**/**** Image A Sound A
starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz
screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw Violence begets violence, terrorism begets terrorism, corruption begets corruption, and on and on up and down the self-righteous homily scale. Some time during the third hour of Steven Spielberg's slapdash Munich, the small lessons of this huge picture begin to feel like a ten-penny nail pounded into the middle of your forehead. There's possibly no other director who could have brought this film to fruition with such speed (principal photography began on the day Spielberg's other 2005 release, War of the Worlds, opened in the United States), but for as remarkable as that accomplishment is from a brinkmanship standpoint (about $250M-worth of film in one calendar year? Priceless), the stress begins to show in Munich--the first Spielberg film in memory so hamstrung with amateurish thematic visual concepts that you begin to wonder whether an editor fresh off the bus took over the picture's composition. Still, credit is due Spielberg, almost as well-known for his inability to resist tacking on unearned happy endings as for his savant-like conversance with the medium, for crafting a picture that's morally ambiguous (if only fitfully, and then torturously, so) as well as for daring to whisper that as a direct result of the best intentions of the bloodlust of "civilization" and Old Testament logic employed by the "good guys," the world may actually be a more dangerous place now than it was thirty years ago.
The obvious jumping-off point for Spielberg and Munich is the paranoia cinema of the 1970s, particularly a quartet of films by Francis Ford Coppola: the two Godfather pictures, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. (It's the second awards-season epic after King Kong to use Apocalypse Now as a partial template.) From the former, take most explicitly the structure of flashback/current events and the first assassination by Munich's squad of Mossad hitmen, which is shot in a manner similar to young Vito Corleone's assassination of a local protection racketeer in The Godfather Part II. Meanwhile, a vineyard scene with buzzing clouds of children in the French countryside in Munich is familiar from Brando's final scenes in The Godfather. Thematically, too, Munich is obsessed with the primacy of home and family, the idea that the sins of the fathers are replicated by the sons into eternity--insomuch as it turns this wisdom into a refrain. Consider also the plight of Spielberg's squad-leader Avner (Eric Bana)--who, like Michael Corleone, destroys his own family while, at least in his own mind, securing their position and security--and how he comes to understand and embrace the idea that "we're all a part of the same hypocrisy." This idea of Israel as a country that transformed into an organized crime family once it decided to use the rationale of homeland security to engage in information brokering and guerrilla/terrorist tactics is audacious, to say the least--and courageous for Spielberg, a favoured son post-Schindler's List. And yet the execution seems equivocal, even declining at moments of truth; something compellingly shaded in grey is offered as suddenly black-and-white.
From The Conversation, Spielberg borrows the idea of hunters becoming the hunted, at least in their own situational oubliettes--leading to a scene where Avner tears apart his room in the paranoid belief that something foreign might have been planted in a bed, a telephone, any spot in which he might be vulnerable. But just as the borrowing of themes and structure from The Godfather pictures comes off as second-tier and timid, so, too, does the urgency of Avner's existential confusion land with the soft puff of a predictable character arc. I didn't get a sense of moral dilemma and encroaching madness from him as much as a going through the motions of a rigid morality play that itself isn't sure to what extent it should be strident. It's what Spielberg has called a "prayer for peace," but delivered in hushed tones, worried who'll overhear. Consequently, the best scene of the film--and to backtrack, Munich details the theoretical efforts of five Mossad agents in terminating the eleven Palestinians fingered to take the rap for the murders of eleven Jewish athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympiad--has Avner and two cohorts tracking down a female Danish assassin (Marie-Josié Croze) who's killed one of their own and slaughtering her on her houseboat with a trio of specifically phallic "bang sticks." The connection between sexual compromise and other moral compromises, the violation of international treaties and laws, the murder of people who, it turns out, may not actually have had anything to do with the "Black September" terror cell but do hate Jews--all of it is drawn here with a defiant ambiguity. When Avner tries to cover her nakedness after she's been potted three times (in one of the most uncomfortable "rape" sequences in mainstream cinema) and is stopped, it speaks with more eloquence of the toll vengeance takes on human dignity in one five-minute sequence than the other 162 combined. It's the one moment that doesn't compromise itself in some way to try to be everything to everyone.
The connection to Apocalypse Now stems from Avner's journey, of course, into a personal heart of darkness in pursuit of a human monster that proves elusive and, ultimately, difficult to vilify, with near-identical way-stations in both pictures at a civilized banquet (the plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux and a conversation with the group's information broker in Munich) that seeks to contextualize the nightmarish ephemera of the rest of the piece. Of course there's also the fact that a party of five undertakes the odyssey, each of the Mossad assassins non-professionals from different walks of life representative, if one were inclined to read it that way, of individual aspects of Avner's personality. The toymaker-turned-bomber (Mathieu Kassovitz), cleaner (Ciaran Hinds), muscle (Daniel Craig), and forger (Hanns Zischler) are a motley crew assembled under suspect circumstances for their indeterminate skills (the bomber, in particular, appears to be horrifically bad at his job)--and so stolidly indicative of some groove-worn archetypal aspect of masculinity as to let Avner's essential, malleable emptiness off the hook. Avner's antithesis, then, becomes the Le Carré bureaucrat (Geoffrey Rush) who rationalizes the futile decapitation of hydra heads as something as simple and pragmatic as bumping off people who would hurt the nation of Israel, no matter the other monsters created by their extermination.
The first half-hour of Munich is marvellous. (There's never been a question about Spielberg's beginnings.) Spielberg re-creates the Munich tragedy using television as the nightmare looking glass through which a world watched the bungled attempt by German authorities to prevent another eleven Jews from dying on their soil. Unfortunately, as the film proceeds into its middles and endings, Spielberg's tactic of oppressive matching shots and constant, deadening doubling shares time with a gradually more insulting pushing of the idea that all of the targets of the Mossad's ire are well-educated family men with adorable little girls in red sweaters, altruism towards small business owners, and a desire to lend sleeping pills to mysterious strangers. The film grinds to a complete halt in a particularly well-written scene wherein a PLO assassin, forced briefly to share time with Avner's heroes in an Athens safe house, explains articulately the complexity fuelling both sides of the intifada--but it's preceded by a moment where the Jews and the Arabs find détente in a radio-station tit-for-tat by agreeing to listen to the Reverend Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Somebody give me a hallelujah!
That tension between diametrically-opposed sides--including smart vs. childish--Spielberg uses as his template inevitably diffuses into our own interaction with it. Of course, being a Spielberg film, Avner's wife is pregnant (leading to the affecting emotional moment when he talks to his now-toddler on the phone), and that giving of life is juxtaposed against Avner's vocation of dealing in death--but seldom content with letting things be, Spielberg ups the ante by intercutting Avner's reunification fuck with his wife with a final flashback to Munich, '72, his mechanical pumping of our long-suffering heroine climaxed in a baptismal wash of sweat at the exact moment our Jewish martyrs are sprayed with machine gun fire and grenaded into oblivion. Heady stuff, but the intention is to temper it with one last conversation in a frigid Brooklyn morning in the shadow of the Twin Towers, as Avner and his Handler discuss the importance of family and how all is lost when we run roughshod over the things in which we believe the most in the pursuit of defending that which we believe in the most. Munich is both the pinnacle and the prototype for a trend surfacing in the films of 2005, this tentative exploration (The Interpreter, The Constant Gardener, Syriana, and so on) of world politics from a largely apolitical (the new liberalism) point-of-view that clinches so tightly to that shining city on the hill, "Nuance," that it leaks substance everywhere. It's a mess, yet I admire a lot of it: It's mature and it's juvenile; it's smart and it's teeth-stinging stupid; it's subtle and it's obvious; it has a point and it has no focus. Where Coppola's '70s were indicated by pictures of hunger and lyrical obscenity, Spielberg's '00s (and '90s, and much of the '80s) are indicated by equivocation and compromise. Munich, then, is as good a film as Spielberg has made in decades. No worse and, alas, no better.
by Bill Chambers Universal ushers Munich to DVD in separate widescreen, fullscreen, and widescreen 2-Disc Collector's editions--we received the standalone widescreen version for review. The handsome 2.39:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer preserves the film's unique 'watercolor' aesthetic: The deliberately soft image often looks like it's been not so much photographed as blotted onto a porous surface. In fact, there's very little that's empirically wrong with this presentation, although a bit of print debris costs it top marks. Likely due to the movie's bloated running time, Munich is one of the few Spielberg titles without a DTS track on DVD; reproducing dialogue with piercing clarity and achieving surprising transparency during the chaotic set-pieces, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is hardly what you'd call a compromise, and the first explosion will erase any doubts that you are, indeed, listening to a Ben Burtt mix. While there are no extras (not even a trailer), the menus deserve special mention for their haunting use of imagery culled from the scene vidcapped above. Originally published: May 8, 2006.