Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zichler, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zorer, Mathieu Amalric, Michael Lonsdale
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (based on the book 'Vengeance' by George Jonas)
Running Time: 164 minutes
It's 1972 and the kidnapping of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by the Palestinian group Black September has ended in a bloodbath. 'Munich' focuses on the Israeli response and follows the fortunes of a specially formed Mossad unit led by the affable Avner (Eric Bana) - from deployment to dissolution. Their task is revenge, though naturally Prime Minister Golda Meir (in a fascinating performance by Lynn Cohen) has nobler ways of phrasing it. They must track down and assassinate as many of the architects of the Munich atrocity as they can find. When Avner, who has a happy marriage and a baby on the way, responds to these orders with stunned silence his handler (Geoffrey Rush) reassures him, "It's good that you didn't have any questions." This is the first hint at what 'Munich' is all about.
Part thriller part heist movie, here we have the traditional 'ragtag crew of misfits' getting together to carry out an audacious plot. Each member of the team has his idiosyncrasies - the bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz) prefers making toys, the clean-up man (Cirian Hinds) resembles an insurance salesman, the South African (Daniel Craig) is a bit too keen - but they enjoy each other's company and bond into a family of sorts. The twist is that these likeable fellows are not out to rob a casino and their 'scam' is not one that any audience can view comfortably. In conducting a series of cold-blooded killings across Europe they are spreading chaos and fear, sparking further violence and making themselves targets. They must also deal with the personal consequences of their actions: Is it possible to kill, whatever the cause, and remain a good man? Because this film doesn't take place in the usual political vacuum the viewer is forced to really consider such things.
'Munich' works best on the level of a fascinating thriller, a sort of comic book of ideas. The characters are not greatly developed and some of the script's attempts at levity are irritating (the scene where the Mossad group accidentally shares a safe house with a PLO group and they argue over what music to put on the radio was a bit too much for me). But Spielberg is remarkably effective at getting us inside the world of these men and showing their deterioration - from moral certainty to doubt and paranoia. He manages to build real suspense while allowing for unusual interludes like Avner's odd relationship with father and son French mercenaries (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Almaric) who seem to be helping all sides at once ("We don't work with governments!").
As a Jewish filmmaker Spielberg reasonably chooses Israeli protagonists for his story but as the film progresses any 'righteousness' these characters had is slowly stripped away. We don't really know from 'Munich' what Spielberg's definitive views are and we don't need to. The film doesn't claim to know, for instance, how the Middle East problem should be solved. Instead it poses questions: Are the actions of so-called counter-terrorists any different from the actions of terrorists? Can the desire for justice be separated from the desire for power? Does the protection of national security really excuse anything? As citizens, how much are we prepared to see done in our names? This is brought home when the weary Avner, well into his mission, gets the chance to see his mother (Gila Almagor). "You don't know what I've been doing," he says wretchedly, clearly wishing he could tell her and unburden himself for even a moment. Her response is firm: "I don't need to know". We understand that, having lost most of her family in the Holocaust, she believes in Israel above all else - but what she is saying amounts to "Do these things for me but don't make me hear about it". 'Munich' is about the people who have to actually do the things that politicians build their rhetoric on.
It's also a genuine attempt to engage with some of the most pressing issues of the moment (a shot of the New York skyline including a digitally inserted World Trade Centre highlights this), through the idea that we must come to terms with the past in order to understand the present. In other words, the way in which powerful countries like Israel and the US chose to deal with their enemies decades ago is bearing fruit today. As George W. Bush's second term rolls on filmmakers are at last beginning to respond, declared Spielberg recently - and he has a point (though Michael Moore may not appreciate it). For a long time mainstream cinema has been drifting further and further into escapism and away from 'real world' situations (the rash of TV spin-off monstrosities is proof enough of that). With films like 'Good Night and Good Luck', 'Syriana', and 'Munich' perhaps the tide is turning. Or is more a matter of approach? Over the years, often through necessity, Hollywood has become incredibly adept at telling stories through metaphor. In the Hays Code days of the 1940s, for instance, filmmakers became skilled at visual puns and innuendo to suggest sexuality. Allegorical films can be incredibly powerful (the stunning 'House of Sand and Fog' being a recent example) but sometimes it's good just to be direct. 'Munich' is one such film. The era seems to demand it.
Rating : ****