Avner (Eric Bana, "Troy") is an Israeli Mossad agent awaiting the birth of his first child when he is called to the prime minister's office, served coffee by Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, "The Station Agent") and given one day to decide if he will leave his wife and go underground to lead an assassination team. His target is eleven members of the Palestinian Black September group in retaliation for the slaughter of the eleven Israeli Olympic athletes in "Munich."
In attempting to tackle the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, director Steven Spielberg has taken great pains to be politically correct, staying a firm middle ground that denounces violence and depicts each side as a people in need of a homeland. Draping his story on the personal toll taken by a Mossad team killing people on faith that their government's homework is correct is an intriguing window into the subject, but Bana doesn't get far below Avner's surface and we never really feel his anguish until late goings when it is severely undercut by being intercut in a lovemaking scene with his wife and the final moments of the Israeli Olympians, a bizarre choice if ever there was one. (Spielberg seems to be making a habit of holding onto a wrong-headed idea in his films, lately. Witness the "War of the Worlds" conclusion.) On the other hand, Spielberg's international effort does work as a genre film, with its shadowy subjects picking their way through a landmined playing field.
The team assembled is a classic action movie group, each with their speciality. Besides the leader, Avner, the youngest and a former Meir bodyguard, there is South African Steve (Daniel Craig, "Layer Cake"), the getaway driver, Belgian Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz, "Amen," "Amelie"), a toy maker turned bomb maker, German antiques dealer Hans (Hanns Zischler, "The Edukators"), the forger, and the 'worrier' Carl (Ciarán Hinds, HBO's "Rome," "The Phantom of the Opera"), the cleaner. These men, disparate in age and background, forge a tight bond over the dinner table, where Avner's home cooked meals are as important to them as the elaborate Italian food prepared by and for "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas'" mobsters.
The first hit, on a seemingly harmless author said to be the Rome's Black September head, finds the men tense and inexperienced, but in the end, the job is done (in reality, later research suggests this man was incorrectly fingered). The next hits involve Robert's explosive devices and the scenes are all charged. A remote fails to operate, the daughter of an intended target answers the booby-trapped phone, the explosives are too powerful and take out the entire floor of a hotel where Avner has been signalling from. Furthermore, Avner finds himself caught between his 'neutral' information source Louis (Mathieu Amalric, "Kings and Queen," simply terrific in the role), a man who will not sell information to governments (Avner's told him he's fronted by a wealthy American) and Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," unable to disappear within the role), the squad's only link back to Mossad who demands the source's identity. Avner is exposed when Louis's information is used by an Israeli military squad and he's marched out by Louis to meet Papa (Michael Lonsdale, "Moonraker," "Ronin"), the puppeteer, for a dressing down, but instead Papa takes a kind of liking to the young man, enough to warn him that the play is in turnaround even if he's already sold info on Avner's squad to the other side. Papa is an equal opportunity informer and as the hunters become the hunted, the Mossad squad begins to implode.
Spielberg attempts to cover a lot of ground and he succeeds to varying degrees. The film begins (after the Dreamworks fishing boy logo is perversely accompanied by a Middle Eastern wail) with snippets of the 1972 hostage situation as televised by media outlets around the world. The director gets us with a gut punch, showing how some partying Americans helped the terrorists over a gate into the Olympic village, then the siege of the apartment itself. As the hostages and their captors watch television, the camera pulls back, casually revealing that one of the group has already been murdered. The infamous image of the ski masked man on the balcony is made more eerie because we see it unfold from within as it is also projected over the airwaves. In the new age of instant news, the German police, who will later bungle the entire rescue, are stymied because the terrorists can watch their every move on TV.
A fictitious meeting of the minds occurs when Louis double books Avner and a PLO team into the same Athens safe house, an almost comical interlude. Unaware that Avner's group is Israeli, Arab boss Ali (Omar Metwally) explains the Palestinian point of view. Later Avner watches the man he's come to know gunned down in the street. Later still, the group gets a shot at their number one target, Black September creator Ali Hassan Salameh (Mehdi Nebbou), only to be thwarted by the CIA! Things get bleaker still when Avner takes matters into his own hands, murdering a woman (Marie-Josée Croze, "The Barbarian Invasions") who took out one of their own (is Spielberg saying something about the male ego here, that these Mossad were naive or is this bad filmmaking? - this woman's seductive lure simply smacked of a setup, but Avner misses it when it is initially directed at him).
Spielberg's themes are often presented too broadly, with the human need for a place to call one's own hammered on until we expect to see ET himself phone home. His attempt to make the story relevant to today's political climate at film's end is distracting and obvious. As Avner and Ephraim walk against the Manhattan skyline, Janusz Kaminski's ("Schindler's List") camera studiously avoids the World Trade Towers until their very absence in the shot is screaming at us. Only then does Spielberg pan and zoom into them, as subtle as a sledgehammer. Still "Munich" has so many moments that do work. Avner, reaching for a lamp, aware that he will literally snuff out a life by hitting the switch...Ephraim's eternal grousing about the importance of receipts, more care perhaps given to the budget than the background checks...the modern kitchen display that is Avner and Louis's meeting place, a visual rather than verbal reminder on the importance of home.
In "Munich," Golda Meir states 'Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.' Perhaps Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") have overly compromised their film, letting cool heads prevail over heated emotion. "Munich" is still a good film, but the cooler "Syriana" packs more of a punch.
Anyone who was old enough remembers that terrible 21 hours during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games when members of the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, stormed the Israeli team’s dormitory killing or taking hostage 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. At the end of that fateful day the remaining Israelis were gunned and grenaded to death. If you asked the question “What happened after?” then Steven Spielberg may have an answer for you in “Munich.”
This is another of mega-director Spielberg’s “noble” films, such as “The Color Purple” and “Schindler’s List,” as the helmer tackles the touchy subjects of assassination, revenge and national honor. The screenplay, by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (based on the book “Vengeance” by George Jonas), tells the story of Avner (Eric Bana), an ex-Mossad agent and bodyguard to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), recruited to head a top-secret, death-dealing undercover mission: find and kill the 11 Palestinian ringleaders responsible for masterminding the Olympic slaughter.
Joining Avner is an assembly of assassins from all walks of life: tough, deadly driver Steve (Daniel Craig); prim, well dressed Carl (Cirian Hinds); toy-maker turned bomb-maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); and, master forger Hans (Hanns Zischler). This eclectic group is controlled, firmly, by their upper-level handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who insists on secrecy and receipts. Armed with an unlimited war coffer Avner and his team move from city to city – from Tel Aviv, Beirut and Athens to Geneva, Paris, London and New York – tracking down the perpetrators of the Munich massacre.
Avner seeks the help of Frenchman Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who, for enough money, will find the Israeli’s targets. Louis is the right hand man of his father, Papa (Michael Lonsdale), who controls a shadowy international underworld where information and loyalty go to the highest bidder. Papa and his son maintain a code of (relative) honor where they can be bought but never bribed. The Israeli hit team takes the Frenchmen’s intelligence and hatch elaborate plans to take out the bad guys.
Munich” makes no bones about the Israeli decision, made at the highest levels as shown early in the film, to kill the Munich masterminds. It is a cold and calculated choice that would make the statement to the world that Israel will retaliate if its safety and national honor are at stake. The filmmakers humanize this decision by having Avner, a loving husband and father-to-be who takes on the deadly job as his duty to his country, struggle with the consequences of his mission, especially when innocents are killed.
The story tries to make an overture to the Palestinian plight when Avner and his crew must share a safe house in Athens with a group of Arab terrorists. This hands-across-the-water gesture makes its obvious point when Steve (Craig) battles with a stubborn Arab opponent on the selection of a radio station. Peace is had when both compromise and they find a station that makes them both happy. This kind of heavy-handed symbolism permeates Munich.
For a film that deals with globe hopping assassins using guns and bombs to kill their prey, there is little excitement – except when manufactured – in the story. One obvious bit involves planting a bomb in a high-ranking Palestinian’s home and the man’s daughter. It has been done so many times before that I wondered, to myself, when the daughter was going to be put in danger long before the tension-fraught scene . This sort of button pushing by Spielberg and company is one of the several detractors in “Munich.” The episodic action/assassination attempt sequences lack any real flow as the killers, almost willy-nilly, hop from one exotic capital to another in search of national revenge.
Other problems include casting Eric Bana as Avner. There is nothing in the man that invokes empathy, even in those “touching” moments with his pregnant wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer). The inner torment the man suffers over his mission is augmented with chronological flashbacks to the fateful September day. Again, it is way too obvious as it ends with a sex act juxtaposed with the final moments when the Palestinians lob grenades and open fire on the helpless Israeli athletes and coaches. Talk about having a climax!
The international cast is relegated to two-dimensional characters – Avner notwithstanding – but populated with a solid progression of character actors. The hit team is well played by the future James Bond, Daniel Craig, my personal favorite Cirian Hinds, Hanns Zischler, and filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz but they never change from the personas you meet in the beginning of “Munich.” Geoffrey Rush is one-note as the gruff mission controller. Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric are standouts as the shady father & son team who supply info to the Israelis. Ayelet Zurer is little more than a symbol of another life that Avner, because of his emotion-draining mission, has, possibly, lost. Little time is spent in building any kind of emotional bond to these characters.
Techs are first-rate, as one would expect in a Steven Spielberg film. Long time Spielberg collaborators, lenser Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams, lend their exemplary expertise to the proceeds, as does production designer Rick Carter, who captures the international period feel. But, these solid techs can’t help if the story lacks emotional involvement and the players aren’t fleshed out to 3-D beings.
Munich” may have an answer to the question posed earlier but I’m not sure, 33 years later, if anyone is asking. It is a well-crafted but ultimately lifeless story that fails to garner the viewer’s involvement. I give it a B.
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