Munich Review


The buzz around the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Munich back in 2005 was deafening. After a shift into more commercial projects (A.I., Catch Me if You Can, Minority Report, The Terminal, War of the Worlds), the director finally transitioned back to the kind of film that won him an Oscar. But many regarded the film as a disappointment. While the film picked up Best Picture and Best Director nominations, general consensus was that both the film and director just snuck in. It’s a shame that this film will be remembered by many as a disappointment or an undeserving Oscar nominee because it’s just sensational. It’s a very deep and thoughtful film about the meaning of revenge and the consequences of those who seek it. It’s also the best film Spielberg has done since Schindler’s List, and my favorite film of all of 2005.

The film is mostly fictional, but it uses real events—the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes by the terrorist group Black September at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich—to set things in motion. After the murders, Israeli officials decide to respond in kind. They bring in Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard to Golda Meir and the son of an Israeli hero. He will be sent across Europe in search of 11 men who are most responsible for the massacre. His goal: Kill as many of these men as he can, and do the deeds in such a fashion that the world will take notice. Assisting Avner in his mission are a blood-thirsty South African (Daniel Craig), a cleaner (Ciaran Hinds), a bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), and a forger (Hanns Zischler). While the men are very enthusiastic at first, the moral implications of their mission start to mess with all of their heads in different ways.

The way this film progresses is fascinating. Every killing (or attempted killing) brings out a new layer of guilt and uncertainty in these five characters. Are they really doing the right thing or are they making things worse? How many more lives will be lost after they ratchet up this conflict? And are the men replacing their targets even worse than those who planned Munich? None of these questions is easily answered, which forces these men to grapple with their consciences more and more as time goes on. And Spielberg also avoids editorializing. He doesn’t demonize the Israelis, nor does he demonize the Palestinians. He just presents both sides as men who are doing what they believe is right. This ambiguity is another of Munich’s greatest strengths.

This film, however, is first and foremost a thriller, and on that front, it’s as good as anything from the last decade. These men aren’t trained to do this, which means there are lots of complications. In one scene, Avner gets dangerously close to one of the bombs. In another, a young girl answers an explosive telephone meant for her father. We don’t know whether these men will survive, just as they don’t know if they will survive. That makes for genuine suspense (a rarity), and a genuinely satisfying movie experience.

The performances are first-rate, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for a film with a cast this accomplished. Eric Bana gives a dynamite performance as the group’s leader. He’s perhaps the most conflicted out of everyone, but there’s good reason. He knows he’s a target, and with a wife and newborn waiting for him, he’s unsure whether it’s worth putting them at risk. Bana is fiery, perhaps more than we’ve ever seen him before or since. It’s a surprise the Academy didn’t take notice, but that shouldn’t diminish his work. It’s just outstanding.

The supporting cast is on par with Bana all the way. Daniel Craig, who went from this to James Bond, has a plum role as the hothead of the group. His Steve is blinded by rage to the point that he often gets careless. The great character actor Ciaran Hinds is the coolest member of the group. His job is ambiguous for a while, but mainly, he’s around to make sure the others stay out of trouble. Geoffrey Rush plays Avner’s boss, a man, like Steve, who doesn’t take the time to think about what he’s doing. He just wants to make sure the job gets done, even if that means threatening someone on his own side. Finally, there’s Mathieu Amalric (Daniel Craig’s nemesis in Quantum of Solace). He plays a Frenchman, Louis, who gives Avner all the information he needs on his targets. It’s a fascinating role (Louis and his family want nothing to do with politics, so Avner and he are always tiptoeing around each other), and Amalric is terrific.

You could make the argument that Munich is overlong, or that it gets a bit preachy, but I still think this is one of Spielberg’s best films. The director is in rare form, and his story, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, is full of complexity and surprises. While the Academy debated the merits of Crash and Brokeback Mountain, three other exceptional films (Good Night and Good Luck, Capote, and this) waited in the wings, hoping for a consolation prize. Munich was the only one of the bunch to walk home empty handed, but it remains, for me, the best of that crop of films and the very best of its year.

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