Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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FILM: Munich (R)

by Amy Diaz

Steven Spielberg works the serious side of the room with Munich, a tense, engrossing tale (true or not) of Israeli quasi-government agents who are charged to kill 11 Palestinians involved in the planning of the 1972 attack and murder of Israeli Olympians.

Like any master of his craft, Spielberg has no problem tossing off works of satisfactory mediocrity. But occasionally, when he rolls up his sleeves and really pitches in, he makes works of true quality that remind fans and foes that, say what you will, this guy’s got mad skills. Munich is a taut thriller of the kind that The Interpreter clearly wanted to be but wasn’t. It draws you in and quiets the inner critic so that only later will you start to wonder if it tries a little too hard to be even-handed.

How skilled is Spielberg here? Enough that an early scene with Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) doesn’t seem as jarring as it could have. She leads a meeting where top Israeli government officials decide (at least in the movie’s version of history) that they want to show the world that those who target Israelis will not be long for this earth. After the attacks at the Munich Olympics, they make lists, form assassination squads and begin to seek out the men responsible.

Avner (Eric Bana) is a Mossad agent and the son of a hero of Israel’s earliest conflicts. He is asked to lead a team of four men (including Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds) who will seek out 11 men in Europe (they are specifically told just Europe — no Arab countries, no Eastern Europe). They are given money and names but nothing else — information and weaponry they are left to find via nefarious means similar to the terrorists’ (and, as we learn, perhaps exactly the same — the pool of extra-governmental dealers in secrets and arms is rather small and apolitical).

The team’s first assassination is almost humorous for their nervousness and first-timer fumbling; none of the men are really trained for assassin work — one is a toy-maker. But death is not funny business and each assassination, in fact even the work leading up to the assassination, begins to take a toll. They argue with each other over the legality of what they’re doing, the morality of it and eventually the safety. Avner learns that he too is now being hunted and he fears for the wife and newborn baby he had to leave to complete the work.

The movie takes place in an odd time in world history — post-Holocaust, pre-Sept. 11, the middle of the Cold War, the aftermath of Israel’s initial wars with its Arab neighbors, the beginning of its status as the constant target of terrorist activity. Terrorism, for Americans, was still something that happened Over There, on the other side of an ocean to other people. The Middle East conflicts were a horrible but still completely foreign thing (this was, after all, before the late- 1970s oil shortage, pre-Beirut). And yet, of course, there are plenty of contemporary similarities for Speilberg to indirectly refer to, to get our emotions as tangled as those of the men on screen.

It was the fear and paranoia that elevated War of the Worlds from toss-off status and those emotions get full bloom here in the soil of serious, non-CGI-created subjects. The result is an excellent performance from Bana, who gets to bear the entire weight of his country’s tragedies and guilt. He is a tortured man who nonetheless will torture for a cause he doesn’t even fully believe in anymore. We watch him slowly lose not just his convictions but also his mind.

Munich offers a smart, layered story, well-developed characters and a pace that keeps us involved even when the story turns to the intricacies of foreign relations. Ah, Steven Spielberg, look at what you can do when you put your mind to it..

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