A Revenger's Odyssey in Pursuit of Terrorists
23-12-05 Revista de Prensa
Publicado originalmente en
By MANOHLA DARGIS
WITH his latest film, "Munich," Steven Spielberg forgoes the emotional bullying and pop thrills that come so easily to him to tell the story of a campaign of vengeance that Israel purportedly brought against Palestinian terrorists in the wake of the 1972 Olympics. An unsparingly brutal look at two peoples all but drowning in a sea of their own blood, "Munich" is by far the toughest film of the director's career and the most anguished. Mr. Spielberg has been pummeling audiences with his virtuosity for nearly as long as he has been making movies; now, he tenders an invitation to a discussion.
The film's title suggests that this is the story of what happened at Munich in September 1972, and it is, though only in part. Most of the action - and if nothing else, this nail-biter is a full-on action movie - takes place in the immediate aftermath of Munich, after 11 Israeli hostages were murdered by members of a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. Based on George Jonas's disputed book "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," and adapted to the screen by the oddball couple of Eric Roth and Tony Kushner ("Forrest Gump" meets "Angels in America"), the film pivots on five Israeli agents, who, recruited to exact revenge by a country that will officially deny their existence, zigzag Europe as they hunt suspects over months and then years.
With its art-directed verisimilitude and promiscuous use of archival material (Jim McKay makes a cameo appearance in the film, as does the voice of Peter Jennings) "Munich" is one of those Hollywood fictions that seem to befuddle those who miss the nuance in the words "inspired by real events." Here, those events begin with members of Black September scaling the Olympic village fence and taking both Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Most of what happens next, including the agonizing wait at the Olympic village and the catastrophic showdown, emerges piecemeal, in bursts of violence that periodically interrupt the narrative and increasingly trouble the sleep of the story's quavering moral center, a former Mossad agent named Avner (the Australian actor Eric Bana).
For Black September, Munich is both a theater of cruelty and a means to international visibility. For the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who personally presses Avner into vengeance, Munich is more than the scene of a crime: it is a reminder, a warning, a defensive call to arms. It is also why, with Meir's blessing, instructions from a Mossad case officer (Geoffrey Rush) and hundreds of thousands of American dollars tucked in a Swiss bank, Avner leaves Jerusalem and his wife and travels to Europe. There, he meets with his team members, any one of whom could star in his own espionage potboiler: the sexy South African in tight pants, Steve (Daniel Craig); the tweedy, pipe-smoking Israeli, Carl (Ciaran Hinds); the smoothly urbane German antiques dealer, Hans (Hanns Zischler); and the nebbishy Belgian toy and bomb maker, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz).
Despite the brief pop-cultural dissonance brought on by the sight of the Incredible Hulk, whom Mr. Bana played in the 2003 blockbuster, sharing the screen with the new James Bond (Mr. Craig) and HBO's Julius Caesar (Mr. Hinds), the actors quickly make these character types their own. The missions happen just as quickly, if not without incident. In Rome, the team tracks a Palestinian intellectual who has just translated "Scheherazade" (which, in a Kushner-sounding touch, the translator describes as a "narrative of survival") and may have terrorist connections. When the moment comes for Avner to face his prey, an older man with trembling hands, the agent fumbles his gun. Later in Paris, in a sequence that finds Mr. Spielberg outdoing Hitchcock with bravura crosscutting, Avner again nearly botches the job, putting his team and an innocent bystander in danger.
If Mr. Bana sometimes seems overly sensitive for an undercover agent it's largely because without his anxious eyes and jittery hands Avner would not be half as sympathetic or rhetorically effective. What makes Avner memorable, more than just an unusually animated action figure, is that he is never more human than when faced with killing another person. More than the story's slow-to-dawn ambivalence about Avner's mission, more than the obvious effort made to ensure that the Palestinian terrorists are more than faceless thugs (they are thugs with faces and speeches), it is Avner's humanity, however compromised, that gives "Munich" the weight of a moral argument. It's an argument, though, that has little to do with whether Israel has a right to exist or whether the Palestinians have the right of return. Only this matters: blood has its costs, even blood shed in righteous defense.
"Munich" is as much a meditation on ethics as a political thriller, but it takes nothing away from the film to say that the most adrenaline-spiked part of this genre hybrid involves getaway cars, false papers and the sight of the future Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who pops up during a mission in Lebanon, mowing down terrorists while dressed in a woman's wig and high heels. In between the cloak, dagger and drag, the telephone bombs and a veritable alphabet soup of intrigue (C.I.A., P.L.O., K.G.B.), the years pass with increasing desperation and the team's numbers dwindle. Forced into a new kind of exodus, far from the homeland meant to provide justification for their every action, Avner and his men wander the continent that three decades earlier had been the staging ground for the extermination of European Jewry.
For these wandering, bickering, argumentative Jews, every safe house and port of call becomes an occasion for yet another discussion about Israel and identity. Nothing if not conversational, "Munich" is organized around three crucial dialogues: Meir's discussion of vengeance with her advisers, which ends with her declaration that every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values; a brief discussion between Avner and a Palestinian who predicts Israel's defeat; and, finally, a bitter encounter between two Israelis who fail to find common ground even in that multicultural utopia known as Brooklyn. With its dead-eye view of Lower Manhattan and the twin towers, this scene makes clear (as if there was any doubt) that Mr. Spielberg is as worried about this country as he is about Israel.
As his tours of duty with the historian Stephen Ambrose suggested ("Saving Private Ryan," "Band of Brothers"), Mr. Spielberg can give the appearance of wanting to be seen as more than just a Hollywood director, particularly since he added "adult contemporary" to his playlist, mixing history in with his dinosaurs. That makes him a soft target, and "Munich" has already been strafed by op-ed attacks. The accusations might make sense if the filmmaker took us into the terrorists' homes for some moral relativism. But Mr. Spielberg is doing nothing more radical here than advancing the idea that dialogue ends when two enemies, held hostage by dusty history and hot blood, have their hands locked around each other's throats. You can't hold your children with your hands so occupied, though evidently you can send them off to war.
It would do a disservice to Mr. Spielberg to linger too long on the pre-emptive attacks on the film: more than anything, "Munich" is a slammin' entertainment filled with dazzling set pieces and geometric camerawork. Different palettes help keep the narrative flowing (there's no danger of becoming lost on the way from Frankfurt to Cyprus), imparting a contrasting vibe to each landscape: the bleached-out Israeli exteriors are as faded as old family photographs, while the verdant French countryside where Avner meets a mysterious intelligence broker called Papa (Michael Lonsdale) has the seductive tug of an idyll. This pocket of green and Old World civility, embellished from Mr. Jonas's book, is the film's shrewdest and most entertaining conceit: a movie within a movie, it is a vision of evil as both seductive romance and bureaucratic banality.
Avner meets Papa through his son, Louis, a dandy with a German shepherd and a sneer played by the French actor Mathieu Amalric. Their organization supplies information for fantastic sums but insists on never doing business with governments, a philosophy that Papa explains during one al fresco meal at his compound. Nestled in haute-bourgeois luxury, surrounded by children and barking dogs, this self-described hero of the Maquis proclaims himself an equal-opportunity hater of all governments. Next to this weary sophisticate, with his blood sausages and free-market nihilism, Avner comes off as a punk, an amateur. But Avner is also an idealist and, unlike Papa, who believes in only his family and money, the Israeli clings to a dream of home. And if that dream remains out of reach, well, Mr. Spielberg asks, what other choice does he have?
"Munich" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The film features extremely graphic gun violence.