Monday, January 22, 2007

Munich (2005)

After you get over the shock of seeing The Hulk in a political drama, you get quite used to seeing Eric Bana as a young Israeli analyst in "Munich." There are other shocks to the senses in this controversial film.

In the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics tragedy, in which 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian group known as Black September, the Israeli government deploys a team of agents to assassinate those terrorist leaders involved, one by one.

By its own admission, “Munich” is a “fictionalized account.” That means, we can only guess, that its source material is spotty and certainly controversial. The book that it’s based on is certainly that, and we understand its latest edition has a lengthy argument in defense of its story.

So, all of that being said, it’s awfully hard to judge this story. And if true, we have a lot of unanswered questions.

Bana plays “Avner,” an analyst and by no means a trained assassin who is suddenly thrust into such a role by the country’s prime minister (in a small but very effective scene where Golda Meir defends the idea of vengeance), a scene that at once brings up the vital and relevant question, what rules and ethical standards should be broken to defend your country. Bana plays Avner tentatively at first, as a sensitive man who tries to only affect those targeted while quickly realizing he cannot. He is, of course, you or me if we were put into such a vicious job, ripped away from your family for months, perhaps years, leaning only on the members of your group, strangers bent on the same purpose. And it’s through Avner’s eyes, his innocent soul, through which we witness the barbarity of these acts. While the film shows all the action such a task would require, it allows equal time to Avner's personal life, and to his struggle to remain human.

It’s an interesting group of actors as well as characters. Daniel Craig (the future 007) as Steve, the only one who seems to have no problem with the brutality necessary; Carl, the pipe-smoking Israeli (Ciaran Hinds); the antique dealer, Hans (Hanns Zischler); the smallish toy maker who doubles as an explosives expert, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz). You get to know them, respect them, like them, and wonder why on earth they’re there.

I had no problem following the action. I did, however, have problems believing that the Israelis would put up such a ne’er-do-well force to follow these targets around Europe and dispatch them with expediency. There is no expediency, and not much expertise. Every step of the way we expect calamity as Avner shows pointedly why he’s an analyst and not a professional killer.

The actual events of the Munich Olympics are shown in flashback fashion, piecemeal, throughout the film, serving to show us the catalyst for the action in the film as well as the substance of the nightmare. Still, at the end, I wondered at Black September’s purpose; there was no answer, indeed, no supposition as to why.

There are other questions. In fact, this is a very talky film where, every time “Israel” is mentioned, there’s a statement about identity or a question about Jewish survival, a constant reminder as to what the stakes are for the Jewish nation.

At the end of this longish film we have more questions than answers. It’s the one Spielberg movie I think I’ve ever seen where he doesn’t milk every human emotion for what it’s worth, and allows us to think about what we’ve seen and the price that’s been paid.

Thumb’s up.


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