Legend has it that early in his career, Steven Spielberg pursued the job of directing a James Bond movie. That of course never happened, but he did get to bring another dashing adventurer, Indiana Jones, to the screen - a much greater accomplishment in retrospect. With his latest film, “Munich”, Spielberg gets to once again indulge his 007 wish, but this time in a very different and most unlikely way. It is the story of a band of covert Israeli government assassins out to exact revenge upon the killers of their country’s eleven athletes in 1972 at the infamous Munich Olympic Games.
These assassins, led by Avner, played by Eric Bana (“Hulk”) and including future Bond Daniel Craig as Steve, hit on just about every spy movie convention throughout the course of their dark mission – they get briefed, travel the globe, meet femme fatales, kill a lot of people, get into chases, and even use lethal gadgets courtesy of the token gadget-man teammate. But this time there is a twist – this time, it’s all real world, to the point that the film is “Inspired by true events” (and based upon the book “Vengeance” by George Jonas). In other words, the chases are sloppy, and makeshift gadgets kill indiscriminately, leaving behind pools of blood and mangled body parts. The targets have human faces, foibles, and families, making the assigned killing that much more of conscious struggle for those who haven’t managed to completely harden and suppress their emotions in the name of nationalism. Even the cold, flawed Bond of Ian Fleming never went to this place.
Spielberg is indeed in his “serious” mode, and even generating some controversy with “Munich”. Warranted or not, the film works not only as a realistic assassination tale and a political allegory for today’s world, but also as perhaps the most definitively “Spielberg” film in years.
The controversy surrounding “Munich” is not something I’m qualified to analyze, in terms of the ages-old Israel/Palestinian conflict, or where Spielberg stands on the issue. I will say that the director is clearly more interested in exploring the personal and sociological costs of revenge in this film rather than breaking down who’s right and who’s wrong in their longstanding turf war. Apparently Spielberg’s Jewishness has come under attack with claims that he’s “switched sides” since “Schindler’s List”. While I doubt that extreme accusation to be true, those well versed in his filmography are quite aware of the fact that his strongest work suggests a specific worldview that has at times been labeled as something outside his heritage. Over and over, whether intentional or not, he tells stories demonstrating that people are wholly incapable of making it on their own. This is a viewpoint resembling reformed Christianity when paired with his sometimes-messianic imagery, and could no doubt be linked to other viewpoints as well when presented in other forms. What this means for Spielberg the man; I have no idea, but in the context of Spielberg the artist, let’s look at the facts...
Spielberg’s strongest and most pronounced films could be separated into two different outcome groups. The first group features heroes struggling all the while to do right, only to be eventually overcome, but then bailed out in the eleventh hour by supernatural means. This group includes the Indiana Jones films, “E.T.”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and “War of the Worlds”, among others.
The second group is films in which the outcomes may be ultimately positive, but the victories are wanting at best, often leaving the protagonists lonely, frustrated, and even irrevocably hardened or crushed by the experience. This group includes “Schindler’s List”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Jurassic Park”, “Jaws”, and even his first film, “Duel”.
What sets “Munich” apart, but also makes it definite Spielberg, is how it utilizes both categories. The label of “Spielbergian” is often packed with negative allegations, including those of being too saccharine, too sentimental, too glossy, and too fanciful. While justified in the past, these allegations are certainly not the case here. In this case, the characters of “Munich” exist knowingly in the second category for the very reason of not allowing the first as a possibility. Other recent Spielberg films have at times danced into both categories, including “A.I.” and “Minority Report”, but never in a way as thorough as this.
Just following the assassinations of the athletes (all killed essentially off-screen in the opening minutes of the film), Israel’s leadership decides they’re sick of being pushed around, and are not going to sit idly by this time. The team is assembled and put into action, and before long the very bloody body count begins to tally up high. In the course of all of this, yes, the Palestinian targets are often allowed more human depictions than the Israeli athletes ever had a chance at, but that’s not at the heart of the matter. What is at the heart of “Munich” is the nature of killing. How killing begets more killing. The messy and disturbing physicality of killing. And that killing is a dirty business, giving way to paranoia, detachment, and isolation. Late in the film, one character tells another that the Jews were a people who were supposed to trust God in these matters, and by not doing so, by taking matters into their own hands, they’ve only intensified the problem. This morbid spiritual commentary places “Munich” as Spielberg’s most authentically postmodern film, a classification he seems to have been striving to achieve for years, but never fully attained until now.
Despite the films nearly three hour running time, it never drags. The political intrigue and situation demand a slight degree of understanding prior to viewing, but this is not nearly as obscure as Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”. The direction is economical, taut, and at times clever. The performances are all-around solid, with Bana at long last given the chance to truly prove his acting chops. Daniel Craig is memorable as the iciest killer of team, thus building anticipation for his turn as James Bond, and hope that the creators of that series will allow for a depiction of the ruthless Fleming characterization, in keeping with the actor’s demonstrated strong points. The art department’s task of recreating Europe and various middle-eastern countries as they were in 1972 is not a task I envy, but they did an excellent job of it, never betraying the fact that this was only shot mere months ago. It is perhaps due to the film’s well-known post-production time crunch that John Williams’ score is so sparse, but the music is effective nonetheless in its sparseness.
This is a very violent film with a high body count. The killings are graphic and often brutal, sometimes even demeaning. Perhaps most surprising element in all of this is the blatant commentary Spielberg makes late in the film, linking the primal act of murder with sexual climax while at the same time keeping it personally relevant for the characters in question. The political allegory is subtle yet obvious at the very end, as Spielberg could be accused of copping the film’s final image from another semi-recent film also built upon a similar foundation. (I’ll not reveal the film in order to avoid the direct spoiler, but feel free to guess.) Whether you agree with the underlying point of the film or not, you will still be struck nonetheless by some its many other observed truths and observations made along the way.
It’s not fair to 1982’s “E.T.” to imply it a lesser film by stating that our boy Steven has officially grown up since then, but “Munich” is clearly the work of a matured and sure-handed artist; one bold with opinion, voice, and undeniable skill. Spielberg may be searching and questioning our world, unable to find easy answers this time out, but he never loses sight of the importance of “home”, a vital re-occurring theme of “Munich”. With that in mind, we can ponder the film’s deep issues while knowing that sooner than later, he’ll no doubt be back in his fantastical filmmaking comfort zone now that he’s appeased his increasingly vital “serious” side. The beauty of it is, in either storytelling mode; his singular worldview is on display. Golden Globe snub aside, “Munich” should be given a shot at the gold at Oscar time.
- Jim Tudor