Film Flashback: Spielberg’s Most Courageous Work?
August 26, 2010 48 Comments
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.