Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Rattled by MUNICH

****This contains a few minor spoilers—read at your own risk!****

Punishment, reprisal. When is it just? And at what point does the violence end?

MUNICH, the new movie from Steven Spielberg, delves into these questions as well as many others. On the surface, this is a story about the aftermath of the Munich Olympics (1972), where eleven Israeli athletes were slaughtered by a group of PLO kidnappers. Following the tragedy, a team of men are hired by the top ranks of the Israeli government (incuding Golda Meir) to bring justice to the individuals who were allegedly responsible. One of these team members is named Avner, a former Mossad (secret police) worker, a husband and soon-to-be father. What follows is not so much a visual essay about politics as much as a haunting reflection of what happens when you look into the abyss and it looks back into you.

You really have to pay attention to the details of MUNICH; plot-wise, it’s a spy story complete with double crossings and political agendas. But what makes this movie especially interesting are all the moral questions that the characters crash into head-on. Is vengeance really theirs to take? What good does it do? And are they even exterminating the right men or are they merely “cleaning house” for a shadow agency? You never really know for certain, because this “justice league” isn’t composed of superheroes or ultra-savvy spies. These players—no matter which side they’re on—are shown to be all-too human. As a matter of fact, during the first assassination attempt, Avner can’t even get a grip on his gun. It’s a startling moment that not only ratchets up the tension, it says volumes about this patriot who’s been recruited into a job that is better completed without the burden of a conscience.

Eric Bana, who plays Avner, is at the heart of this film. You might recognize him as THE HULK, as one of the Delta operators from BLACK HAWK DOWN, or as the family man Hector from TROY. If you’ve seen CHOPPER, you know this actor possesses a lot of range that hasn’t been tapped in the mainstream market yet, and MUNICH goes to show you how talented he really is. Bana is perfectly natural in all his roles—after his movies are over, I always realize that he’s such an organic part of the film that it never feels like he’s ACTING. At one point in MUNICH, Avner, who is quickly spiraling into isolation and the loss of his very soul, is talking on the phone with his wife and daughter. When he hears his baby’s voice, his reaction is so heartbreaking that I actually heard a moan of pained sympathy from the audience. I even felt his agony. Add to that a cast of great supporting characters and you won’t be able to get through this movie without relating to their dilemma.

One more thing: this is in no way a movie that will uplift you. It’s sobering, extremely violent, and has an uncomfortable amount of relevancy to today’s world. Just remember to look near the top left of the screen during the long ending shot. (The people I saw the movie with didn’t catch a quiet image that Spielberg inserts into the frame as his own challenge to the audience. I’m not going to tell you what’s there, but it’s a shattering visual that forces you to contemplate our own climate.)

MUNICH is definitely a film that encourages debate and conversation. I highly recommend it, but be ready to be wrung out afterward.

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