Thursday, October 05, 2006


Ah, Steven Spielberg, so fundamentally part of the Hollywood establishment, the modern American archetype of the popcorn auteur, delivering cinema with mature themes and challenging our views on important issues, all packaged in box-office vehicles replete with the required levels of Star Power... what happened to the man who made 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' I ask you?! Gone it seems are the ripping yarns and memorable adventures of unlikely heroes such as Dr. Jones, replaced instead with conflicted concentration camp managers, gore-spattered soldiers storming beaches, and most recently, the existentially motivated, emotionally complicated political assassins of 'Munich'...

Spielberg's segue into cinema of artistic merit is to be applauded, there's no doubt about that. The man is obviously keen to leave behind him a body of work containing more than juvenile fantasies, adolescent adventures and a robotic shark. I have every respect for this change of direction, and Spielberg's own sincere attempt to raise his personal creative bar. However, as movie-goers, we can only evaluate his success based on what we see on-screen.

Schindler's List was very dramatic, but had its flaws. Saving Private Ryan was a great cinematic experience, and probably Spielberg's best movie in the last fifteen years. However, in terms of a movie experience, Munich may have set the bar a little too high for Mr. S.

It is set in the aftermath of the Munich 1972 Olympics, when Palestinian terrorist group 'Black September' orchestrated events resulting in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes, as well as many of the Black September activists involved in the operation. The event was extensively covered by the world's media, and watched by a global audience - even the terrorists themselves as the German authorities surround the Olympic enclosure in the midst of the siege.

Israel reacts to the tragedy by organising a hit squad of Mossad agents, charged with eliminating the 11 Black September members who pulled the strings behind the disaster. Avner (Eric Bana) is given the undercover mission, with apparently unlimited resources from the Israeli government to aid him in his task. Working for him are an unlikely team, including an inexperienced bomb-maker, an antiques dealer, a member of the ANC (Daniel Craig) and a more mysterious team member, who is evidently more experienced in these matters than the others.

Bana is selected as he has no prior experience of field operations, but has European roots and is good with languages. The Israeli authorities choose him for these reasons, not only because the mission will be based in Europe, but also because he will ideally be able slip in under radar, and track down the Black September members without fear of being identified as a known activist, at least not straight away. So, he leaves behind Israel, his home, and a heavily pregnant wife and travels to Switzerland, to return home when all targets have been eliminated.

However, Bana is a sensitive soul. As his mission progresses, he becomes more and more disillusioned with the knowledge that killing Palestinians only galvanises the supposed enemy, and renews their will to fight for what is their ultimate goal, a homeland. It seems also that as the Black September targets are eliminated, they are replaced in their positions with characters of more violent disposition, prolonging the war even further.

Eric Bana works very well with this role, and is exceptional in the middle third of Munich, for me the most effective section of the film. The supporting players, in particular CiarĂ n Hinds and a menacing Daniel Craig, are also well above average, and their interactions and reflections on their mission add impetus to the change in Bana's mental state, which becomes visible before too long. Michael Lonsdale also has a curiously ambiguous supporting role, and adds a welcome, interesting tangent to proceedings.

Munich is a sumptuous film to look at. Speilberg is obviously enjoying himself back in Europe, and although in every country he visits, he seems to delight in displaying national stereotypes to set the scene (garlic in France, canals and bicycles in Holland etc) he makes the most of the locations, and represents them beautifully on screen.

The political side of Munich is handled gently, and never dominates proceedings. Spielberg could have been a lot more heavy-handed in this, but appears to have made an effort to be balanced at every turn. The Palestinians in Munich are not all two-dimensional monsters, like the Nazis from Schindler's List. They are real people who explain their actions, and when Bana is exposed to this, his troubles increase. His personal struggle to complete his mission and return home is pitted against the Palestinian desire for a country of their own to call home, and this contributes to Bana's growing malaise with his grisly project.

There is much to enjoy in Munich, and I hope I've managed to put that across. The thing is, I think Spielberg has slightly overextended the scope of his ambitions for a project obviously very close to his heart. At two hours and forty minutes, the runtime will give you an idea of how much there is in the movie for the audience to digest. With a more ruthless editor, much of the excess weight could have been shed from the story, and the important messages delivered more coherently.

In addition, Spielberg has imprinted some moments of Munich with his more juvenile trademarks, and at times, this jars with what the characters are actually doing. The bomb-maker character uses various gadgets to plant his murderous wares, and the scenes where he unveils his creations evoke moments from more tongue-in-cheek action flicks. These seem genuinely out of place in a context where the central characters are struggling to justify killing in the name of their country.

So is it worth seeing? Well, I wouldn't slate the film, it definitely has a lot going for it. Eric Bana is really staking his claim as a great leading man - at times I could have sworn it was Liam Neeson up there on screen. (I don't know if it's that they're both around seven feet tall, or is it Bana's Israeli accent hitting my ears in some unusal brogue, but there is definitely a likeness!) Daniel Craig, too, is impressive as a threatening henchman, and has a physical presence that will definitely reassure Bond fans of his ability to do well with the role. Also, as a film with political themes at its core, the message in Munich is not gift-wrapped - the script ain't half bad. To be honest though, I was ultimately left a little cold by the last hour of the film, where the pace really lets it down.

The final shot of the movie should leave the audience with little doubt of Spielberg's wish to be relevant, ambitious and politically aware with 'Munich'. He has definitely convinced me of this, I just think that, on balance, he could have made a better movie.

Verdict: confident, well executed, flawed film-making. Political, weighty and a little sluggish. Great performance from Bana.
Rating: 6/10

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