in the Middle East you will respect Speilberg’s attempt to contribute to the important discourse, but so much speechifying can turn an audience waiting to be entertained into an audience ready to leave.
Especially when the speeches are repeated and at times extranneous. A scene in which Avner sneaks back to Israel to see his father in the hospital is merely an opportunity for another character, Avner’s mother played by Gila Almagor, to underline why it’s important for Israel to fight for its existence. It’s a well-delivered point but a point made effectively earlier in the film by Lynn Cohen as Golda Meir.
Each of our protagonists, save for Daniel Craig’s Steve, is given the opportunity to explain their feelings and qualms, often the same issues, in drawn out speeches that underline the film in ways that take you out of the movie. Ciaran Hinds and Hanns Zischler both deliver similar speeches on the moral repugnance of what they are doing and why they are doing it and while it may be good for the characters to express these points as it deepens them equally, both speeches are delivered as if reading the Cliff’s Notes of why the movie Munich was made.
I’m not trying to tell Steven Speilberg to stop trying to moralize and just entertain us. I am saying that there are more subtle ways to underline his points and get them across as effectively. The speeches are not delivered by the actors in ways that are preaching or haranguing but they are written that way and that gets tiresome fast.
Munich is a thoughtful and well-crafted film with its heart on its sleeve. Steven Speilberg truly believes that art can change the world and I respect that. At the same time Speilberg is realistic enough to know that this conflict is too complicated for any one act to change its course. That is, in fact, the point of the film. Both sides should realize there will never be a point in the continuing violence when one side will never strike a winning blow.
On the flip side, Speilberg’s Munich may have been more effective in making its points with one speech as opposed to continued speech after speech and finding other equally effective ways to make the same point without stopping the movie to get on a perpetual soapbox.
I still recommend Munich on the strength of it’s well intentioned ambitions and its excellent craftsmanship but I think it could have been much more.