Thursday, January 05, 2006

Movie Review: "Munich"

Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Cirian Hinds, Matieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler and Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Offering various moments of pensive examination into the worth of retribution as well as the violence associated with its pursuit, "Munich" is a brutal, yet conscientious movie. After assaulting the senses with last summer's box-office hit "War of the Worlds," director Steven Spielberg puts his serious artiste cap back on with this dramatization of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and the violent response from Israel.
Wasting no time with a buildup, Spielberg opens the film in Munich, as the Palestinian terrorist faction that calls itself Black September gains entry into the Olympic village and proceeds to take the Israeli athletes hostage. With merely a handful of scenes, weaving in actual and recreated moments from the tragedy, Spielberg is able to quickly build tension and uneasiness about the series of events that unfold.
But he also makes it clear that the incident itself will not be a primary focus of the film, as he swiftly gets to the ABC footage of when broadcaster Jim McKay relays the tragic information that "they're all gone." The tragedy is revisited through flashback at various points in the movie, as a series of harrowing and at times, shockingly violent scenes.
Israel's decision for retribution is what makes up the nucleus of the screenplay, written by Eric Roth and noted playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"). (To get a much more thorough examination of the the 1972 incident, see the excellent and enlightening documentary, "One Day in September.")
The story specifically focuses on the creation of a covert squad given one central purpose: kill those responsible for Black September. A total of 11 people are targeted by the group's handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush, giving a strong, focused performance), with Avner (Eric Bana), an ex-Mossad agent, serving as the leader of the group of five. Rounding out the squad is a driver (Daniel Craig), a cleanup man (Cirian Hinds), a bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz) and a document forger (Hanns Zischler). Ephraim explains to Avner that bombs are the preferred killing method, as they are likely to generate publicity in the press. He also makes it clear that while the group will be receiving financial assistance in their mission, for all intents and purposes, they don't exist.
Thus, the stage is set, as the group begins to track down and attempt to eliminate their list of targets. The squad, far from ice-cold killers, finds their early efforts a bit of a struggle, as various unexpected developments crop up. One particularly great scene involves the realization that the young daughter of one of their targets is in the very apartment they are moments away from blowing up. It's in scenes like this that "Munich" works not only as a strong historical drama, but an effective and tightly wound thriller.
In between targets, some of the squad members begin to be weighed down by their conscience and uncertainty of the effectiveness of their mission. Avner, the only character whose private life is developed in the movie, also begins to be plagued by nightmares and fear for the safety of his wife and newborn child.
Although he is Jewish and sympathizes with Israelis, Spielberg doesn't aim for "Munich" to choose sides in the conflict. But it does effectively question the worthiness of revenge. Is killing people responsible for terrorism, as Israel chooses to do in this film, a morally acceptable response? After all, as some of the characters point out in the film, those terrorists killed will only be replaced by someone else – and possibly someone even more ruthless. In one of the movie's best scenes, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) finds what she believes to be justification for violence, by stating, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."
On those grounds, "Munich" plays out as a film that would seem to be headed towards the literal result of "an eye for an eye" – leaving both sides blind. The debate over such actions and their acceptability rages on today.
Grade: A
(Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.)

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