Tuesday, January 10, 2006

There's no peace at the end of this.

The first thing you need to know about Munich is that no, it does not have a Spielbergian ending. While Spielberg's tendencies towards reassuring resolutions have never troubled me as much as they do most film fans I know, the ending of Munich is anything but comforting - by the time its 2 1/2-plus hours are over, we have more questions than when the film began. Working closely with screenwriter Tony Kushner on this film, Spielberg has eschewed any of his usual filmmaking crutches, and the result is exhilarating. There are plenty of valid reasons to dislike Munich, but anyone who declares the ending a cop-out simply shouldn't be talking about movies.

With any auteur (and Spielberg is inarguably an auteur), a body of work can be divided into progression, regression, and rebellion. Rebellion is evident in some of Spielberg's best and worst films - the undefined anarchy of 1941, the slight comedy of The Terminal, the majority of War of the Worlds and Minority Report - pointing towards a desire to step outside of critical expectations, to explore areas that, if not personal, are still of interest. Regression results in films like Hook, both Jurassic Parks, and the finales of War of the Worlds and Minority Report that conform, with varying degrees of success, to Spielberg's comfort zone.

And then there is progression - those films notable not only for their quality, but because they demonstrate a filmmaker expanding his vision to new, sometimes ill-fitting, but nevertheless unique places. For Spielberg, these films include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I. And now comes Munich, the most dramatic leap forward for Spielberg yet in both maturity of storytelling and subtletly of craft. This leap is evident from the first scenes, which document the 1972 Olympics hostage crisis from the POV of the outside world - a crisis documented largely by news anchors in a pattern that reflects the growing importance of television as a record of our history. Spielberg, a child of television, cuts masterfully between Black September's invasion of the Olympics compound and the surrounding ripple effect. The famous shot of a terrorist on a balcony is seen on a tv in the foreground while we see it reenacted simultaneously from a different angle - the effect is nothing short of revelatory, a masterpiece of representation, and Spielberg never falters in this sort of stunning, almost clinical detail for the rest of the film.

Eventually, we meet Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who is recruited by Mossad to lead a revenge squad (one of many, as we will later learn). "Forget peace for now," Meir declares, and while Munich is in many ways a meditiation on the futility of retribution, Kushner and Spielberg still clearly find Meir's action to be righteous. This isn't a movie about who is right, but rather about what is right; it is angry at the very concept of vengeance. Avner's team includes Steve (Daniel Craig), an assassin who is unapologetically proud of their mission; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the cleaner; Robert (Mathieu Kassiovitz), a toymaker who now finds himself making bombs (echoes of Spielberg?); and Hans (Hanns Zischler), a document forger who is in many ways the most elusive member. At the heart of Munich is the effect the mission has on these men, a theme hinted at in Saving Private Ryan but explored more throughly here. Patriotism and honor give way to cold-bloodedness, then paranoia and doubt. It's been much-remarked that Spielberg is dabbling in 70's-esque cinema here; in a period equally marked with self-doubt and uncertainty regarding the machinations of government powers, this return to a post-Watergate aesthetic has been visible everywhere, and it feels organic.

We follow the team as they eliminate targets, gathering names from the mysterious Papa (Michael Lonsdale) and his son Louis (Mathieu Almaric). Munich works wonderfully as a thriller - the assassination sequences have a Hitchcockian tautness married with a queasiness of purpose reminiscent of The Conversation. Yet Kushner's script also allows scenes, such as a dialogue between Avner and a PLO member who doesn't know who he is talking to, that bring the underlying humanity to the fore. I'm not really interested about readings of this film as pro-Israel or pro-Palestine; I've always felt that anyone who makes a concrete stand in favor of either nation is kind of a presumptuous asshole (and I'm including Dr. Chomsky here). It's too chaotic; each side has committed grave crimes, and both are fighting a war that neither created. What is important to me is that Munich addresses, in a powerful way, that we are all ultimately in this together. It's a theme that Spielberg first started exploring in E.T., and it comes to full fruition here.

Except for Avner's wife (Ayelet Zorer, who, incidentally, is radiant), we don't meet the families of our leads, yet through terse, suggestive dialogue, we feel that we know these men. So we are on this journey with them, and the film hinges on our identification with the hit squad. A scene where Avner breaks down on a phone call to his infant daughter brought me to tears, and while it's far from the first time I've cried thanks to Spielberg, this was also the first time that the emotional response was provoked entirely by character and not through any manipulation. At the same time, Spielberg gives moments to the targets (note the heartbreaking moment with the cat) that denies us any satisfaction in their deaths. In the end, there is no redemption here for the tragedy at Munich. It's a mess, and Spielberg never shies away from it for a moment. The final lines of dialogue force us to question what has been won (or lost); a last-minute nod to 9/11 could have been unbearably heavyhanded, but instead it has the impact of a slap in the face. Munich is bigger even than its subject matter - it's about where we've been and where we are headed if we don't fundamentally change our relationship with violence. Earlier this year I said that War of the Worlds was the best Spielberg film in almost ten years; this is the best in more than twenty, maybe ever. It's a powerful cry for understanding and tolerance; it's the best movie of 2005.

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