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00644 – MUNICH

MovieHype00644 – MUNICH

{Nominated for Best Picture, Director (Steven Spielberg), Editing, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay}

At the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s MUNICH we see a bunch of guys trying to get over a fence. They look straight out of Welcome Back Kotter or Chico and the Man. It’s hard to take them seriously. I suppose that could just be my post-modern bias against the early ‘70s, but I believe the it’s shot that way on purpose.

We walk with these dudes for a little while, and soon find out their intent, the kidnapping and eventually killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Even when the crime starts, the group seems so inept I kept thinking this was some sort of bad version of The Mod Squad meets Benny Hill.

By the end of the film what happened there in those dormitories has come full circle, and instead of a slightly bemused air you’re left with an abiding anger that exists on several different levels. This is the real-politic effect of terrorism: it smacks you in the face, tells you there is no Santa Claus, you can never go home again, and your neighbor might be trying to kill you for reasons you will never understand.

Though we continually come back to the tragedy in Munich, the film is mainly about Israel’s response. Angered that this was done to them, the way it was done. Perhaps even more angry that the plotters, the kidnappers, the thugs who planned and organized the event were treated as heroes upon returning to the Arab world, Israel, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, decide that something must be done.

At this point I need to take a brief break from talking about my reactions of the film to go over how much of MUNICH is “history.” I don’t refer here to the normal poetic license filmmakers take with historical events, compressing or fictionalizing to keep the narrative cohesive and on track. There are serious accusations that all of what we see is fantasy.

MUNICH is based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas. He found a source he called “Avner,” who claimed to be the first to come out of deep cover with Mossad (Israel’s CIA), and who also claimed to have been involved intimately with the Munich Response. The book is fabulously written, gripping and a page-turner. I recommend it. Several years after Vengeance, Aaron Klein interviewed every Mossad agent he could find that was involved in the operation, chronicled much more dryly but perhaps better researched in a book called Striking Back: the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s deadly response. I recommend you read both books yourself and make up your own mind.

The second book is about many things, including how Germany’s incompetence let the tragedy happen, but the upshot is that there are many questions as to how authentic Vengeance really is. I know I preach that you judge a movie based on the movie, and don’t expect it to be some history textbook, but when a film is making as profound a statement as MUNICH is, it’s pretty important the facts are right.

Take what I just told you and put it in a box; consider it later for what it’s worth and let’s get back to talking about MUNICH. Whether it is a semi-fictionalized account of real events, or the fabrication of someone with a serious agenda, the movie itself is gripping and necessary in a way that Steven Spielberg seems able to bring out above and beyond any other filmmaker.

Something Spielberg never gets credit for: he might be the best director in history when it comes to getting the feel of the time period right. I’m thinking AMISTAD, SCHINDLER’S LIST, RAIDERS, THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and perhaps most visually striking CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. It’s the little things that your eyes gloss over as you’re drawn to the star or the action. Every single detail is spot-on, which not only makes for a more enjoyable film experience, but helps immerse you in the world more fully, makes you feel like you’re really there. In MUNICH, it’s not just the dorky clothing and Uptown Saturday Night feel. Even the grain of the film stock reminds of the ‘70s. I just feel like I’m there.

The acting is beyond top-notch in the following way: you don’t even notice the performances. At least three Oscar nominations should have come from this movie, especially Eric Bana as the leader of the group who goes through his own emotional torture, but the acting is so seamless with the plot and pacing that you almost don’t notice it. Only a fantastic director can bring out that level of performance. (Geoffrey Rush and Michael Lonsdale are particularly terrific, but my favorite non-main character is from Ciarán Hinds, as one of the most complex people I’ve run across in cinema.)

Hyperion’s Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief: As alluded to, there is a real discrepancy over how real this is. However, everything we’re presented seems real, almost too real at times. From that perspective, 0.

Genre Grade: Historical Period Piece, Message Movie or Spy Thriller? All three I guess. I suppose we could even judge this by Spielberg’s standards. One day we’ll do a top ten for him. Anyway you slice the genre, MUNICH gets an A.

Sex/Violence? Spielberg has always kept his sex off camera, and I other than the concentration camps I don’t think he’s ever done nudity. Here he breaks that barrier big time, although with such pointed use that I gasped. There is nothing remotely gratuitous, but this is by no means an easy film to sit through. Perhaps not on a level of a SCHINDLER’S LIST or a PRIVATE RYAN, but you might have problems. Suck it up and watch anyway.

Family Fare? Adults only, for everything above, and how sophisticated the filmmaking is.

Kickassability: I described Mossad agents to my sister as “Jewish ninjas.” These guys certainly don’t start out that way, but they get there, and there are several definite chill scenes. Of course, the best ass-kicking comes from the director. 79.

Pantheon Percentile: A classic that will never get old, and will be watched for decades to come. 97.

You might have heard of another controversy with MUNICH, that Spielberg, as the world’s most famous Jew, has put himself in the middle of a fight by not taking sides. MUNICH involves those oldest of enemies, the Jews and the Palestinians. The film tells of the Jewish agents assigned to get vengeance on those responsible for the Munich massacre, and we never waiver in our support for them. However, at one point they cross paths with Palestinians doing the same thing (assassination), and it strikes us how similar both sides are.

More than that, the subtle message of the movie is that violence begets violence, and no matter how “justified” the anger or desire for retribution, ultimately it solves nothing, and only leads to more bloodshed.

It’s a compelling argument, beautifully articulated and presented to us, not preachy, but understated. Yet I myself don’t buy it. I’m not faulting Spielberg; perhaps it’s my preconceived politics coming into the film. For all the attempted parallels between the two groups, I see a difference between people who planned and executed a massacre on athletes at the Olympics, to make a statement about their struggle, and the men assigned by their country to strike back at the perpetrators. Yes, they get off course at times, and there is always the risk of widening the casualty rate; innocent collateral damage.

Yet the mere fact they consider that to me shows a real difference. In one haunting scene a little girl is almost blown up. The Vengeance team realizes how close they came to catastrophe, and they are shook up by it. It doesn’t excuse them, or what comes after, but the mindset is to me the significant part.

I mention this because it underscores why MUNICH is so good. I don’t agree with Spielberg’s ultimate conclusions and yet I was humbled, enraged, moved and dumbfounded by the film. I loved every detail, from how the team comes together, the many conversations that happen over the preparation of food. What is this saying? Oh how inefficient and bungling they seem at first. Their skill grows over time, as does their alienation, confusion, paranoia, and clear consciences. How can a spy thriller be that nuanced and effective?

Spielberg calls his film a “plea for peace.” Maybe. I suppose that depends on where you are. What is inarguable is the skill of the filmmaker, and the pure wonder of the film. It’s violent, wrenching, and tears at your middle. My friend Grendel wrote to me after watching MUNICH, writing,

I really was floored by MUNICH. It was stunning and beautiful, horrific and, well, just WOW. I believe the term I like is terrible beauty. I was blown away by the emotional power of it. Even the violence was beautiful. After the movie I absolutely hated my city and everyone in it as I walked down the loud crowded street, because they were acting normal when, after seeing MUNICH, everything should be changed.”

I can’t say it any better. Of the five Best Picture nominees, MUNICH is clearly the best. It won’t win the Oscar, but it deserves to.

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