Review: “Munich”

You have to give Steven Spielberg credit for efficiency, the cinematic master manages to churn out films faster than practically anyone else in the industry with this one in particular completed at a speed practically unheard of. Yet you wouldn’t know it was rushed from the result, a 1970’s set intriguing adult drama about the true price of vengeance which also happens to make a few interesting (albeit generic) points about the Middle Eastern conflict. Already being touted before its release as the film to beat at the Oscars, does the film live up to the hype? Mostly, yes it does.

“Munich” is a quality production filled with good performances, an interesting and relevant story, and authentic production values which convincingly recreate the time period in a variety of European and Middle Eastern cities. For a man who earned his reputation on a very formulaic style, this is a quite different film for him in a number of aspects. Everything from its low-key score to its understated but superb cinematography and darker subject matter (its certainly his goriest film to date) resembles something more along the lines of a film by Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin at their height than the recent gritty but flash Spielberg efforts of the last few years.

Yet it doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle its obviously striving for because, like it or not, in the end its still a Spielberg film and must have not only that humanitarian heart to it but a quite deliberately manipulative emotional tone. His other film this year, the enjoyably intense but certainly weaker “War of the Worlds” ran out of gas at the two-thirds mark and delivered a happy ending that can only be considered a cop-out.

Whilst “Munich” never drops the ball on that front, it does lose steam in its third act as the film’s forward momentum is lost to life-affirming introspection and somewhat heavy-handed character self-realisation. Despite all the controversy and hot topic political subject matter, at its heart “Munich” is the familiar ‘loss of innocence’ story – patriotic men doing what they must for their country, but along the way coming to realise all of their actions come at both a personal and emotional cost. Its a time-honored story that works well and does so again here, but ultimately “Munich” adds no new wrinkle or variation to the tale.

The film does try to fuse the basic elements of both low-key political thriller and the aforementioned character drama into one story – a melding which never entirely clicks. The setup scenes with the assassinations are well planned but lack real suspense, whilst the frequent parables on the price and futility of politically-motivated retribution are at times incisive, at others merely cumbersome. A shorter film devoted to being either one of these aspects may not have been as well rounded, but would’ve struck with more resonance.

With a film focused predominantly on one side of a conflict, there is always the question of how the other side is portrayed. A few attempts to be fair and even-handed are quite bluntly inserted in, most notably two future victims breaking out into monologues about the plight of the Palestinians, but the movie never offers a counterpoint to the whole debate – essentially re-serving the old chestnut that fighting helps no-one, lets all stop to give our children a future.

It does however play out the minutiae of politics quite well with its focus on procedure, frequent mentions of period-specific alliances and players ranging from the CIA & KGB’s involvement in events to go betweens with staunch non-involvement philosophies, and the odd side references to the likes of Carlos the Jackal and even 9/11 in the film’s final shot.

Yet like it or not what it lacks most of all is a trait its key characters in their early scenes have in spades – conviction. Like the need to give ‘Worlds’ a happy ending, there’s a sense of hesitation and indecisiveness here on Spielberg’s part to fully make a stand on the issue. Like it or not the film is about state-sanctioned executions on foreign soil, yet it both condemns and applauds such actions whilst all too frequently hammering home the point that such simple quick fix solutions to such complicated problems ultimately solve nothing and yield only more violence.

Bits of tired humour and some heavy-handed themes of home and family are thrown in to try and give these men some sympathetic weight and make it seem as if deep down all people who kill for a cause find themselves morally conflicted about what they do. Yet realistically people who do this kind of work are hired partly because they DOn’t suffer from such dilemmas, and those that do aren’t likely to be around for long.

Enough about the issues, focussing back on the film itself and much of it works great, especially in its first half. The start efficiently mixes real news footage and film of the events at Munich, displaying the incidents with realistic brutality, clumsiness and even the mismanagement of everything from the authorities handling of the incident to the media’s conflicting reports.

Moving on it sets up a compelling scenario of the lowly Avner (Bana) being hired by then Prime Minister Golda Meir and the Mossad to function as the leader of an off-the-books assassination squad (with plenty of funds) sent out to independently find and take down the key eleven Palestinians responsible for Munich. From here on it follows the five man team and their tasks around Europe, with every now and then little trips or phone calls back to Israel to get a lecture from Geoffrey Rush (superbly understated as usual) or express conflicted feelings to his somewhat deliberately ignorant wife and mother.

The performances are strong all around, even if the supporting characters are essentially one-note espousers of different ideological stances. Whilst this is certainly not Bana’s best work, the Aussie actor makes for a solid lead even if he’s given some cliched material (famous father, estranged mother, very pregnant wife) to work with. The character follows a steady arc from unflinching confident foot soldier to the haunted, paranoid almost shell of a man who’s lost his moral compass.

Its the standard war movie hero through line, and thankfully Bana never overplays it which gives us an anchor through the tougher end scenes when the plot has become seemingly abandoned, and even Bana himself is left out to dry with an undetermined future. Its a surprisingly ambiguous ending for a Spielberg film, and its not helped by one preceding kitschy sequence in which Bana’s character – who’s been having nightmares about the massacre – has violent robotic sex with his wife. Intercutting a montage of the slaughter of both athletes and terrorists with a disheveled Bana, drenched in enough sweat to drown a pelican, pumping his wife whilst screaming in horror comes off as laughable – especially as she doesn’t seem to mind her husband’s brutalisation.

Less rich but more captivating are his colourful team members, all four providing excellent supporting work with Ciaran Hinds as a reluctant ‘clean-up man’ and Daniel Craig as the South African driver and only one of the group with realistic hard-line convictions being the stand outs. Michael Lonsdale, better known as Bond villain ‘Hugo Drax’ from “Moonraker”, adds a nice bit of humanity to the film as a man who has prospered from information dealing but under the very strict rule of no allegiances.

Lynn Cohen brings an interesting take on Meir as an elderly woman whose frail appearance hides a powerful mind of intelligence and reason. The location work is solid but like TV’s “Alias”, the smaller budget shows in that many scenes look like they were shot in different parts of the same city with only a few digital mattes and a change of clothes on the extras signifying the difference (Beirut for example is dressed with a live concert made up of about six extras).

Spielberg is a master of staging and sets up his bomb scenes well – from the first somewhat clumsy ambush in the hall, to the increasingly haphazard explosions and/or raids of subsequent names on the list, he’s effectively following the groups arc of both increasing efficiency and conflict over their actions. Each sequence bears similarities to each other, some such as the surprisingly brutal revenge killing of a freelancer are shockingly well executed (no pun intended), whilst others seem a little obvious (like Spielberg would blow up a little girl, c’mon!).

At two and half hours its certainly in need of more time for editing. Speeches are repetitive, and some of the family scenes could’ve been done with a lot more efficiency. Spielberg is trying for an award with this and despite its fence-sitting problems, it still is a powerful, gripping and intriguing tale even if its even-handedness and rote attempts at sympathy undermine its dramatic power. An old-fashioned cautionary tale with a smart sensibility that is still an extremely admirable effort.