Dir: Steven Spielberg. US.2005. 165 mins.
It's a bold and courageous move for Steven Spielbergto address the 100-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a $70mHollywood movie, and he has already stirred up advance controversy for thestory he opted to tell - that of the Israeli government's secret hit squadsallegedly formed in the aftermath of the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972.
Munich isriveting, and fashioned with all the elegance for which Spielberg is renowned,but it is bound to raise the heckles of many criticsaccusing him of political naivete and questioning hischoices, especially critics outside the US who are less reverent to the king ofmovies. That debate will send mixed messages to audiences already averse topolitical film-making, who might be otherwise drawn by the action and suspense.
Its box office prospects areunpredictable, although Munich is morecommercial than Warner Bros' complicated Middle East oil saga Syriana which openedwide this weekend, and the buzz surrounding a Spielberg event film is bound tofuel ticket sales.
Domestically - where it opens through limited release on Dec 23 before widening on Jan 6 - it shouldperform around the same level as other high-brow adult thrillers like
Whether awards will fuel
Spielberg's frames the film- and the whole conflict - with the Black September atrocities at the OlympicGames, a media event which brought the problems in the Middle East into theworld's living rooms. The events of that day in September (superbly depicted inthe Oscar-winning 1999 documentary OneDay In September) are relayed piecemeal herethroughout the film. Spielberg starts with the taking of the 11 hostages andflashes back to the events in Munich throughout his story, concluding with themassacre of the surviving nine hostages at Furstenfeldbruckairport.
The meat of the story isbased on the book Vengeance by GeorgeJonas about the consequent creation of several covert hit squads by Golda Meir (Cohen) and her government to eliminate 11 suspectedBlack September operatives on European soil. We meet Avner(Bana), an Israeli intelligence officer, recruited tolead one of the units by Meir and a mysteriousofficial called Ephraim (Rush).
Leaving his pregnant wife (Zurer) behind him, Avner heads toGeneva where he meets his team - the South African-born driver Steve (Craig),the German Jew and document forger Hans (Zischler),the explosives expert Robert (Kassovitz) and Carl(Hinds) whose job is to clean up after the others.
Through connections inGermany, Avner makes contact with a Frenchman calledLouis (Amalric) whose shadowy organisation can helphim locate the Palestinian targets and facilitate the operations. Theysuccessfully kill targets in Rome, Paris and Cyprus, but the task at handbecomes ever more taxing on their states of mind, and their rage over
Avner ends up in New York City - or to be more preciseBrooklyn - living in fear for his life and his family's safety and far awayfrom Israel. The notion of where his home is - with his family or in thecountry for which he has killed so many - is an absorbing one which TonyKushner and Eric Roth's script explores to some extent.
In the final scene, Avner confronts Ephraim over these very issues in aBrooklyn garden overlooking the World Trade Center,located in the background with all the baggage that image entails.
The central section of thefilm in which the team carries out its missions is enthralling. Like
Indeed the way Spielbergportrays the hits raises fundamental questions about the film's position. Thedirector early on establishes obvious audience identification with themasculine and upstanding Avner, and thereafter theaudience is bound to root for him to succeed in his assassination missions.
Does that mean our hero ison the side of right' Spielberg says that no targets are demonised, yet, in thelanguage of cinema, he establishes the Israeli side as the right side by makinghis assassin an action hero of sorts. Tormented as he might be about be aboutthe righteousness of his cause and the methods being deployed, Avner is never shown to be anything but a man of deep moralconviction.
Only two Palestiniancharacters get screentime to state their case,although their scenes are brief and both are killed soon afterwards. Perhaps Hany Abu-Assad's blistering dramaParadise Now, which takes the viewpointof two Palestinians recruited for a suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv, makes fora relevant companion piece to Munich.
It's difficult not to findthe film persuasive, even if its politics finally prove simplistic. Spielbergis a brilliant storyteller, his cinematographer JanuszKaminski shoots the film with grainy realism and the narrative moves at a briskand seductive pace. Bana possesses quiet strength andbuckets of charisma as Avner, while there is sometasty character work from a large supporting cast.
Especially colourful are Amalric and Michael Lonsdale (playing Amalric'sfather aka "Papa") as the information-providers whomay or may not be double-crossing the Israelis by selling information abouttheir whereabouts to the PLO, KGB or CIA. Some of Europe's hottest young talent- Craig, Kassovitz, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi,Moritz Bleibtreu - wander inand out of the drama.
The film was shot mainly inBudapest, Hungary, and Malta, with some location work in New York City andParis. Each location is signposted a little too obviously - London by a double-deckerbus, Holland by a barge on a canal, Paris by the Eiffel Tower - but generallythe production effectively replicates myriad countries effectively in just twoprincipal locations.
Alliance Atlantis Communications
Based on the novel Vengeanceby George Jonas