Eric Bana, Ciaran Hinds, Daniel Craig
If Steven Spielberg were a stick of rock, you’d find the words ‘home & family’ running right through him. Instead, it runs right through his movies. And his political tragi-drama Munich, following the eye-for-eye aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympic disaster, is no different. For all its down-and-dirty politics, Munich’s heart is where the home is. From ET to War of the Worlds, The Terminal to Saving Private Ryan his theme’s the same. But in Munich Spielberg bravely cuts through the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian struggles of yesterday and today and weaves his theme afresh. And it’s a stunning, brutal, coolly even-handed study.
Munich gets off to a rapid start. The violent abduction of the Israeli athletics team at the 1972 Olympics is shown in jolting realism interspersed with the sobering TV coverage of the time. When news filters out that the hostages were killed in an airport gun-battle, the Israeli prime minister orders a secret mission to locate and execute the 11 Palestinians believed to have been behind it. Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) must leave his pregnant wife for a covert operation in Europe, aided by a motley crew. But Avner’s men soon learn that Palestinian reprisals are erupting with every man they kill. Beset by growing doubts as to the legitimacy of their actions, things get worse when it’s clear they’ve become targets themselves.
Munich is possibly Spielberg’s most mature, restrained and revealing movie. The de-saturated look used for his harder-edged films (Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and Minority Report) is shot through here with natural light which ebbs away with each killing. And the violence is sudden, messy and consequential, Spielberg taking care to give the victims (Israeli, Palestinian and bystanders) faces, names and families. Deliberately rhythmic, Munich prefaces each killing with Bana’s men sharing a meal, their appetites waning as they go about their business. And Spielberg tempers our sympathy for the victims by weaving-in the bloody outworking of the original kidnapping.
Spielberg keeps clichés and leavening humour at bay. John Williams’ score is pared-down and unsettling. It’s the bomb blasts and gunshots you hear. Gone too is the ‘Spielberg spoiler’, the drawn-out last few minutes that plagued Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. This time it’s equally emphatic but done with brevity. Check out the last few frames - an iconic skyline writ-large with contemporary warning. Avner starts out as an unquestioning patriot. With blood on his hands, he asks if he’s doing the right thing. Spielberg’s parallels for today are clear.
Munich is long but doesn’t drag thanks to a strong ensemble cast and masterly direction. It’s not an all-out thriller and has nothing startling to say. Despite the undoubted quality, this is take-it-or-leave-it, not must-see. Gripping, but only in the way a car-crash is to passersby. When normal lives are twisted out of shape, we can’t help reflecting on our own. And for Spielberg, that’s ‘job done’.