4 stars (out of five)
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Geoffrey Rush, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zorer
Munich, the new film from Steven Spielberg, isn't just set in the 1970s, it appears to have been made in the 1970s. And that's meant as a compliment. This is a film that harks back to the great, gritty thrillers of that decade--for many, the heyday of the genre--with its all-pervasive paranoia and palette of steely colors.
If that's a sign that Spielberg is going back to his roots, then that's no bad thing. For me, the director has never beaten his early works, such as Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975), made before he went soft at heart. Munich takes Spielberg back to his formative decade, and back to his best.
Right from the opening scenes, when film is intertwined with archival footage of the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, there's a sense that this is going to be masterful, absorbing stuff.
The movie follows the tale of an Israeli assassination squad set up in the aftermath of the attack. Sent to Europe to hunt down and kill the men held responsible for the Munich atrocity, the group are set to learn that their own humanity is the price of vengeance.
One of the strengths of the film is the way it charts the corrupting effect of violence on all those caught up in it. Squad-leader Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) and his gang are not super-cool assassins, unaffected by the grisly nature of their task. They are ordinary men asked to do an extraordinary job. Confronted with their first killing, they are nervous, panicky and uncertain. Their victim almost talks them out of the act.
But the first time is the hardest, and the quintet rapidly becomes inured to killing, convincing themselves that right is on their side. Only Carl (Ciaran Hinds) retains a sense of doubt, on several occasions asking the others to see how they are rationalizing their behavior.
As the tale of Jewish assassins on the trail of Arab terrorists, this is, of course, politically charged material. Munich has been accused of both anti-Semitism and anti-Arab prejudice, but neither charge stands up. The movie can only be considered anti-Semitic if you think it is inappropriate ever to feature morally ambiguous Jewish characters. And Spielberg bends over backward to portray the Arab characters as humans, not monsters. One of Avner's targets is a poet who has just translated Scheherazade into Italian.
Munich certainly does have plenty to say about the contemporary world, however. Besides some general lessons about the cyclical nature of violence, it makes some more specific comments on how democracies respond to terrorism. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," says then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), in the movie's most memorable line.
The acting is generally fine throughout, without anyone doing anything inspirational. Bana proves he can carry a serious movie, with only the usually reliable Geoffrey Rush seeming slightly out of place as his sinister Mossad handler.
But Munich's real glory is the direction and cinematography. Spielberg does a superb job chronicling the downward spiral into paranoia and inhumanity experienced by the Israeli assassins as their killing spree goes on. The period feel is perfect and the imagery is as bleak and somber as the tale it enfolds.
Faults? The sermonizing is sometimes less than subtle. At Carl's prompting, the characters engage in repeated conversations about the use of violence, the clear message being that killing will only lead to more killing. It's a fine sentiment, but did it need to be voiced so many times? Spielberg should have had the confidence to let the tale speak for itself.
The ending is also uncertain. Spielberg, it seems, couldn't quite figure out where to finish the movie. Instead we get a series of false endings, none of which quite satisfy. This passage also includes one of the weirdest sex scenes in recent cinema, the meaning of which I will leave you to decide (because I'm baffled).
Some will also have concerns about the movie's relationship to the facts. By starting with a real incident, and mixing in some archive footage, there's no doubt that Munich is asking us to believe in the world it depicts--not hard to do, given Israel's well-documented history of hunting down its enemies.
But this is actually fiction, a fact that's easy to forget despite the filmmakers' pains to point out that it is only "inspired by" real events. Carried along by the story, it's worth reminding yourself now and again that this isn't history, but speculation.
Even so, Munich is undoubtedly Spielberg's best film for years, and his most serious since Schindler's List (1993). Above all, it ditches the sentimentalism that has marred many of his recent movies. The director has got his edge back, and long may it last.
The movie opens Feb. 4.