Underrated: Munich

2011 saw the return of Steven Spielberg to the directors chair for the first time since his subpar (I can’t say it’s downright awful) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. Both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse signaled not so much a return to form for the Beard, but rather, a reassertion of his strengths (and occasional weaknesses) in both genre entertainment and in sentimental fare. On the horizon of 2012 comes his much anticipated biopic, Lincoln, showing us that though he has turned sixty five, Spielberg remains as prolific as ever. The last time he showed his much output was in 2005 with a pair of wildly different films, one an entertainment, and the other a piercing drama. Interestingly enough, both films were made through the lens of a post-9/11 America, and though War of the Worlds deserves credit for its haunting evocation of the shock and horror of 9/11, it is the under appreciated and overlooked Munich which continues to fascinate, not only for its relevant themes, but also for its phenomenal cinematic value.

The film follows the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics in which Israeli athletes were taken hostage and then murdered by Palestinian terrorists. In response to this heinous act, Israel responds with a covert operation in which five men, led by a former Mossad agent, go out across Western Europe and hunt down those responsible for the attacks. Though they are technically employed by the state of Israel, they have no official affiliations with it in order to keep their identities anonymous. As the men go deeper and deeper into their mission they are confronted with both ethical and psychological dilemmas which transcend those of even the most compelling action thrillers. What is immediately striking about the film is just how visually unsparing it is, both in the depiction of the hostage situation in Munich, as well as the violent assassinations that occur throughout the film. Just as he did in Schindler’s List and to some degree in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg refuses to sentimentalize death in this film, which makes the taste in the assassins mouths that much more acidic.

The visual palette of the film recalls classic American thrillers from the 1970’s, not only in relation to the phenomenal production design (and familiar haircuts), but also in regards to the often stunning mis-en-scene. Many of the early assassinations in the film are planned in very specifically, and Spielberg carries across the complexities of those plans visually. For instance, within the length of a single shot, the camera will follow a man as he enters a convenience store, only to rack focus through the window outside, as a car with two of the assassins pulls up in the background, waiting. Then, the man leaves the store, and another assassin stands right outside. The visual complexity of these shots and scenes is simply staggering to behold, and Spielberg and crew pull them off effortlessly. Spielberg, of course, has perfected building tension in scenes over the decades, and Munich represents a new high in his record, with scenes as unbearably tense as anything Hitchcock has ever conceived.

Ultimately, Spielberg’s thrilling account is far more than just a terrifically told revenge story; it is an important look at the cyclical nature of violence within a global society. Does a violent act justify a violent response? If so, how does one calculate that violence? Where are we headed as a society if violence is our only way of solving our differences? Despite the fact the film follows only the Israeli’s, it gradually changes allegiances from subjectivity to objectivity. When one member argues, “Unless we learn to act like them (the Palestinians), we will never defeat them!” the other replies, “We act like them all the time.” Although little is sentimental in Munich, the film is nevertheless a powerful experience. The team’s members gradually begin to question the spiritual reasons for their undertaking, even to the point where the leader, Avner (a great Eric Bana) relocates his family to New York for their safety. At the conclusion, Avner is faced with the very hard and truly sorrowful reality that though he may be Jewish by birth, he may no longer be considered Jewish in spirit. There’s no mistaking the final shot (and only explicit moment) of the film, in which the World Trade Center is made visible in the distance. The cyclical nature of violence is not only applicable to present Israeli-Palestinian relations, but more importantly to how any nation, including the United States, responds to violence against its nation.

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~ by romancinema on January 8, 2012.

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