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Total Film

July 2006

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Director Steven Spielberg
Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Ciarán Hinds
Cert 15

Film ***** Extras *

Spielberg was never going to win with Munich. From one side he was ripe for a hammering, as Hollywood's highest-profile flag-flyer for Jewish causes, for favouring the Israeli view - that their response to the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre was a reasonable quid pro quo to a barbaric act. From the other, pro-Israel hardliners were always going to splash bile on him for paying a nanosecond of lip service to the Palestinian struggle - see the scene in an Athens stairwell between Eric Bana's Mossad agent, Avner, and an Arab terrorist, one of Munich's frequent “big-theme” conversations.

He knew what he was letting himself in for, and to emerge with a tense, vigorous, thought-sparking thriller that applies the spare efficiency of great Hollywood storytelling to the prosaic, ethical examinings favoured by master political filmmakers like Costa-Gavras, just goes to show what a genius the man is (and, no, you're not reading that other magazine - Total Spielberg).

Some (including author George Jonas, whose book Vengeance is Munich's wellspring) slammed Spielberg for moral posturing, for letting the gunslinger blow everyone away, and then having a guilt trip about it. But if ever there was a loaded moral dilemma, this is it, and Munich is Spielberg's Long Film About Killing: how does it feel to point the gun at your enemy, squeeze the trigger and watch as he staggers, spurts blood and falls down dead. In Munich, it ends up feeling like despair rather than elation.

At the start Spielberg gives himself a get-out clause, adding the disclaimer “inspired by real events”. But the 1972 Olympic atrocity is forensically recreated (aided by its status as live, prime-time horror), as Palestinian terrorists, operating under the banner Black September, clumsily execute a plot to ransom the Israeli Olympic team in exchange for Arab prisoners. When all nine hostages die in an airport firefight, an “unofficial” Mossad hit squad is dispatched to Europe to hunt down the masterminds...

That's Spielberg's launch pad and he deploys his peerless talents, Janusz Kaminski's austere cinematography, and Bana's tormented central performance to guide us on a haunted and haunting journey. There's revulsion at the heinous athlete slaughter, a bloodthirsty, “Kill them!” craving for revenge and a slow-burn unease at, first, the true guilt of the intellectuals on Israel's hit list (“They must die for Israel to live,” declares Geoffrey Rush's unbending intelligence officer) and, later, what this undercover mission is achieving (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's script pointedly referring to the terrorists' brutal response to the vengeance).

As the five Jewish assassins - including Daniel Craig's gung-ho South African, Mathieu Kassovitz's frail Belgian bombmaker and Ciarán Hinds' nervous clean-up man - go about the business of killing, in Paris, London and Beirut, Spielberg chips away at our confidence. They make mistakes: aborting a mission when a little girl picks up an explosives-packed telephone. We see the gory aftermath of their handiwork (body parts hanging from ceiling fans). They become anguished and argumentative, defying their orders in a horrific, hollow reprisal killing of a Dutch femme fatale who has taken out one of their own.

Buffeted about this revenger's tragedy is Avner, who morphs from a cocky idealist to a depleted shadow, disoriented by the notion that performing heroically for his country can feel so dehumanising. His conflicted disintegration is Munich's own crumbling soul. Bana is riveting, his bold, humane, absolute commitment to the character sparing Spielberg's blushes when the director occasionally fumbles in the dark. Towards the end, Spielberg does indeed “jump the shark” (recalling Schindler's List's cringey “This ring!” speech) when he cross-cuts between Avner's grim flashbacks to the Munich slayings while he's robotically fucking his wife, climaxing in a love it/cringe-at-it primal scream.

But, hey, it wouldn't be a Spielberg film if he didn't splice in at least one awkward moment. And the rest of this brainy, accomplished thriller, which simmers with action, suspense and intrigue, makes it a potent and worthy addition to the director's canon - even if the Academy only grudgingly granted it five nominations (awards tally: 0) while criminally ignoring Bana.

Depressingly, once again, Region 2 gets the vanilla, single-disc treatment. While the Region 1 (two-disc) version is awash with juicy featurettes, we get an 8-minute intro from The Beard and a brief Making Of, featuring interviews with all the main players. Both are decent, but why hold the full package back from Europe? Do they think we smell or something?

By declining to offer pat answers to a hopeless situation that's only got worse since its '70s setting, Munich argues for peace while not denying that, sometimes, you need to use force against your foes. As George Jonas himself has said, “For not solving the problems of the Middle East, Spielberg should get a Nobel Peace Prize, like everyone else.”

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