'Munich'

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"Munich" is no small thing. No film by Steven Spielberg ever is, but even for this avatar of Hollywood filmmaking this is something apart, the most questioning, provocative film he's ever made.

A director who once proclaimed "I dream for a living," Spielberg has literally thrown himself into the murkiest, most divisive of real-world conflicts. Though he's never yearned for controversy, he's sure to antagonize elements of his audience, especially those who lionized him for his treatment of the Holocaust in "Schindler's List." Aided and abetted by screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, he's made a film that demands to be seen as much for its place in the world as for whether it succeeds.

Yet for all its focus on the unrelenting blood lust between Israelis and Palestinians, on the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics and on Israel's relentless determination that "the world must see that killing Jews is an expensive proposition," there is a level on which this film is not about these longtime antagonists at all.

Rather "Munich," in an unlikely way echoing David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," is about the soul-destroying pervasiveness of killing and carnage and what that means for both individuals and nations. It is a film that nominally presents justifiable homicides but then refuses to allow us to enjoy them, that wants us to recognize that killing that starts out in righteousness can end up in madness. A film that is finally a desperate plea for peace.

It is that sense of a broader purpose that has caused the filmmakers not to care that the underlying source material, a 1984 book called "Vengeance" by George Jonas, was based on testimony by a reputed former Israeli intelligence agent who's been discredited in some circles. Nor are they troubled that the book was filmed before, as a 1986 HBO movie called "Sword of Gideon." By beginning with the words "inspired by real events," "Munich" is letting us know that it's worried less about specifics than about the sentiments it is eager to convey.

It is that desperation, that palpable sense of urgency about the need for that message right now, that is simultaneously a strength of "Munich" and a source of drawbacks. For though this is a film that almost yearns for greatness, strains to reach it just over the horizon, it has not quite gotten there. "Munich" is an important piece of work, easily one of the year's noteworthy achievements, but it impresses us rather than sweeps us away, an instance where significance overshadows filmmaking.

"Munich" begins with the 1972 Munich attack against the Israeli Olympic team by Black September terrorists (subject as well of the exceptional Oscar-winning documentary "One Day in September"). Though the massacre is the raison d'être for what happens next, it isn't shown in full all at once. The attack was apparently an intense experience to film (Spielberg, who used Israeli and Palestinian actors, notes, "They took it very much to heart, it was a very emotional catharsis ... a rugged couple of weeks.") and the director plays out the sequence throughout the film, parceling out the emotion bit by bit and using the memory of the horror to motivate the team called into being to avenge it.

For at the highest levels of the Israeli government, the idea of "Jews dead in Germany" one more time is too much to bear. Prime Minister Golda Meir (an impeccable Lynn Cohen) authorizes the formation of a unit of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, to find and assassinate those responsible for Munich. "Every civilization," she says in one of the film's touchstone lines, "finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."

A young Mossad agent named Avner (Australian Eric Bana) thinks none of this has anything to do with him. "I have," he tells his pregnant wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer of the lauded Israeli film "Nina's Tragedies") "the world's most boring job."

But, with the shadowy Ephraim (fellow Aussie Geoffrey Rush) serving as his case officer, Avner gets picked to head the retaliation squad. He's told that cost is no object, that he needs to minimize civilian deaths and that his assignment of assassinating terrorists officially doesn't exist.

Avner's team gathers in Europe, and it's appropriately multicultural. South African-born Steve (Daniel Craig, the new James Bond) is the driver, Belgian toymaker Robert (French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz) is the explosives expert, German antique dealer Hans (Hanns Zischler) is the document forger and Carl (Ciaran Hinds) cleans the area of potential evidence after the operations.

Though Avner lacks assassination experience, as played by Bana (known in the U.S. for "The Hulk" and "Troy" but at his best in the Australian "Chopper") he has the strength of personality to lead. Convincingly Israeli, the actor projects a combination of sensitivity and ruthlessness and he knows how to present a face for which worry is a new experience.

A key source of information for the team turns out to be a French family operation, father Papa (Michael Lonsdale, with 50 years of movie experience) and son Louis (Mathieu Amalric, the alter ego of French director Arnaud Desplechin). The family, Louis insists, is "ideologically promiscuous," selling information to everyone except governments, so subterfuge on Avner's part becomes essential.

The central action of "Munich" is the assassinations the team pulls off, a series of impressive set-pieces that showcase the Israelis' determination to be the hammer of God and Spielberg's facility as an orchestrator of action and tension.

The hits, however are not a series of unbroken triumphs. As always in movies, things go wrong, egos and loyalties conflict, betrayals take place. Even when the hits are successful, the film pointedly doesn't allow us or the team to luxuriate in the beauty of complex, well-executed maneuvers.

For hanging over the Israelis' actions is the constant question of whether they are doing the right thing, whether any of their targets actually had a hand in Munich and whether they should care about those questions. The process of taking lives, of living completely without rules in a violent, uncertain world begins to slowly rob them of their sanity. Is an eye really worth an eye? Is one of the team right when he says, "We can't afford to be that decent anymore," or is Robert to be agreed with when he wails, "We're supposed to be righteous. That's my soul. If I lose that, I lose everything."

If this push-pull aspect of "Munich" comes off as planned, others do not. Spielberg bolted into this film immediately after completing "War of the Worlds" barely six months ago, a situation duplicating his "Jurassic Park"/"Schindler's List" experience of 1994. "Schindler" did not feel rushed, but "Munich" frankly does.

The press notes say that this is the first film Spielberg did not storyboard. On the one hand, he is obviously gifted enough to make that kind of off-the-cuff moviemaking compelling, and the resulting almost docudrama feeling, aided by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's intentionally desaturated color, helps us get caught up in the story. But there is also an unavoidable feeling of hurry and lack of polish about the film, a sense that some of the plot elements fall too easily into the generic.

"Munich's" dialogue similarly cuts both ways. Without reading the various writers' drafts, it is notoriously difficult to tell who wrote what in a given film, but the language here feels at once bracingly distinctive and a bit awkward, as if it was written on the fly by some very gifted people.

That said, "Munich" has some wonderful spoken stretches (Kushner is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Angels in America"; Roth, an Oscar winner, is one of Hollywood's most respected voices), especially about the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Ali, a Palestinian zealot who does not know Avner's identity, tells him, "We can wait forever. You don't know what it is not to have a home. Home is everything." On the other side, Avener's mother tells him, "We had to take it because no one would ever give it to us. A place to be a Jew among Jews. We have a place on Earth at last, whatever it takes."

The intentional parallels the film makes between these two presentations, the conflating not of actions, morals and strategies but of hopes and dreams, joined with Spielberg's intention that the film be seen as "a prayer for peace," is one of the things "Munich" cares the most about. But it has led to a pre-release rush to judgment against "Munich" from the kinds of deep-thinking columnists and fulminators who usually find film beneath their notice but can be currently found falling all over each other to weigh in on the subject.

No, no, no, these people are insisting, the quagmire in the Middle East is much too complicated for a simple filmmaker to understand. But seeing "Munich" makes one wonder if this film understands the situation in a way those people do not. Is it possible there are fewer things worth killing for than advocates eager to send others to their deaths confidently assume? Why is war always deemed the realistic response to a situation; why is peace considered the province of innocents?

In this age of feckless and unapologetic zealotry, with leaders whose passion for extremism has led to the lamentable results we see all around us, "Munich's" even-handed cry for peace is not an act of equivocation but one of bravery. What "Munich" has to say, and its ability to say it to the widest possible audience, couldn't be more needed than it is right now.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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