In response to every Clint Eastwood story of vigilante justice, Steven Spielberg humbly presents his latest film, Munich. The fictionalized account of the Israeli response to the infamous massacre of 12 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the movie functions both as a thriller and as a study in psychology for the Israeli agents chosen for the mission.
The movie begins with the infiltration of the Olympic Village in Munich by the would-be assassins, and then mixes archival footage with simulated footage to rapidly tell the tale of the tragic event that transpired. On the heels of the massacre of the 12 Israeli Olympic athletes, Golda Meir, played by Lynn Cohen, orders a retaliation to be carried out in secret by a group of specially chosen Jewish agents. The group, led by Eric Bana’s Avner, proceed with the help of a list of contacts and funding from the Israeli government. One by one, they begin to exact revenge on those they are told are responsible for the killings in Munich.
On one level, it is a political thriller and story of revenge. On another, it is about the agents involved. Avner accepts the assignment despite the fact that his wife is pregnant and he will likely miss the birth of his child. Steve, played by Daniel Craig, is a gung ho pro-Israel Jew who cares little for anyone not of his kind. Carl, played by Ciarán Hinds, is a veteran whose years have given him a more circumspect perspective on the issue. Along the way they are tested by the assignment, by each other, and by the growing fear that perhaps they are being used more as political tools than as instruments of justice.
As one would expect from a Spielberg movie, the acting is first rate. Though admittedly not a film with prominent female roles, upon seeing it one might be surprised that none of the men were recognized for their brilliance. There are no weak links, and indeed this may be the reason that the movie has snagged no Oscar nominees for the acting categories: no one stands out. Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Hans Zischler, Mathieu Kassovitz and the rest are so perfect in their roles that perhaps it is easier to think of the ensemble brilliance than to try and decide which one or two are more deserving of praise than the rest.
The roles are not easy ones to play, either. The characters are well drawn enough that simply reading the lines in a generic tone but with good presence would not do. Robert’s (Mathieu Kassovitz) timid introversion and Steve’s bravado must be handled differently. Furthermore, each character, as he confronts the physical and moral obstacles in his path, is required to face the different aspects of his personality. Some of the characters are changed by their experience; others obstinately remain as they were.
The Final Cut
In the end, the movie is my personal choice for Best Picture of the five nominated contenders. Though not Spielberg’s greatest movie, it nonetheless is a rock solid accomplishment and good viewing for anyone willing to mix the cerebral with the more visceral.
The screenplay, though a solidly crafted piece of work, is the weak link of the chain. The dialogue is excellent – as one might expect from a script that was finalized by Tony Kushner, a man more accustomed to working with live theater and here producing his first work specifically for film — but the story itself is occasionally limiting. One gets the sense every once in a while that Mr. Kushner was still very much in his theater paradigm. Despite the transitions that Mr. Spielberg and the editing team put together, I still felt as though, when Mr. Kushner finalized the script, he imagined a curtain coming down after each scene and rising for the next one. Though this is not always the case, there is a lack of scenes flowing into each other. In general, each scene occurs in a single isolated space and, when it’s over, there is a definite change to another time and space, which are conventions of live theater imposed by the limits of that particular medium. Contrast this with, say, the liquidation of the ghetto in Schindler’s List, where several characters and locations flow in and around each other, something that is more difficult to accomplish on a stage.
There are some counter examples, such as the very first assassination, but I definitely detected the touch of a playwright rather than a screenwriter (in fact, when the movie does seem to venture forth from the theatrical paradigm it is when it is almost forced to by the story. The tracking and assassination of the first victim cannot be accomplished in a stage-like space and time). Because of this tendency, the script is strongest when it delves into the characters and weakest when it tries to produce a more visceral thrill.
But when all is said and done, the script is a solid one, and when a solid script like this is the worst part of a movie you know you are in for a good experience. As always, Mr. Spielberg proves himself adept at handling a camera. Using reflections and fluid motion, he can efficiently convey more in just a single shot than lesser directors can convey in an entire scene. His mix of long and close up shots is up to his usual standards, and the production values are as advanced as any in the business today. The musical score, though not remarkable, is pleasant enough, or tense enough, when it needs to be.
Perhaps the most laudable accomplishment is the way in which the archival footage is mixed with Mr. Spielberg’s own shots at the beginning of the film. The famous shot of the masked kidnapper on the balcony is seen from a television screen in the room out of which the man emerged. In the background we see him creeping out onto the balcony while the television’s news footage gives us the opposite perspective. It is one of those moments of genius that, like the girl in the pink dress in Schindler’s List, will serve as one of the highlights for Steven Spielberg’s career work.
Just about everything. Great acting, great directing and a solid script. Production values are high. The script works best when it delves into their characters and does a decent job of producing some suspense and visceral tension.
One of the screenwriters, and the man who actually finalized the script, may have been a bit unused to writing for film. The movie at times seems to be limited by a more live theatrical paradigm.
On the Side:
This film was going to be shot a year or two earlier, but there were some production delays. When Tom Cruise, in a separate project, was also delayed, he and Steven Spielberg decided to work on War of the Worlds first, thus pushing back the Munich release to December of 2005.
Making the Grade:
The Story: B
The Acting: A
Behind the Scenes: A
Matthew Alexander is a Staff Writer for Film School Rejects