Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Flick of The Day: Munich

Steven Spielberg has attempted historic epics before with film's like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan but rarely has he examined an issue without voicing a point of view on an event. With today's flick of the day, Munich, Spielberg does exactly that, neither questioning the reasoning behind the Israeli actions nor portraying the Palestinians as heartless, faceless evildoers. It is a meditation on the effects of seeking revenge and of the moral consequences of doing so.
Produced in the same year as Spielberg's blockbuster remake of War of the Worlds, much as he had done in 1993 with Jurassic Park and Schindlers List, Munich is a sombre thriller if such a thing is possible. Opening with a meticulous recreation of the events that occurred at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, while this has been done before in Kevin Macdonald's excellent documentary One Day in September, it is still well done. The use of news footage is particularly striking, given that it was sports reporters covering the Olympic Games which largely documented the hostage situation. After the massacre unfolds and the death of the Black September terrorists, largely due to a botched German rescue attempt, the film outlines the resolution of the Israeli government under Golda Meir to track down and kill those responsible. Mossad agent Avner, played by Eric Bana with a ruthless intensity, is recruited by Geoffrey Rush to lead the team. The team chosen are interestingly not professional assassins, but ordinary Israelis with military training and the kind of special skills required for the job including Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds. Both excel in their roles, each character given a background to work with. The fact that they are for want of a better word, normal, is what makes this film interesting. How they deal with the effects of having to devote their lives to seeking revenge and of having to do the actual killing is what drives much of the film. Each deals with it differently but as the story unfolds, it weighs on them all.
Coming in at just under 3 hours in length, the film feels over-long at times but then as Avner and co jump from locale to locale, taking out their targets along the way, it is thrilling and largely holds your attention. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is that Spielberg seems to take the opinion that both the Palestinian terrorists and the Mossad assassins are morally equivalent or at the very least offers this for our decision. In one entertaining scene, the undercover agents enter a safe house they have hired only to find it double booked by a group of Palestinians. Pretending to be fellow revolutionaries, they fall into conversation and Avner and their leader discuss the wishes of the Palestinian cause. I suppose ultimately the question at the heart of the film is whether it is right or not for a State to seek revenge in the form of an eye for an eye?

Ephraim: We have 11 Palestinian names. Each had a hand in planning Munich. You're going to kill them, 11 men, one by one. They're all in Europe now. You'll stay there as long as it takes. Europe only, not the Arab countries. That's for us, not you. And not Eastern Bloc. Don't upset the Russians. Who needs it? You'll have no contact with us. 
Avner: You're not going to give me any information? 
Ephraim: We deposit money from a fund that doesn't exist into a box we don't know about, in a bank we never set foot in. We can't help you because we never heard of you before. You'll do what the terrorists do. You think they report back to home base? They don't. We want them dead.

By posing this question, Spielberg is very much asking the audience to look at the events of today, where for the past decade the US government has pursued the planners of 9/11 in just such a manner as the Israelis. If the events of the past days have been proof of anything, it is that America has been as equally as effective as Israel in this quest for retribution.
The film is not without its flaws, in one of the closing scenes, flashback footage of the massacre is inter-cut with Avner making love to his wife implying that he is haunted and seeking solace in his wife. However, given that the footage is not news footage and bare in mind that Avner was never at Munich, what are we to draw from this? How could he be so haunted by imagery he never saw?

Avner: If these people committed crimes we should have arrested them. Like Eichmann. 
Ephraim: If these guys live, Israelis die. Whatever doubts you have Avner, you know this is true. 
[Avner walks away] 
Ephraim: You did well but you're unhappy. 
Avner: I killed seven men. 
Ephraim: Not Salameh. We'll get him of course.

In the end, this is a satisfying and beautifully shot examination of the after effects of the Black September massacre. Dealing with complex and dense issues, it makes for an entertaining if at times slow film. It also never comes to a resolution of the question it poses about the morality of state-sponsored revenge. Well worth a look.

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