To enter “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s second release of 2005, with a healthy dose of skepticism would be totally natural — and understandable.
Spielberg’s multi-effort years of production are spotty at best. In 1989, the Great American Filmmaker released “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and, later, “Always.” Does anyone even remember that latter film? In 1993, Spielberg put both “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” in multiplexes. “List” won him his first (and second) Academy Award, but “Park,” while a technical marvel and a fun matinee picture, was ultimately little more than summer-season fireworks. 1997 saw the release two of Spielberg’s worst-received recent efforts, “Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Amistad.” While the sequel to “Jurassic Park” was another fun, ultimately hollow, romp through modern-day prehysteria, “Amistad” went over like a lead balloon. Then, in 2002, “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can” found Spielberg seemingly clicking on all cylinders. He created a fantastic sci-fi film in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Report” while diving headfirst into dramedy with “Catch,” another adaptation, this time of the life of teenage conman Frank Abagnale. Both films boasted remarkable direction and performance, amounting to two of the best films of that year (even if “Report” ended wholly unremarkably).
That one-two of 2002 isn’t enough, though, to make another double offering from Spielberg a sure bet — especially since this year was graced with the abominable “War of the Worlds,” one of Spielberg’s worst films. Add to that that the subject matter of “Munich” seems achingly in line with Spielberg’s “awakening” as an ardent Jew after the success of “Schindler’s List” and what you have is a recipe for potential disaster.
But rather than falling flat with what some might see as mere “Oscar bait,” Spielberg delivers — big time — with “Munich,” one of his most haunting, human films, and possibly the best film in his impressive filmography.
Centered on the aftermath of the 1972 kidnapping and execution of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, the film focuses on five secret agents of sorts, led by Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), as they track and hunt 11 names on a list given to them by the Israeli government from one corner of Europe to another. The names, the men are told, were all instrumental in the planning and execution of the Munich operation and, as such, need to be dealt with.
This action is unprecedented in the then-infantile history of Israel. After suffering the Nazi persecution of their people and the seemingly constant terror attacks launched by terrorist groups in the Middle East, the Israelis decide to be taken seriously, and to show that they will no longer simply roll over when attacked, they must respond to the Munich tragedy with equal brutality. Because of the shaky moral ground being taken—and the seeming disregard to the teachings of their faith such actions bring with them—there are enough ethical objections being raised throughout the ranks of the Israeli government and the agents to quash the operation. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough mental and emotional wind left in the sails of the decision-makers, and the country embarks on a journey through uncharted territory.
But it’s left to Avner and his men, Steve (Daniel Craig), Carl (Ciarán Hinds), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), and Hans (Hanns Zischler), to do the difficult navigation: casing apartments and hotel rooms for the proper placement of bombs, stalking their victims along the streets of this European country or that (Western Europe, more specifically because, as the agents’ handler, Ephraim, played to brilliance by an amazing Geoffrey Wright, states, there’s no use in angering the Soviets), and tracking the names from one country to the next.
The most treacherous travail of the mission, though, and where the conceit of the film lies, is in the clinging to what makes these men human, but more importantly Jewish. Is it proper for a Jew to seek revenge, especially since pursuing such action is contrary to the faith? Should a man follow his primal instinct to exact vengeance on those who have harmed him and his people, and if so to what end? Should he do it blindly, or is it acceptable to ask questions? How do you retain the qualities that separate you from those you’re pursuing when you’re engaging in similar actions? Is it human nature to want revenge? Are you no longer human if you allow revenge to become your driving force?
These questions and issues have all been raised by Spielberg before, most notably in his World War II works. But where “Munich” differs is that he answers and confronts those questions and issues in some unsavory ways. For instance, and perhaps most startlingly, Spielberg casts the infallibility of the Jews he’s created in previous films in a harsh light, revealing the warts and all of the people, by simply exposing how the Israelis embarked on this mission of vengeance in the name of the Jewish people. He then makes worse what some might see as a criticism of the Jews by showing the Israeli government as potential grand manipulators. The idea is raised that the government possibly misled Avner and his men by saying a group people, unsavory types they might be, were involved in plotting the Munich attack when they were simply people the Israeli government wanted to take down.
If for no other reason, “Munich” is notable for Spielberg’s willingness to accurately represent the ugliness of the decision to go after the Munich architects, especially because it casts the Israeli government as possible master manipulators of the truth. The film shows great growth in Spielberg as a storyteller in that he’s able to navigate the good and the bad of his heroes. Make no mistake; the Jews in “Munich” are certainly the heroes, and the Arab terrorists the villains. But as he puts a human face on the struggle for their own homeland the Arabs claim to be fighting for — a portrayal already raking Spielberg over the coals — Spielberg also puts his heroes in a shadowy muck by showing them wanting to kill, desiring to keep up the murder and mayhem for as long as it takes to take revenge on those they think have slighted them.
Doesn’t sound too different than a lot of terrorist rhetoric, does it?
Spielberg’s ability to walk this tightrope between white-knight heroism and moral ambiguity when it comes to his heroes is remarkable. This might be due to the writing of Tony Kushner, who previously won acclaim with “Angels in America,” but Spielberg is ultimately responsible for the content of his films and in “Munich” he deserves every acclaim — and bashing — he receives. He's flirted with heroic morial ambiguity in the past, but has never gone full board with it like he does here. The story certainly demands it, but kudos to him for sticking with authenticity in storytelling when he could have easily have gotten by with gooey flawlessness.
(Speaking of gooey, Spielberg does something else amazing in "Munich": he doesn't sacrifice the story with a misplaced happy ending. Such a flaw marked the otherwise breathtaking "A.I." and "Minority Report." This time, though, it seems Spielberg has learned his lesson.)
But that’s not only because of the characterizations, but also the taut direction that winds Spielberg’s work into one hell of a thriller. He doesn’t wrap moments of danger and doom in any sort of trite, slow-mo work that is the hallmark of so many current “thrillers.” Instead, he allows the expressions of the actors and the unflinching gaze of the camera tell the story. The tense moments are certainly that, but they are so well done that we are effectively placed in the mindset of Avner in that even in moments of quiet introspection we expect danger to be lurking around the corner, under the mattress, on the telephone.
Credit for this should also go to Bana, Craig, Hinds, Kassovitz, and Zischler. As the agents charged with being the unseen strong arm of the Jews while simultaneously turning their backs on what it means to be Jewish, all five actors carry a weight and gravity into every scene they’re in. No one scene can be pointed to as a microcosm of their work here, and that’s a good sign that something special is happening on the screen. (And, if nothing else, Craig’s acting here is further proof that he’s going to be an amazing James Bond.)
From the direction to the writing to the acting to the brilliantly muted John Williams score and even to the beautiful cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, notorious for his spotty work and iffy style, everything fires on all cylinders in “Munich.” Come awards season, the film and those responsible for it will certainly be mentioned for this award or that. What’s important, though, is how this film is viewed in respect to the other works of Steven Spielberg.
“Munich” will certainly be viewed as one of the director’s best works, and also one of his most controversial. Spielberg’s ability to continue to grow as a master storyteller, even as he approaches 60, is a portent of good things to come — especially if what he’s able to accomplish in “Munich” is any indication.