Friday, August 11, 2006

Munich: A Tragic Event Becomes a Masterful Film

By Tony Buchsbaum

Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg, is one of those films that comes back, long after viewing it, to haunt you. Focusing on the events following the murder of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Games in 1972, the film deconstructs that period’s political climate and seems to comment on our own, right now, at the same time.

Created in collaboration with playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner—best known for his searing Angels in AmericaMunich is told to us through the eyes of Avner, a Mossad agent drafted by Golda Meir to build and lead a secret team of assassins whose sole mission is to exact revenge for the murdered athletes. In short, their job is to follow up leads and kill the men responsible for the massacre.

As portrayed by Eric Bana, Avner is a wonderfully sympathetic character, a man torn by his allegiance, on one side, to his country and its leader, and on the other side, to his wife and the baby they are just about to have. His performance is all in his eyes, which grow darker and darker as the film progresses. It is just about perfect.

Supporting him, playing the other agents on his team, are Daniel Craig, who has since been cast as the new James Bond, Ciaran Hinds, Matthieu Kassovitz, and Hanns Zischler. Geoffrey Rush plays the go-between, the administrator for whom murder is simply the execution of an order, not the ending of a life.

It is this distinction that drives the film. It’s not so much about the revenge killings as it is about the effect these actions have on the men who carry them out. What begins as a mission taken for God and country slowly becomes more ambiguous than anyone bargained for. Avner and his cohorts come to wonder what it’s all for. Is “en eye for an eye” getting them anywhere?

Spielberg’s direction is startling mostly in its invisibility. Sure, Munich looks and feels like a Spielberg film, but there are no special effects pyrotechnics here, nothing remotely like the alien machines that populate War of the Worlds, his other 2005 film. Here, the director seems to hang back, letting the scenes unfold at their own pace. The actors, each as different from the others as they can be, hit each other like billiard balls, and their interaction is fascinating. What killing means to one, it might not mean to another.

The heart of the film lies in one scene in which Avner and a Palestinian find themselves in the stairwell. The Palestinian is someone Avner’s group has targeted, but he has no idea who Avner is. The scene is vintage Kushner, a way to get both characters—who represent distinct sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict—to come clean, as it were. To present their sides to each other. When you emerge on the backside of this scene, you find yourself amazed that both sides have valid points. Both are right, both are wrong, both are at fault. It is a brave, revealing scene that seems to symbolize the questions Avner has about the job he has assumed.

As always, the score by John Williams stands out. This time, the music is anchored by the wordless humming—if not prayer-like moaning—of a woman. Is she meant to symbolize Avner’s wife’s sorrow at a job that places her husband in such danger? Is it Mother Israel? Such things are never pointed out, but somehow it feels right. If Williams had chosen a man to do this kind of chanting, I don’t know if it would have been as effective.

The recent DVD release of Munich contains featurettes that wonderfully illuminate the film. They cover the music and the cast, with deeper dives into the history and the era.

Munich is a riveting, sometimes shocking film that works as thrilling entertainment, but that strikes your heart as an unfortunate chapter of our history—and telling preview of the situation in which we find ourselves today.

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