dir: Steven Spielberg
It pains me to say I enjoyed a Steven Spielberg film. It pains me even more to say that he managed to make a really, really good film here in the case of Munich.

I’ve long believed Spielberg was some mutated or evolved form of sea anemone that had somehow climbed out of the ocean, grabbed a movie camera and started making flicks about a species he didn’t really know or understand. I don’t mean sharks or aliens, I mean people. As in Soylent Green is people.

I still don’t think he really knows or likes humans, but in Munich he’s managed to make a compelling, complex and entertaining espionage thriller with a surprising amount of depth. Which involves humans, so maybe something has changed.

Munich deals with the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics where Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and a few German police officers as well. The arseholes, calling themselves Black September, directly involved mostly bit the bullet after brutally dispatching the hostages, but the film deals with the other people who were believed to be involved in planning and organising the massacre.

Avner (Eric Bana) is put in charge of an off-the-books squad intended to track down and execute 11 men believed to have played major roles in the terrorist action. Though he works for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, he is ‘fired’ so that he can’t be linked back to the government, though he retains a case manager, Ephraim, (Geoffrey Rush) to keep him on track.

The Israeli Prime Minister herself, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) explains to her subordinates, and therefore to us the great unwashed in the audience, that at times like this, a civilisation needs to make compromises with its own values in order to maintain its survival. In other words, such a terrible terrorist attack against Israel needs to be answered in a similarly violent and obvious way. In the words of a different character later in the film, the message of their actions is meant to spell out clearly to the world: “Don’t fuck with the Jews.”

Munich brought the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians onto the world stage. It’s not as if these pricks invented terrorism, but because of the horrific outcome of Munich, there were more ears listening, more eyes watching the news, wondering how much more this stuff could escalate. More hijackings and bombings kept happening as Europe tried to figure out how best to handle it. Proportional response? Extreme retribution? Do absolutely nothing, or appease them in the hopes that they’ll go away and die of old age?

The team is made up of different guys with the same loyalty to Israel, but with different levels of comfort with their appointed task. These aren’t mercenaries, though they are well paid. They serve out of a sense of duty, out of a desire to help Israel, and in some instances, a bloodthirsty desire for revenge.

Steve (Daniel Craig) has the least sympathy for the targets, and has a certain taste for the work. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is timid and quiet, preferring to make toy machines rather than the bombs he’s expected to build. Hans (Hanns Zischler) is an ancient old guy who handles the forging of documents and occasional killing duties. And Carl (Ciaran Hinds), though the most dispassionate and with the ickiest job as the “cleaner”, raises the most salient points about the righteousness or lack thereof of their actions.

Whilst they are certainly operating in a clandestine manner, their objective isn’t to disappear these guys with a minimum of fuss. It’s to dispatch them in the loudest and most violent manner possible, to let the terrorists know that they can respond in kind, using the terrorist’s techniques against them, at any time. You see where this is going, don’t you?

The parallels with the modern day are inevitable, and welcome. It raises plenty of interesting points about the War on Terror and other emotions, and doesn’t present clear-cut answers on any of the points. Far from being anti / pro Israel, or anti / pro Palestinian, the film simply displays the cycle of escalation, without any clearly achievable goals or ways to achieve them. Every member of Black September they execute is replaced with someone worse than the last. An accidental meeting with a PLO operative leads to a frank conversation, which yields little in the way of understanding between the two clashing cultures, and everything to do with the blind, fanatical belief that one day Israel will be wiped out and everything will be all right again.

The hit squad, ably led by Avner, travel around Europe committing their righteous and dirty deeds. Paris, Athens, Rome, Amsterdam; they barely get to savour the local sights and delights before having to jet off to somewhere else in order to kill the next target. Avner starts off jittery, and progressively gets more jittery even as he gets better at organising the individual killings. He leaves behind a pregnant wife, whom he cannot confide in, doing the nation’s wetwork whilst getting increasingly more paranoid about his own and his family’s safety. With good reason, it turns out.

These men operate in a twilight realm. Their actions are perhaps justifiable, but they’re not operating in a strictly legal manner. Regardless of what recent events would have you believe, it’s not exactly an established part of international law that you can go to another country and plant bombs in people’s phones or hotel rooms, or gun them down as they wait for an elevator. These would be, in any other context, criminal acts, regardless of who the shmuck targets are or what they’ve done. As such, the question becomes less whether they can do it or not, but whether anyone retains the moral high ground any more.

The burden of command is written clearly across Bana’s face, who puts in a great performance especially as he wrestles with a difficult accent and a 70s hairstyle. More relevant is the fact that he makes clear the internal dilemmas that torment the guy, who loves his fledgling nation, but is progressively unsure of himself and his mission.

The acting and direction, even the scene transitions are all pretty good. The plot, despite being nearly three hours, moves along at a hefty pace. And for what it seems to be (a morality play), what it really is, is one of the most competent espionage thrillers in recent memory.

It’s wonderful that it’s grounded in real events, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the film has anything to do with reality. Sure, the Munich massacre happened, and sure, Mossad organised squads for retribution. But no-one should confuse the events in Spielberg’s Munich with what actually happened. Think of it as fictional history. You know, the same way in which I remember the Eureka Stockade at the height of the gold rush era as being one of my personal triumphs.

Spielberg usually avoids political stuff, but manages to balance the elements well here, not preaching or getting too bogged down in unimportant detail. In Eric Bana, of all people, he has a strong enough lead to carry the film, who doesn’t overbalance the film with his presence. He has able support from the rest of the cast.

There’s a lot to like in this film, down to the detail and exactitude that only a director of Spielberg’s calibre and budget can command. There’s also a complete absence of shaky-shaky camera movements and rapid-fire editing, which we can thank Spielberg’s usual suspects cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn for respectively.

The script, by playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, is also particularly strong, with interesting dialogue coupled with decent characterisations.

For all that it gets right, Spielberg’s essential nature, like Monkey’s in the television series, is irrepressible. His revulsion towards the human sex act comes to the fore in one of the ugliest sex scenes I’ve ever seen. I understood what was going on, but making the character involved look like he was in a sports drink commercial, and intercutting that with the final moments of the Munich hostage’s lives, was something extraordinary, and not in a good way. It’s extraordinary in the way that going to the bathroom and finding a growth where you weren’t expecting one to be is extraordinary.

There’s also his usual fixation on absent fathers, which seems to be the fundamental underpinning theme in nearly all his films. You’d think a man as wealthy and successful as Spielberg, a father himself, would one day be able to forgive his own father, but from the looks of his recent films, it doesn’t seem likely.

I don’t think he really knew how to end this story. The final image is a great one, but the plot kind of peters out. But that’s about the only thing I can think of that he stuffed up. The rest is gravy.

The film is sure to get passed over at awards time, especially in competition with the (surreal) sentimental favourite Brokeback Mountain, but it was definitely one of the most entertaining and intelligent films of 2005. If only someone else apart from Spielberg had directed it. Then it would have been easier for people to like it.

Sandro – 8 times I’d never have wasted the ample talents of that gorgeous Dutch assassin out of 10

“Oh, we are tragic men. Butcher's hands, gentle souls.” - Munich