The Theory of Chaos

Friday, October 19, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Munich

Originally posted 12/23/05
Full review behind the jump


: Steven Spielberg
: Screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas
: Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson, Steven Spielberg, Barry Mendel
: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zorer, Geoffrey Rush, Gila Almagor, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric, Moritz Bleibtreu

I think Avner (Eric Bana) has an instinctive sense for what is really being asked of him. I think his mistake is in thinking he can undo it, that the uniform for this particular job he’ll be able to shed before he comes home to his wife (Ayelet Zorer). The job – handed down by his bosses at the Mossad (the Israeli special forces) and his boss’s boss’s boss, the Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) herself, has strategic value, as it is always smart self-preservation to seek and eliminate those who threaten your existence. But to fulfill this job will require him to give up his humanity and become an instrument. He will embody, internalize, live the response of a nation (not a religion, this is key) to a tragedy that can be summed up in the word

The consequences both personal and political are in the sights of director Steven Spielberg, who is here attempting the most difficult film of his career. In the beginning he dramatizes the incident, not as keenly felt or understood to the generations who’ve grown up since, where a Palestinian terror cell kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes in front of the eyes of the world at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He does it with such easy urgency, such casual technical virtuosity, you can forget in the standard we hold him to how fluently he sends his camera into chaos to find the feeling.

And what for another filmmaker would be a triumph – sharp and harrowing – is for him but a starting point, an entry into a story that’s both epic and nebulous, charged with a sense of right and wrong but refusing to supply a simple hero or villain. It is not out to tell us how to solve a problem, it is a long gaze at an open wound, a 164-minute cry of mourning; operatic, and so exceeding its grasp in moments, but still a film I can’t think anyone else would have the facility and daring to attempt.

In the aftermath of the attack, the leaders of Israel gather. They have 11 dead – they select 11 targets. All of them had at least peripheral roles in the attack, from communications to financing, but no one in the room has to articulate why this particular number has been chosen. An eye for an eye has become a matter of policy.

Avner, a good soldier, formerly Meir’s bodyguard, will disappear into the European underground and lead a squadron of assassins to find and kill these 11 men. They will have no official connection with Israel (he has to sign away his health insurance), but will receive unlimited funding via a safe deposit box in Switzerland. This is a tricky balancing act – the state can deny complicity, and yet Avner is advised by his handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush, virtuosically combining bureaucratic tetchiness with menace) that guns are fine, but explosives are ideal, as they are visible and instill fear. Israel wants fear, they want the message spread that violence will be answered, but they also want plausible deniability. And so they join the modern fraternity of nations at war with each other while pretending they’re not.

Avner’s team is gunman Steve (Daniel Craig), document forger Hans (Hanns Zichler), clean-up man Carl (Ciarán Hinds), who when asked what his specialty is, answers “I worry”, and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), who makes toys for a living, used to help dismantle bombs, and now has been asked to build them.

And as each killing is methodically planned (these sequences provide a sickening thrill) the team becomes – a unit? A family? They do dine together, Avner cooks for them, it might be a means of clinging to normalcy. Certainly they share a common if conflicted mind; it’s as if the conversation revolves and someone must always be the agitator, the doubting one, the reflective one. One character inflicts a gruesome gesture of pique on a dead body over his colleague’s objections. Later he says he wishes he’d let himself be stopped. We don’t get many details on any of the characters, but casting goes a long way – these are all faces that have stories behind them.

The question is raised whether their peoples’ suffering has made them noble, or whether it was the righteousness in the face of the suffering. But more pragmatically, considering the body count of the Holocaust and the equally-terminal rhetoric of the terrorists and their extremist apologists, can they survive much more of this suffering without fighting back? And what happens to a spiritual man who must sin, not for his own survival, but because he believes it contributes to his peoples’ survival?

Globally, Munich is about people on all sides of a conflict who believe with such passion that they may never find common ground, and it is also about the consequences of blurring the line between a religion and a state. I think that Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was about Jews, a people threatened with extinction, whereas this film is about Israel, a nation figuring out how to defend its borders from its enemies when its enemies come not armed with tanks but numbered accounts and European safe houses. When Israel took on the protections of having their own nation, they took on the complications as well, which includes gut-checks about whether you are the kind of nation that sends assassins into countries you are officially friends with acting on evidence that may or may not hold up in court.

And within all these big questions is a head-spinning piece of cinematic paranoia. Charged topics aside it could be isolated as a triumph of morally-gray espionage on a par with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or any other movie of its kind ever made. Avner’s crew must navigate allies who cannot be trusted, information that may be coming with a different agenda behind it, and the unfathomable layers of conflicting national interest. There’s tragic absurdities too, like the uncomfortable night Avner’s crew must spend in a safe house which is, for lack of a better word, double-booked.

They lie to people who expect to be lied to, are lied to in return, and money changes hands and jobs are accomplished, though not without their hair-raising moments of spontaneity. Avner is taken into the nominal confidence of a French information broker called Papa (Michael Lonsdale) and his son Louis (a smooth and excellently enigmatic Mathieu Amalric) – they claim to despise governments and refuse to deal with them, and yet accept Avner’s flimsy cover story because he pays well and on time.

There’s little need to address the acting, which is superb, or the physical aspects of the production, which are flawless under the very difficult circumstances of a globetrotting period piece. Your reaction will be determined by what you decide Spielberg is saying and how that moves you. I think the pat and lazy interpretation is that Spielberg has suddenly discarded his heritage and embraced moral relativism. As unlikely as that is on its face (really, the maker of Schindler and the founder of the mammoth Shoah project suddenly plopping himself down on the fence?) it’s also unsupported by the evidence.

I believe that in this flawed but deeply felt movie, one of the most impressive of the year no matter your opinion of its politics, Spielberg is not out to condemn. But nor is he out to conceal – he shows that Palestinians have unjustifiably killed innocent Israelis, and that Israelis have struck back and there has been what is coldly labeled collateral damage, but really means innocent Palestinians who are then avenged, the dead on both sides are replaced, and so forth. And that Israel, a country dragged into war a day after it came into being and essentially at war ever since, against people that want to drive them into the ocean, does desperately need to defend itself. But where lies the crucial distinction between defense and revenge?

Over the top of its human story Munich is essentially depicting the birth of a tactic against global terrorism – swift, forceful, personal reprisal. And it says, 33 years have now passed, and has an eye for an eye brought us nearer to or further from ending this terrorism? A subtle special effect in the film’s final shot is necessary for accuracy of location, but it also makes a statement all its own.


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