Friday, May 12, 2006


RUNTIME: 164 min

As I prepare to write my review of Mr. Spielberg’s latest project, I am listening to a BBC news report about the exchange of fire in the Gaza strip. According to reports 30 rockets have been fired in 30 minutes and the UN is expressing concern.
And that is the whole point of MUNICH- violence begets violence. It is not a conclusion that Steven Spielberg has discovered but an age-old truth never understood by mankind. Or is it that mankind just chooses to ignore this eternal truth. And as Israeli Prime Minister Ms. Golda Meir says in MUNICH-“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromise with its own values. They want to destroy us”, scores of reasons are given for the use of violence. And to the perpetrators of violence, there never is a way out of the mess. This is the dilemma that MUNICH presents before us. Is there an end to this struggle, is there an end to this exchange of violence; be it for religion, be it for home or be it for something else. And it doesn’t provide you any answers either.
MUNICH is based on Vengeance: The True Story of An Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas which was itself a very controversial book in its time. The movie starts off with the Israeli athletes being taken hostage by the Black September members. There is a lot of actual footage shown here from the original incident. The athletes are killed and 9 of the kidnappers are gunned down by German police at the airport. The Israeli authorities decide on a swift reply by forming an assassination squad to eliminate the people who were behind Munich. A squad led by Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) and comprising of a bomb expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), Hans (Hanns Zischler), Steve (Daniel Craig) and Carl (Ciaran Hinds) is thrust the responsibility. What follows these events is the rest of the movie.
The performances by the ensemble cast are fantastic. Eric Bana transforms himself from simple family man to a violence-weary person who would never find peace with consummate ease. Each one of the characters is fantastically developed by screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. This is what we have come to expect from a Spielberg movie of late. There is a multitude of characters but not one of them is neglected. There are very few directors who can claim that. Geoffrey Rush as the Mossad handler is quite good but tends to get a bit loud in some places. I had heard that Ben Kingsley was initially considered to play the character of Ephraim. My guess is that Ben Kingsley would have been better suited to the role.
Lynn Cohen as Golda Meir reminded me of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone.
But as is the case with most Spielberg movies, it is not the actors who are in-charge but the director. For most of his career Mr. Spielberg has made movies that are directorial pieces rather than performance pieces. And this time it is no different. The mark of the director is evident everywhere. He and his longtime partner Janusz Kaminski (Director of Photography) have given a touch of 70s touch to the movie. There is a grainy look to the movie. And you can see the sun shining on the spectacles here and there giving a feel of the old times. Janusz Kaminski lends a weary look to the movie and the hand held camera gives us a sense of urgency. The camera work looks straight out of a Scorsese movie rather than a Spielberg movie.
Spielberg has always been a master with imagery and here it is no different. SCHINDLER”S LIST was all black and white as he had to show a world of good and evil. Here is dealing with a world that is grey and he puts that on the screen.
MUNICH is in many ways a departure from a traditional Spielberg movie and is more in tune with a Kubrick movie minus the sarcasm and humor. And never does he impose upon the audience his point of view. There is no Oliver Stone like ham-fisted approach to impose upon the audience his view-point. It is more of a balanced approach letting the viewer decide for himself what to make of it. The same approach is made for the plot details as well as the bigger debate that the movie triggers. Some of the events in the movie are deliberately left ambiguous for the audience to come to their own conclusion. The world of intelligence and counter-terrorism is shadowy and most of the times there’s never definiteness to an incident.
The depiction of the assassinations is particularly impressive as expected. The Hitchcockian camera cuts in the telephone bomb assassination sequence is one of the most exciting scenes along with last year’s bus explosion scene in THE INTERPRETER in years. The depiction of Operation Spring of Youth in Beirut is very impressive although many experts have criticized it for its flaws. If you pay attention you could hear Ehud Barak, the future Prime Minister of Israel, introduce himself to the Mossad agents.
We can go on discussing the technical aspects of the movie but that would be a terrible diversion from the movie’s strongest point – its ability to cause debate.
MUNICH is Mr. Spielberg’s most ambitious venture to date. His movie is one of those that use the past to debate about the present. On one side we have the Sri Lankan army battling out the LTTE; on the other side we have the Arab “terrorists” and the west battle out each other. And we have the people in question- Israel and Palestine doing the same. But nobody seems to understand that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. MUNICH is not for Israel and Palestine only; it is for every country and every group whose solution is violence.
And often it is the common people and the people on ground who suffer. The happy couple in Olympia Hotel was innocent but they had to suffer when the bed bomb explodes. And the people who carry out this violence are not Ethan Hunts and James Bonds; they are every day men, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. As Michael Lonsdale (Papa) says in the movie-“We are tragic men, butcher’s hands, gentle souls.”
The movie is visceral in its impact. It is much more devastating in its effect than SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. It is a firm contender for Spielberg’s best film. The effect is haunting and might not leave you for days.
But the question that might plague you after watching this movie is – “Is violence really needed? And what is home worth?”
As Louis says-“It costs but home always costs a lot.”


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