Film Flashback: Spielberg’s Most Courageous Work?

I remember seeing the movie back in 2005, thinking it was perhaps his strongest work to date as a filmmaker. Screening it again this week only helped to cement my initial reaction of it as being a truly remarkable film. And although it may not be his “greatest” achievement (there is a little film called Schindler’s List that many have ranked among the greatest films ever made), the historical fiction film Munich is, in my estimation, Steven Spielberg’s most daring, most courageous work thus far.

Based on the book, Vengeance by journalist George Jonas, the film tells the story of the Israeli government’s secret retaliatory attacks after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September militants at the 1972 Summer Olympics. The film focuses on Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana, in an extraordinary performance), an Israeli-born Mossad agent of German descent who leads a team of four other men to hunt down and assassinate 11 Palestinian men who are believed to have taken some part in the slaughters at the Olympic games. “Forget peace for now, ” says Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir. “We have to show them we’re strong.” Though Kaufman’s wife is 7 months pregnant with their first child, he takes on the mission and is prepped for the operation by his contact man, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). Kaufman’s squad operates with absolutely no ties to the government of Israel — everything they do, is done covertly…without any traces. It is as if Kaufman and his men don’t even exist. And…they don’t.

I know that Spielberg caught a bit of flack when this film was released for its approach to the controversial subject matter. But he wasn’t making a documentary — the beginning states “inspired” by true events and he and his creative team take full advantage of having creative license. Certain elements are based on fact — there’s no question about that and those events are indisputable. But of course there is no way to be completely accurate with all the who’s, how’s and where’s of it all and Spielberg tells the story of this particular Israeli vengeance squad in his own way. The first thing he nailed was getting the perfect writers to adapt the book in award-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. It is an astounding script filled with compelling characters, suspense and intelligent dialogue.  It forces us to consider profound questions on one’s morality, retaliation, family, patriotism and yes, our very souls. John Williams, who has been a long-time collaborator with Spielberg, composes a magnificently haunting score; one that sounds unlike anything he has previously done. Michael Kahn’s editing keeps the lengthy film moving at a quick pace; creating great suspense when needed and going back and forth in time to the night of the Olympic murders. Also, we are accustomed to how visually stunning Spielberg’s films are and one of the main reasons for this is his longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. His work on this film is no exception — one glorious image after another.

PARTICULAR THINGS I LOVE ABOUT THE FILM:

  • How Spielberg captures the chaos on the evening that the 11 Israeli athletes are killed.  The swarming media coverage of the hostage situation is so dramatically orchestrated here. In fact, Spielberg doesn’t even show us what happens until a bit later, when Kaufman (Bana) is aboard a plane and he looks out the window. A very nice touch indeed.
  • The intermittent moments of humor. Though heavy in subject matter, there are some tender and funny moments that allow us to breathe a bit in between all of the more difficult moments. The battle over the radio in the Safehouse that Steve (Daniel Craig) has, and in particular, some of the moments that Kaufman has with his wife are very playful. At one point, he opens up to her by telling her she is the only home he has ever known. She replies, “This is so corny,” leaving Kaufman wounded, telling her that it wasn’t easy for him to say in the first place. OK, it doesn’t read as funny, but it brought a smile to my face…you have to simply see it.
  • The level of humanity illustrated throughout, no matter if the character is Israeli or Arab. Like many of Spielberg’s films, Munich is dripping with humanity. It doesn’t preach to its viewer and doesn’t tell you how to think. Spielberg’s message is a more subtle one. He even makes sure to depict the people on Kaufman’s “hit list” with a sense of compassion before his team assassinates them — their first target, for example, they find in Rome. He is living a poor life as a poet, conducting a reading in the streets to a small, modest crowd. A bomb is planted inside the home telephone of their second target. Spielberg makes sure to show us the young daughter of the target running back inside the home, then answering the ringing phone. It is a beautifully filmed sequence that grows more tense with each passing shot as we are not sure if the bomb will go off with the daughter inside the house or not. Another striking moment is Kaufman’s own reaction on the telephone when he first hears his baby daughter speak. Bana’s immediate reaction breaks your heart as he tells her from thousands of miles away, “This is what I sound like. Don’t forget…” Another, more subtle example is when the team is deciding whether to leave the robe of a beautiful Dutch contract killer open, exposing her naked body, or not, as she lies in a chair, lifeless.
  • The cast is simply tremendous. Bana is really the only big star here (remember, Daniel Craig wasn’t as big at the time of filming as he surely is today) and he has never been stronger. Ciarán Hinds is especially impressive as a former Israeli soldier, now “cleaner.” Mathieu Kassovitz plays Robert, a toy maker who has been trained in explosives. After so many missions, Robert questions the morality of what they have been doing and cannot bring himself continue. Both Hinds and Kassovitz turn in powerhouse performances. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is wonderfully engaging as Kaufman’s informant and the meetings that the two have together make for great drama. And Geoffrey Rush, as always, gives a solid performance. Here though, he seems like the only character without much humanity and we grow more frustrated with him every time he meets with Kaufman. The entire cast, as a whole, is remarkable — all fitting their parts in ideal fashion.
  • The wonderful scene with Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) where they are deciding on how best to respond to the horrors at Munich. Cohen is sensational — strong and commands the attention of the men around her. She has one scene in the film, but you don’t forget it any time soon.

I love the questions this film raises. Near the end, when Avner Kaufman is home in New York with his family, he asks Ephraim, “Did I commit murder?” The killings have been haunting him and keeping him up at night. He wants tangible evidence that these 11 men that they targeted for killing had a hand in the Munich massacre. He needs to know that it was not all in vain — that it stood for something, meant something. But really, Spielberg does a brilliant job at hinting towards the notion that, in some ways, it is all fruitless, futile. That the killings will continue. One eye will be taken and another eye taken for the loss of that. And on and on it goes…years, decades, centuries. Spielberg opens up a tremendous dialogue here — he doesn’t give answers; he merely poses the questions.

And for a film that takes a long, hard look on terrorism and retaliatory terrorist attacks, how fitting it was for Spielberg’s last shot to show the New York City skyline, with the towers of the World Trade Center standing strong and proud in the distance. Nice touch. Brilliant film. His bravest so far to date.

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48 Responses to Film Flashback: Spielberg’s Most Courageous Work?

  1. Richard says:

    Great review, Peter. Really well thought out and expressed.

    For me, Munich was almost a natural progression from Schindler’s List; a view of the Jewish people and State, now from a position of strength, whether their actions be right or wrong, rather than the victims. I also thought this was one of Spielberg’s most mature movies, perhaps even more so than Schindler’s List. What has always amazed me about Spielberg is that, for a director who is recognised for his movies of warmth and magic, he is so capable of portraying true horror with a stark, ruthless and unflinching eye. The scene where the group assassinate the female killer-for-hire on her houseboat, for instance, is so matter of fact in its brutality, it takes your breath away.

  2. Aaron Weiss says:

    Peter, excellent thoughts. Munich is definitely one of Speilberg’s lesser discussed films, yet totally brilliant.

    My favorite scene is when they shot the guy by the elevator, he falls forward onto the wine and milk. Spilling two symbols of high-class used in all ethnicities all over the floor.

    • Thanks so much Aaron. Yes, that is their first target. The man who is giving his translation readings in Italy. They both look so nervous when they are asking his name to see if they have the right guy. Excellent scene. And I agree — no one really talks about this work as much as I feel they should.

  3. Castor says:

    I liked Munich but didn’t love it. I thought it was too long for its own good. There is definitely a lot of highly memorable scenes but they are separated by too much brooding and slow moments that don’t really add as much as they sap away some energy from the proceedings. Great article Peter!

  4. Napiers News says:

    I did like this movie a lot and feel this is one of Spielberg’s most underrated films aside from ‘Empire of the Sun’. I think you should watch ‘Sword of Gideon’ if you get the chace, it is another film that covers this topic and I actually like it equally if not better.

    • Oh, ok. Thank you! I will look it up and check it out. Thank you forthe recommendation. You are right – I forgot about Empire of the Sun. Another gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Nice to bring that one up!

  5. rtm says:

    What a wonderful essay for a wonderful piece of cinema. I love this movie and not only it is one of Spielberg’s best, it’s perhaps THE best role for Eric Bana as well. I’m glad Spielberg went with a lesser known actor who’s clearly capable of an Oscar-worthy performance. It’s not as ‘flashy’ as Schindler’s List (which deserves its kudos), but as you said, it’s such a tightly-controlled and nuanced film that will be remembered for years to come.

  6. Jules DelGado says:

    Peter,
    Great review as usual and I agree with most of what to wrote but the take away I got from the movie is in the post 9-11 world we live in woke us (U.S.) up to the realization that there are people out there with extreme views that want us dead. The Israelis have been living with this problem for 60+ years and know how to deal with these people. I believe they have ZERO tolerance for these terror acts and have a 10 to 1 rule for retaliation. Until we come to grips as a country that asking these maniacs please don’t hurt us won’t work I suggest we look to this movie as a blueprint for our success in dealing with these fanatics. Let’s start by water boarding some ACLU attorneys and move on from there to more important individuals like KSM or Osama.

    • Oh, Jules — you are such a sensitive soul. Thanks for the compliment. Golda Meir and the Israelis were not going to let this go, that is for sure. I am actually curious and want to read the book at some point. It’s a fascinating event in history. Retaliation is great, and oftentimes necessary — the film does a great job at asking the question and showing the consequences. Zero Tolerance is a good policy to go by.

      • Jules DelGado says:

        The extremists only fear a position of strength. The respect the Israelis for who they are but want them extinct. We were attacked because we are marshmallow like infidels. We have lost our edge and are now easy prey. When they see us fighting ourselves debating about reading them Miranda Rights they laugh and put on the suicide vests. So your comment “oftentimes” is what this movie was not about. The Israelis retaliate EVERY time and their enemies know that. We want to wrap them in a warm blanket of civil rights they don’t deserve. Two things you should remember when dealing with an Islam Terrorist. 1) Red on the positive 2) Black on the negative

  7. Mad Hatter says:

    Despite its Best Picture nomination, this might be one of Spielberg’s most underrated films. I’m still a little iffy on the film’s final act, but I love the morals ingrained into the story so much that I love it warts-and-all.

    Great post – gonna have to re-watch this soon!

    • Thanks, Hatter. What do you think was wrong with the final act? Curious to know. Do you find it overly sentimental? I usually have a problem with his 3rd acts as well, but after watching again, I was very moved…and would think that anyone who had gone through what he had, they’d be asking the same questions of themselves. Thanks, again — trying to write as good as you…

      • Mad Hatter says:

        His entire mental flash to the Munich attacks while a wailing score blares out as he fucks his wife in slow-mo was a little bit “too much”. It wasn’t enough to sink the whole film for me, but it felt like an unneccessary/overplayed moment.

        The final scene in the NY harbour worked very well and almost got the memory of the flashback-fucking out of my head.

        • Oh, ok. Actually, I loved that whole sequence and yes, the “wailing score” — I bought into all of that! Of course it is meant to show how this is tormenting his psyche – and yes, Spielberg can at times go over the top (as he almost always does), but I loved every bit of that. I can absolutely see where you are coming from though. Thank you for getting back to me…was very curious.

          • Mad Hatter says:

            It’s a great idea, I just wished he’d executed it a bit different. Regardless, I’m a huge fan of Spielberg’s work (even CRYSTAL SKULL) and this flick is certainly a gem.

            One small moment was not enough to ruin a whole flick for me.

          • Jules DelGado says:

            Tormenting his psysche? I think not. I am quite sure that the person who squared things up for the jews was happy with himself and his accomplishments. The torment was all Hollywood.

            • I disagree. Killing someone and taking a human life away is boung to have an affect on someone. Especially when portrayed as a family man like he was here.

              • Jules DelGado says:

                he did it to protect his family, and others from these maniacs. So with your logic every soldier who has killed comes back tormented? I think not. You are talking about a Mossad agent here. Dedicated individuals who sign up for that duty. The remorse was added by S.S. to soften the blow that Mossad agents have hearts.

                • Jules DelGado says:

                  The story was fabricated to make you feel something for the assasin. Otherwise its a pure revenge flick. Reality, it was all about revenge and making things right.

  8. nora says:

    i LOVED munich!!!! what a great in-depth write-up. i remember feeling like the only person rooting for it to win best picture that year, but i knew it had no chance against crash (yuck). i think kushner is just brilliant. need to re-watch, don’t remember some of the scenes you describe here. but i do remember the feeling i had after watching it- incredible.

    • CRASH!!! I love Crash!!!! Haha…thanks, Nora. I love this film. I honestly do think it’s his best work (even better than Schindler’s List). Was just as good for me the second time around.

      • Raul Duke says:

        Good but better than Schlindler? You are BOTZO!

        • I think Schindler is terrific. It’s a very close call…neck and neck. I would say Munich is his more mature work. A tighter, more thought-provoking film. It sounds terrible, but you know what I mean here — when you are doing a movie on the Holocaust, half the work is done for you just in its subject matter alone. Not to minimize the extraordinary job Spielberg did with it in any way.

          • Mad Hatter says:

            The artistic execution of SCHINDLER is what sets it apart for me. Ignoring the subject matter for a moment, it is just such an amazingly well shot, cut, and scored film.

            He’s achieved that level of filmmaking a few other times, but not with MUNICH (as much as I love it).

            • well, then I hope you will share your other favorites with us tomorrow for the weekly Gimme 5. Yes, the execution (no pun intended at all) of Schindler’s List is beyond extraordinary. Agreed. Most of the same people worked on this and I believe Munich is right on par with Schindler’s List in terms of editing, DP and the 70’s costume and productin design.

      • nora says:

        You’re welcome, sir. I know you love Crash. Why I do not know… it’s such an annoying movie! HA!

  9. CMrok93 says:

    This one has been laying around my room forever, and it wasn’t till awhile ago, when I heard this referenced in Knocked Up, I really wanted to see this.

  10. MAGGIE SIMI says:

    AMAZING MOVIE AMAZING!!!

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