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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Munich



Munich is one of the best, most fascinating, and exciting movies of 2005.

Unfortunately it's also been one of the most controversial movies of the year. Mostly because some audiences seem to interpret the film as a story that paints the Israeli assassin team in a negative light, while at the same time humanizing terrorists. But I'm not sure that's the true intention of the movie. I believe the movie's intention is to be a thoughtful meditation on how violence ultimately begets more violence, but what makes the movie so unique, and impressive is that it also works as an outstanding suspense thriller.

Munich recounts the events, and aftermath of September, 1972 when during the Olympic games 11 Israeli athletes are taken hostage, and brutally murdered by a Palestine terrorist group called Black September. As a result of the murders, Golda Meir and the Israeli government assemble an elite squad to assassinate those responsible for organizing the terrorist attack.

Among the many things the movie has going for it is the production design of the film. It's simply incredible, outstanding really, almost like we were viewing historical footage. The costumes, set, and historical detail are all perfect. Janusz Kaminski's Cinematography is stunning to behold, and the acting is all top notch , and superb, especially Eric Bana as the squad leader, and Ciran Hinds as the mission scene cleaner. Each character is grounded, touching, and effective.

But the real star of the movie is Steven Spielberg. It's a virtuoso accomplishment, the direction is almost impressive beyond words. It's thrilling, suspense filled, touching, and poignant. He blends two different genres, a morality drama and suspense thriller, masterfully. The action sequences in particular are unbelievable. The moments are remarkably well choreographed, and cinematically realized. The assassinations themselves are suspense filled, thrilling, well executed, and visually mesmerizing. At one point in the movie Spielberg even shifts into paranoia mode, and the film is taken to yet another incredible level. It's obvious that Spielberg is using all of his cinematic skills to the best of his ability, and the effect is outstanding. The movie leaves little doubt he is one of the top 3 directors working today....maybe even ever. My buddy Lons over at Crushed by Inertia has a well written Munich review on his site, which I pretty much agree with, and he articulates much better than I could the positives of the film.

If there's any weakness in the film though, and I'm really nitpicking, it would be with the writing. Not that the script isn't polished, tight, clear and articulate, but at least for me I could hear two distinct voices telling the story, mind you they are two outstanding voices in Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. But it's still two voices, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. In a sense I could see the seams of how the movie was put together. I could see where a polish was made to give the movie more heart, more moral meditation. Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn't even have noticed those seams, but after viewing this film on the heels of two outstanding written films with distinct singular voices, Match Point and New World, the weaknesses in this script to me seemed to stick out more than usual.

The movie, to me at least, suffers slightly by having awkward placed plot devices throughtout the film. The most blatant being in a scene between Avner and an intelligent, thoughtful Palestine sympathizer in a stairwell, outside a safe house. It's a well written scene probably written by Kushner, because the moment almost feels like a theatrical one act play. In the scene they debate each side's political position over who has right to the land, and who is right in their cause. It's a well written, thoughtful scene with strong arguments on both sides, but for me, the moment feels fabricated, and theatrical for the benefit of the audience, rather than serving the story. It doesn't feel genuine to me, that at that moment in time these two people would have this debate. Any reasonably intelligent middle east citizens in that situation, wouldn't feel the need to debate their beliefs. I'm sure they would both be well aware of the oppositions argument. There's also no benefit to the argument. It serves no cinematic purpose in the story other than to create sympathy for both parties.

In terms of plot development, I believe that the film would have also benefited greatly from more meditation by the characters on the consequences of their potential actions BEFORE they accept the actual mission. I think a lot of the criticism that the film is receiving now would have been muted by some well thought out scenes of pause and consideration. To me the characters needed to have some meaningful discussions, and explorations of the potential ramifications of the actions that they were about to embark on.

Some of the scenes which take place later on in the movie could have even been re-located to earlier in the script. Most notably a well written powerful scene between Avner (Bana) and Robert (a very strong Mathieu Kassovitz), when Robert questions the righteousness of their mission. He eloquently states that the point of the Jewish religion is that they try to live their life to a higher standard. That just because evil is done to them, doesn't give them the right to perform evil. He grieves for his soul in that moment. It's an excellent argument, and if that discussion had happened BEFORE they take the mission it would have painted the Israeli team in a more positive, and for me a more realistic, intelligent light.

By putting the scene at a moment in the film when things begin to go bad for the team, gives the characters almost a feel of uncharacteristic panic, weakness, and to me a lack of intelligence . It doesn't ring true that these strong, smart, characters would be so short sighted about the sacrifices they are making by taking the mission. It's not believable that the characters didn't think of the potential consequences before they took the mission. Did they really believe there would be no casualties? Did they really think that it was going to be easy? That the morality of their actions wouldn't be tested? Again, to me it feels like a poorly placed plot device to add suspense, and give the protagonists of the film second thoughts about their mission. I believe a lot of the defenders of that plot point will try to argue that the team was swept up in a feeling of nationalism, and religious fervor in the first act. But the script honestly doesn't support that argument.

If anything Eric Bana's character in the beginning is clear headed and calculating. Which is another point for me, it takes away from the character by making him so. That he would leave his loving wife, and unborn child so readily doesn't ring true for me. It's possible that it could be a cultural difference, but the script doesn't make that clear. As a result, for me it feels like another poorly placed plot device to illustrate the sacrifice he makes for his country.

It's a seam in the script.

In reality, I don't even think any reasonable government would bother asking a family man to undertake such a sacrifice. They'd just as easy ask a single man with no dependents, no bonds to hold him back, to undertake the mission. No messy ties for the government to clean up or explain to a grieving wife and child. Especially with so little to gain by having a family man undertake the mission. It would just complicate matters by having a married father being point man for this team. Which is illustrated awkwardly when he "sneaks" back home to attend the birth of his child. The opening scenes of the movie even makes light of how Bana's character gives up his insurance, and death benefits. But how could an intelligent, and reasonable father make such a big sacrifice so lightly, when his family depends so heavily on him? Again, it feels like a poorly placed plot device to illustrate the character's personal sacrifice. The payoff happening when Avner listens to his child's voice on the phone for the first time. It's a heartbreaking moment, but it doesn't ring true. It actually becomes hard to sympathize with him when we saw him earlier in the film leave his family so readily by choice, with very little coaxing.

The script also has a heavy handed moment at the end of the film, when a tragic flashback is happening during a love making sequence. The metaphor is obviously love and hate. But it feels over done. A little over dramatic. I think the same effect could have been made much simplier and more subtle, maybe while the character is watching his child play or observing his wife and child together. Let me just note that Spielberg DOES do a great job with the moment. The artistry is captivating and well done. It just feels a little heavy handed and over the top.

Again, I don't want to give the impression that I disliked the movie. It's only because everything else about the movie is SO fantastic, incredible really, that I even notice these minor shortcomings in the film's script.

It's a shame that the controversy is putting a cloud over the film, it's really unwarranted. The film actually has the same message as Saving Private Ryan, another film by Spielberg which wasn't deemed controversial. It's a movie about self sacrifice, about human nature when faced with lethal danger, about the depravity man will go to in war. It's absurd to think that the film supports or condones terrorism, and the people who perform it. It's a call for non-violence. It's simply saying that violence will snowball out of control if not attended to with cooler, peace seeking leadership, instead of vengence seeking hot heads. It's a powerful film with a strong message.

That message is more relavant now than ever.



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