Eric Bana as Avner
Daniel Craig as Steve
Ciaran Hinds as Carl
Mathieu Kassovitz as Robert
Hanns Zischler as Hans
Ayelet Zurer as Daphna
Geoffrey Rush as Ephraim
Gila Almagor as Avner’s Mother
Michael Lonsdale as Papa
Mathieu Amalric as Louis
Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas
Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi as Sylvie
Meret Becker as Yvonne
Marie-Josee Croze as Jeanette
Yvan Attal as Tony (Andreas’ Friend)
Ami Weinberg as General Zamir
Lynn Cohen as Golda Meir
A multi-leveled political thriller, “Munich” might be Spielberg’s most controversial and accomplished film to date, although it would have been much stronger if cut down by at least 20 minutes or more.
After the kidnapping of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics by the terrorist group “Black September”, an Israeli soldier (Eric Bana) is hired by the Mossad to take out those responsible. Assembling a diverse team of assassins, they start to go after the men on the target list, all the time fighting with their consciences about whether they’re doing the right thing and being helped by a number of third parties who may have their own agendas.
This is a very different film for Steven Spielberg, and not just because it gets him away from the fantasy and science fiction of his other recent movies. It’s a period piece in every sense of the word, harking back to a time before Spielberg was a filmmaker. It might be seen as Spielberg’s “Godfather,” not only because it’s a story about revenge, but also because many scenes pay a direct homage to his buddy Francis Ford Coppola’s classic trilogy. If nothing else, it should finally put to rest the accusations that Spielberg is a one-trick pony who relies on formula.
Based on a script by Tony Kusher (“Angels in America”) and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), adapted from the novel “Vengeance”, the film opens with a recreation of the Munich kidnappings, then cuts away to actual newscasts and the reactions of those watching it. This is the set-up for a movie that’s more about what happens after the hostages are killed. In a secret meeting between Israeli leaders, it’s decided that those responsible for the murders should be dealt with, and an Israeli soldier named Avner (Bana) is commissioned to work with a team to eliminate a list of ten enemies of state residing in different European countries. This team is made up of Jews and sympathizers from different backgrounds, who carefully plan each act of retribution, often using jury-rigged explosives
After an hour of watching them take out their targets, with many close calls, the lines between right and wrong start to blur, since those being murdered may not be involved in the Munich events. Avner and his team begin wondering whether they’re being used to get payback on anyone against Israel, which is intensified when they start dealing with a shady French character named Louis, who finds their targets and supplies them with safe houses, but who has his own agenda. In one pivotal moment after a mission goes wrong, Avner is brought before Louis’ “Papa” during a family get-together that’s right out of the first “Godfather.”
Eric Bana’s Avner isn’t so much a hero–after all, he’s a murderer–but he is a man caught between performing a duty for his people and battling with his own conscience. Being separated from his wife and new child for almost a year, he starts getting paranoid about whether he’s doing the right thing. Always great in every role he plays, Bana perfectly captures the torment of being the middle ground in the arguments and having second thoughts about his actions. Essentially, he is the viewer. Any time he has doubts, he has dreams that flashback to the incidents in Munich, reminding us why he and his men continue this questionable mission.
Bana could not have pulled of this difficult movie on his own, and Spielberg has assembled an amazing supporting cast, the most known being Geoffrey Rush as Avner’s less than scrupulous handler Ephraim, essentially playing the Brian Cox role from the “Bourne” movies. It’s the other men in Avner’s team who offer some of the film’s most memorable moments with the always great Daniel Craig taking a back seat to the likes of Ciaran Hinds and Mathieu Kassovitz as bomb expert Robert, both of whom give impassioned speeches about their reasons for accepting the mission.
On the one hand, it’s fun sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the explosions as Avner tries to prevent civilian casualties, but there are plenty of talking heads moments filled with the type of “theo-political” discussions that any self-proclaimed intellectual would appreciate. Those of Jewish descent will be interested in some of them, because of the discussions about the philosophies of Judaism and whether what these men are doing goes against them. While these arguments are interesting, others might be offended by the implication that Israeli Jews are an angry and vengeful people, which to some degree, exacerbates Mel Gibson’s depiction of them in “The Passion of The Christ.” If “Munich” were meant as an answer to those claims, it fails.
In one scene, Avner’s group is forced to hole up in a safehouse with a bunch of Palestinian terrorists, and they discuss the politics of their war. Kushner and Roth try to keep things balanced in regards to the war in the Mideast, which hasn’t progressed much in the thirty years since the events of this story, but it’s a subject matter that was handled far more credibly in “Paradise Now” or “Walk on Water,” films made by a Palestinian and Israeli filmmaker, respectively.
Since I’m convinced we’re reliving the ’70s, “Munich” is a perfect addition to the argument, because it’s another excellent political thriller ala last year’s “Assassination of Richard Nixon” which revisited the past in order to show relevance to the present. Spielberg and his production team have done an amazing job recreating the look and feel of the era, not just in the attention to detail as far as clothes and hair, but making the movie as if the last thirty years of cinema and world events never occurred. The movie could be played on American Movie Classics directly after “The French Connection” or “The Day of the Jackal” without anyone guessing that it was made in the 21st Century.
Like far too many movies this season, “Munich” is too long and there are too many tangents trying to show the complex level of the corruption and double-dealings. For every memorable moment or interesting discussion, there are so-so scenes that seem unnecessary, and it’s obvious that there is no way this movie had to be over 2 1/2 hours long. It desperately needs further editing, and it would be so much better with it.
The Bottom Line:
“Munich” is an adept and non-formulaic political thriller with the type of suspense and intrigue that fans of the “Bourne” movies might appreciate, but also the type of insightful dialogue that should start many conversations and debates about the current situation in the world.