Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 04/13/06 18:34:35

"This is a history of violence!"
5 stars (Awesome)

Steven Spielberg is a multi-faceted Phoebus of a director. One Spielberg easily transports the hardened of adult souls to the fantasyland that the curious primate in them craves to go and be at. This is the Spielberg who has let the child within him walk into a toy-store of filmmaking, and that child eagerly produces gems like E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park, and many other big-budgeted summer extravaganzas. The other Spielberg, at loggerheads with the child, desperately tries to establish himself as an adult. Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and now 'Munich' are the creations of that ever-maturing Steven Spielberg. Hop-scotching between his two souls, there is one undeniable thread that is the heart of Spielberg- the art of filmmaking. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration or an overstatement to frankly concede that Steven Spielberg has mastered the craft of making movies. 'Munich' is probably the best example of how absolute he can make them.

Munich deals with a very sensitive issue. On 6th Sepetmber, 1972, the world watches as 11 Israeli athletes are taken hostage at the Munich Olympics and subsequently killed by Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization. Golda Meir(Lynn Cohen), dissatisfied with the lackadaisical global reaction to the incident, realizes that peace is definitely not an option. She orders a group of Mossad(an Israeli secret service agency) agents to track down the 11 minds behind the Munich incident and assassinate them. Meir believes that the only way Israel can make itself heard is by a strong retaliatory action. In chillingly cold fashion she calmly states that “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”. Led by the Bavarian Avner(Eric Bana), the group comprises of a South African getaway driver Steve(Daniel Craig), a Belgian toymaker-turned-bomb expert Robert(Mathieu Kassovitz), a German forger Hans(Hanns Zischler) and the clean-up guy Carl(Ciaran Hinds). Officially unofficial, the group receives their remuneration regularly via an unnamed account at the Swiss Bank, and only report to their handler Ephraim(Geoffrey Rush). To track down the 11 targets, dispersed all over Europe and Middle East, Avner enlists the help of a French informant Louis(Mathieu Amalric) who provides information under the condition that Avner not be working for some government. The assassinations take them to Rome, Paris, Beirut and other places that Spielberg and his team of art directors recreate wonderfully. The attention to detail is utmost- the Fiat cars(at its zenith in the 70’s), the dapper suits, the roadside hoardings and neon-signs, etc. At the same time, Spielberg executes(no pun intended) the assassinations with such crispness, riveting us completely, that the minute details in the background become oblivious. Avner’s reluctance during his first kill slowly gets replaced by the cool clarity of an assassin. Carl observes of Avner, saying that he knew men like him in the army...“like a foot soldier, only afraid of being still”. Spielberg’s intent however isn’t glamorizing the Israeli response to the Munich massacre. A matured filmmaker, Spielberg is more concerned with the dynamics of the cycle of violence. He questions the veracity of the eye-for-an-eye approach to resolving issues, and at once you realize that his film isn’t merely about Munich and its aftermath but a statement on the present global scene. For every assassination by Avner’s men, Black September responds with a bomb on a bus, shooting spree, etc. With every execution, Avner and his men begin to question their mission and its righteousness. One especially brilliantly written scene has Avner discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict with Ali(Omar Metwally), a PLO operative. Writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth use Ali and Avner as their mouthpieces on opposite sides, and the infinite cycle of violence that these people are willing to accept to achieve what is one’s ‘only place on Earth’ and other’s ‘home that has been taken from him’ becomes alarmingly clear. Avner’s inner yearning for a place to call his home is demonstrated in a recurring scene of him looking into a kitchenette store. Also, Avner’s attempt at justifying his actions to himself are nicely interspersed in three parts throughout the film which emerge at points whenever he is hesitant and weak

As a political piece, Munich is a universal one. Spielberg has invited criticisms from both the Arab world and his Jewish brothers, each blaming him for being partial to the other. In these contradicting accusations lies the simple truth of Spielberg’s neutral and practical approach to the story. Spielberg doesn’t intend to answer or take sides; his attempt is to initiate dialogue. Spielberg knows, as Avner observes, “there is no peace at the end of this”. The concluding sexual act between Avner and his wife Daphna(Ayelet Zorer) inter-cut with Avner’s haunting recreation of what might have transpired on that disastrous day at Munich, is a metaphorical one- while it delineates the gravity of the massacre and its impact on the Jewish world, it also demonstrates letting go of it by releasing it out of your system(the act of climaxing); but to what end? Because in essence, Avner is simply breeding(pun intended) anger and hatred!

The greatness of Spielberg however, lies not in the fact that he’s tackled this sensitive issue in such an unbiased yet reasoning manner. The greatness of Spielberg rests with his achievement of making Munich an enjoyable film outside the political genre and its central political theme. As a film about hit-men assigned to carry out murders, the film is as edge-of-the-seat as any other thriller. Spielberg uses these scenes to showcase his secure grip over the craft. Using almost every conceivable camera angle, editing techniques and other cinematic contrivances, Spielberg succeeds in creating a 70’s thriller feel to the proceedings. The height of his finesse is most notable during a shot of Avner and Robert running from the site of their first assassination- Spielberg uses a crab-dolly to follow them as the camera looks up from below. There are many other notable sequences including one that involves a bomb hidden in a telephone. The sharp thrill of these sequences is converse to the uncomfortable paranoia that Spielberg injects when the hunters become the hunted, weighing down under the burden of guilt and suspicion. Really then, Spielberg has made three films- one which is a thriller about hit-men, second, a reflective piece about the guilt and paranoia of an assassin and lastly a political one, not necessarily in that order.

Spielberg’s films are notorious for their lack of concentrated attention on its actors and performances. This can be alluded to the luminosity of Spielberg’s direction which outshines every other department. Nevertheless, the performances in Munich deserve special mention. Bana shifts comfortably from brave, loving and loyal to firm, succinct and resolute to finally confused, frustrated and exhausted. Ciaran Hinds, as the voice of conscience, is effectively understated and almost sage-like in his calm demeanour. Geoffrey Rush, a last minute replacement to Ben Kingsley who opted out in favour of Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, makes Ephraim an interesting and dimensional character. His triumph is in the fact that we can’t envisage anybody else as Ephraim. Daniel Craig has very little screen-time to pass any judgement. What is heartening about Munich’s casting though is the presence of international talent. Apart from Zorer, Zischler and Kassovitz, the film boasts of lesser known but faithful performers like Metwally, Amalric, Cohen, Yvan Attal, Gila Almagor and the beautiful Canadian actress from The Barbarian Invasions Marie Josee-Croze. The one performance of Munich that was criminally overlooked at any awards this year is that of veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale. Lonsdale not only has the best lines in the film, but his rendition of an imposing character is reminiscent of Marlon Brando. Sadly, just like his superior work in Frankenheimer’s Ronin, this act too has gone unnoticed.

With the closing shot of the Twin Towers in the background, Carl’s observation that they are the same as their enemies, Robert’s fear of losing his soul, Steve’s petty argument with a PLO member over a radio station and Avner’s continued self-questioning; Spielberg makes his message very clear. And even if you don’t agree with his message(which is sad for all of us), you can’t deny his superiority as a filmmaker. Question: Which other director can make a film as polished as 'Munich' in a one-stretch six month schedule?

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