Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Film review: Munich

I'm one of a minority of ardent champions of Steven Spielberg's 2005 dramatisation of Israel's response to the massacre of eleven of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's probably my favourite of his "serious" films (i.e. those with a more "worthy" bent, as opposed to more crowd-pleasing blockbuster fare like the Indiana Jones movies. Ironically, the main reason I like it so much is arguably because it seems so unSpielbergian, with a cold, calculated sense of brutality and a distinct lack of the sentimentality for which the director has become known.

While the source material, the novel Vengeance by George Jonas, is unabashedly partisan — a fact willingly acknowledged by its staunchly pro-Israel author — it seems to me that Spielberg and his two writers, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, have succeeded in identifying and teasing out the moral quandaries that Jonas was unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge. That's not to suggest for a moment that there's any ambiguity as to whether the murder of the athletes was wrong; indeed, I'm not even certain that the film seeks to portray the Israeli government's response as wrong. It does, however, raise significant questions both about the cyclical nature of violence and the futility of revenge, and about what enacting state-sponsored executions and acts of terrorism ultimately do to a person's psyche. Vengeance is replete with passages in which it is asserted (rather too often and adamantly to be entirely convincing) that "Avner", the Mossad agent played by Eric Bana in the film, experienced no qualms about the murders he carried out, but Spielberg and his writers take the opposite approach, depicting the complete mental breakdown of a man who begins his mission with a sense of utter certainty both about the justness of his mission and his own identity. The entirely fabricated encounter between Avner and a Palestinian operative, Ali (Omar Metwally), provides not only the film's midpoint but also its emotional core, articulating in the strongest terms that violence can only lead to more violence, and that both sides — in spite of their irreconcilable differences — are ultimately in pursuit of the same goal. As Ali puts it:
You don't know what it is not to have a home. That's why you European reds don't get it. You say it's nothing, but you have a home to come back to. ETA, ANC, IRA, — we all pretend we care about your international revolution, but we don't care. We want to be nations. Home is everything.
Beyond that, though, it's a tense Cold War thriller it's a first rate piece of cinema, with its mature, reasoned approach to the Middle Eastern conflict merely serving as the icing on the cake. The whole thing looks incredible thanks to Janusz Kaminski's steely (and very authentically 70s) photography, and the unusually minimalist score by John Williams knows when to retreat and when to come in for the maximum impact. I've seen Eric Bana's performance described as overwrought, and it's certainly true that it's anything but subtle, but as a portrait of a man gradually undergoing a crisis of belief and identity, I find it hard to criticise. The rest of the Euro-pudding cast are on fine form too, with Mathieu Kassovitz particularly impressing as the mild-mannered toymaker recruited to build bombs, and Mathieu Amalric fabulously ambiguous (in more ways than one) as Avner's contact, "Louis".

Many of my favourite films are ones towards which I was initially lukewarm and came round to on repeat viewings, and this is definitely one of them. When I first saw MUNICH, I thought it was decent but overlong and overwrought. Now, I wouldn't lose a second of it... even the much-criticised "sex and death" scene towards the end. While most people point to SCHINDLER'S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN as Spielberg's great "serious" work, for me MUNICH will always be by far the more mature and more satisfying film.


  1. One of my favourites too, in fact I didn't know it was a minority view? Maybe its the material being too sensitive for some politics and allegiances?

    Saw this at the cinema so will always remember a grown man, some years older than me, theatrically whisper 'Nooooooooooooo' at the scene in which the young girl looks like she's going to get blown up in France.

    Loved Ciaran Hinds in this. After seeing it, I was pushing for him on IMDB to play McCall in the big screen version of The Equalizer that was mooted around that time. It gained some significant traction on there and the next thing we knew his name was being attached in the film gossip mags and online sites! Sadly it was not to be, the film got stuck in development hell and only surfaced last year with Denzil Washington in the lead in a radical spin on the original series.

    1. I think it was well received by the critics, but I don't recall seeing it appearing in all that many people's "favourite Spielbergs" lists. It's possibly an inaccurate perception on my part, but I always feel like I'm alone in championing it as one of his best. I certainly can't think of anyone else who would rank it as their absolute favourite of his serious works.

      And yes, if memory serves there was a veritable shitstorm about its political stance when it first came out, with many hardline Zionists calling it an apologia for terrorism (which of course begs the inevitable question of "Which terrorism? Israeli terrorism?"). One of the writers, Tony Kushner, is well known for being a fierce critic of Israeli policy and I think the knowledge that he was involved with the film was a bit of a red rag to a bull in some circles.

      PS. Hinds as the "cleaner" is indeed excellent.