Into the mind of ‘Munich’: Spielberg’s retelling of Olympics massacres delivers a mental workout
Dec. 23, 2005, Austin American-Statesman
Steven Spielberg’s tough and tangy political thriller “Munich” unfolds in a fog of amorality, a cold-blooded murk where murderers and assassins nest like reptiles, skulking into daylight for deeds of spectacular nastiness. “Inspired” by real events, it captures the taut plotting, byzantine intrigue and textured character studies of the best thrillers from the 1970s — “The French Connection,” “All the President’s Men” and “Serpico” spring to mind — as it roots through old political issues that rage on today.
There are no small historical events for Spielberg’s ravenous ambitions. With spotty judgment, he’s grappled with the Holocaust, the American slave trade and World War II. He is working on an Abraham Lincoln film.
“Munich,” adapted from George Jonas’ book “Vengeance,” follows a quintet of Israeli secret agents as they hopscotch Europe assassinating, one by one, the organizers of the 1972 Munich Olympics disaster, in which the Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes. It perhaps lacks the gut-punch of larger history-book moments, yet, as a character says, “What happened in Munich changes everything.”
Spielberg could have soft-pedaled this strange chapter in the Middle East’s stormy saga. But for once the dewy optimist seems undaunted by historical heft and not obliged to remove his hat and bow to the specious majesty of actual events.
The school-boy nobility Spielberg so often accords his characters gives way to a morally complex, question-posing fuzziness. The drama initially pounds forth at a clip that deflects moral and political discussion, but ambiguity starts seeping in. As the assassins pick off their quarry in a series of rippingly staged action climaxes, the hard ideological ground — i.e., Israel’s implacable stance, demanding an eye-for-an-eye —cracks and shifts.
Our point man through the film’s welter of political intrigue, basement bomb-making and sleazy payoffs is Avner (Eric Bana, supremely poised and charismatic), a young bodyguard tapped by Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead a motley gang of hitmen.
Played by a faultless ensemble, including a fierce Daniel Craig (the new, blond James Bond), the group comes off as a dynamic band of character actors, defined not only by their discrete expertise in death but vivid, human personalities the actors etch with swift, precision strokes. Films made in the New Hollywood of the ’70s lived or died by acting like this.
As does “Munich,” which brims with nimble performances. Geoffrey Rush, always a delightful spectacle, exudes an amusing prickly authority as Avner’s case officer, and Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric are fascinatingly shady as the Paris-based, father-son fences for the Mossad, the Israel intelligence agency.
Screenwriters Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) hew a sharp character study amid the explosions, foot chases and explicit carnage. Avner straddles the bloodthirsty monomania certain strains of nationalism incite and the personal obligations of a beautiful wife and infant daughter. Like a blooming rose, livid and thorny, his conscience opens as the corpses mount and he mulls the legality and morality of his task. He’s a tragic figure, Avner is told, because he has a “butcher’s hands and a gentle soul.” He wonders what “home” and loyalty really mean, and that, at heart, is the film’s unresolved question and prevailing theme.
Heavy as it is, “Munich” is also a dazzling and witty action picture. Spielberg’s instinct for surgically staged set pieces gets a workout. An unmistakable snap and efficiency marks the scenes, as well as a sense of frightening fun. They swing.
Beyond the period sideburns and ghastly polyester, “Munich” looks like it was made in 1973. Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have given the film the tawny, faded, grainy look of gritty ’70s thrillers. This is fitting given the narrative and moral sophistication of “Munich,” which harks back to bolder days of American film. That was when movies could unpack messy ideas without pat answers, riveting audiences all the way. People on both sides of the aisle — pro-Israel, pro-Palestine — have been arguing on which side “Munich” perches. No clear response has emerged, a sign the movie’s done something right.