Feeling slightly guilty about tearing into Steven Spielberg‘s latest,Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull(2008) (not because I’ve changed my mind but because normally I love Spielberg’s films, as they are one of the reasons why it’s great to critique film), it seemed an appropriate time to go back to his previous, Munich (2005), a troubling work from a director (just about) at the top of his game.
Here, even more so than in Schindler’s List (1993), which, like this film, was made in near-tandem with an archetypal Spielberg blockbuster (1993′s Jurassic Park, 2004′s War of the Worlds), the director is getting to grips with his own Jewish identity; how Israel’s ideological location has moved forward in the world since the 1972 atrocities and how far, at the same time, it has perhaps regressed. As an angst-ridden bomb specialist says at one point: “We are supposed to be righteous! I lose that, that’s my soul!”
The story begins during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. In retaliation, the Israeli government, with Lynn Cohen as Premier Golda Meir combining chilling impassivity with near-maternal affection for her recruits, hires a group of Mossad agents to track down and execute thkey Palestinian figures deemed responsible for organising the attack.
Eric Bana plays head assassin Avner, a happily married man awaiting the birth of his first child, who must lead Steve (Daniel Craig), Carl (Ciarán Hinds), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Hans (Hanns Zischler) into covert battle against men (and women) whom they know only through pictures and case-histories.
It begins as a zealous crusade for all concerned, with government representative and financier Ephraim (a superb Geoffrey Rush) pulling the strings, but, over time, as the lines between right and wrong become increasingly blurred, it is a mission that will take a heavy toll on its shadowy but very human and likeable participants.
The intensity is stomach-churning – Janusz Kaminski’s outstanding cinematography combines a dated-locations feel with a gleaming documentary-esque pace that doesn’t lose its grip, whether in the back-and-forth between the characters desperate to keep what they perceive as the moral high ground (the adult, realistic script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth helps enormously) or in the tightly controlled, at times quite terrifying, murder sequences.
Spielberg wisely chooses to give away the details of the Munich attack a little at a time, interspersing the hired assassins’ actions with, at key points, the horror that inspired the mission.
The gaps are few, but nevertheless noticeable – Bana’s lead performance, while more than competent, seems to be a little one-key, and the 164-minute running time is occasionally a little padded. Little matter – this is still a belter that’s both a call for peace (Spielberg’s own words) and a timely reminder of the worst that can happen when ideologies collide, with the final picture of a New York skyline telling a thousand words.