Thursday, December 29, 2005

Munich review
Justice is a funny thing. As a people, we humans are still overly obsessed with getting even.
Vengeance is a long-time standard dish in the commissary of film fare. From great Westerns like Hang 'Em High or The Outlaw Josey Wales to the Kill Bill movies to the recent Chan Wook Park "Vengeance" series from Korea, my cinematic upbringing has been heaped with piles of revenge movies served cold.
Getting even is a power play. It's about making your adversary powerless. More than just the killing itself, it's about the moment when you hold the power and your opponent does not. The trick is, vengeance is not necessarily in the interests of justice.
The killings at the 1972 Munich Olympics were horrific, to be certain. And the act was reprehensible beyond any stretch of the imagination. Israel was beset on all sides by enemies, and had the extra disadvantage of having displaced the Palestinian people, who were never taken in by any of their neighbors. The Palestinians turned to terror in the mid to late 1960s, igniting the international firestorm that continues to this day.
Steven Spielberg's latest film, Munich, isn't about the attack at the Olympics, though the incident is painstakingly reproduced. It's about Israel's systematic assassination of the 11 Palestinian leaders who were suspected of masterminding the Munich plot.
Led by Eric Bana's Avner Kauffman, a team of well-meaning dilletantes systematically tracks and eliminates the people assigned them by their handlers. None of them are Mossad -- this is an unofficial mission that can't be traced back to Israel. Each of them has a specific skill which can aid the group in accomplishing their mission.
There's the hotheaded driver, Steve (Daniel Craig, in yet another remarkable performance); the gentle toymaker turned bombmaker, Robert (Mathiew Kassovitz); the precise antique dealer/documents expert Hans (Hanns Zischler); and the ever-worrying 'cleaner' Carl (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) whose job it is to make sure they leave no trace at each killing.
Each person aches for vengeance for their nation -- and for themselves. But, one by one, they begin to question their mission. Are the killings just? Are their targets guilty? At what point do they cease being soldiers and begin being murderers?
To his credit, Spielberg never answers any of these questions. It would be far to simple to say that their targets were terrorists and needed to be eliminated (Look no further than our current administration in Washington to see how the short-sighted policies of vengeance have served us.). Instead, Spielberg shows how absolutely mammoth his cojones are by showing us reality: vengeance serves no one.
No killing has ever filled the void of a lost loved one.
No execution has ever brought real comfort to a crime victim or their family.
No amount of killing will ever bring peace.
To say that Munich is a step forward for Spielberg is an understatement. This is not only the smartest, most mature movie he's ever done; it's also the most ethically flexible he's ever allowed himself to be. He doesn't preach at all. In fact, if you want to see Munich as a straight-forward revenge movie you can (for the most part). There's ample reason to hate the targets of the squad. But there's also enough gray area that the audience, like some of the assassins themselves, might see things differently.
The movie is sparse and devoid of artifice. Spielberg himself is barely visible, if at all, in the finished product. He directs so subtly that you'd never know this is the same guy who made Always and E.T.. The only thing that matters is the performances, and damn, what performances. I've been a fairly vocal supporter of Daniel Craig since Layer Cake. He's excellent. Geoffrey Rush? Amazing. Hinds? Kassovitz? Unbelievably good. Of course, the centerpiece of the cast, and the lynch pin of the entire movie is Eric Bana. Bana hasn't been this good since Chopper. Too few people realize how absolutely amazing he is in pretty much EVERYTHING (including Hulk, naysayers. Shut up.).
I know it's not the feel-good holiday movie you've been looking forward to, but Munich is important cinema. It's not only the greatest film from the most talented filmmaker alive, it's an impressive thing to think over and discuss after you leave the theater.
I'll be talking a wee bit more about Munich soon...

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