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Looking Back: Munich (2005)

Steven Spielberg has a habit of making two films back-to-back, with a commercial, summer-ready work followed by more serious, adult-minded drama. He followed “Jurassic Park” with “Schindler’s List,” “The Lost World” with “Amistad, and “Minority Report” with “Catch Me If You Can.” His 2005 blockbuster, “War of the Worlds,” one of the most successful films to date, was followed up quickly with “Munich,” perhaps one of the biggest about-faces of his career. What could be more different Tom Cruise taking on aliens than a drama about the 1972 Munich massacre at the Winter Olympics and the horrible aftermath?

“Munich,” one of the darkest, most heartbreaking films Spielberg has made, stars Eric Bana as Avner, an assassin hired by the Israeli government. Avner, along with a carefully selected team, has been assigned to murder those suspected of killing the Israeli Olympic team members.

Bana, in his best performance, portrays a family man and efficient killer whose sense of his mission’s value and righteousness fades over the course of the story. Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds have memorable supporting roles but its Lynn Cohen, as Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Michael Lonsdale, as the mission’s mysterious benefactor, whose performances haunted me the most. Cohen has an elegantly worded monologue on how “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromise with its own values.” Indeed, but, as the story unfolds, we wonder: at what cost?

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Some accused this is of being pro-Israel, anti-Palestine and vice versa. I don’t see any white hats or black hats on display. There’s no back-patting here, as Kushner’s screenplay is critical of everyone on either side of the conflict: the terrorists, those who ordered the killings and the killers themselves. Rather than provide the audience with a righteous protagonist, the film puts us in the paranoid mindset of the hunter and the hunted.

The filmmaking is exemplary, with shades of Alfred Hitchcock, Costas-Gavras and even Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” The material is appropriately at odds with the director’s earlier works. “Munich” is anti-Spielberg: no heroes, a narrative with overt politics, messy morals and a troubling caution against pursuing vengeance. The pessimism present in some of Spielberg’s post-9/11 work had led to this, his most punishing, complex work. Even “Schindler’s List” ended on a note of hope (with its celebratory epilogue perhaps its sole misstep).

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John Williams’ score adds no comfort, excitement or glossing over the material; he saves the strings and soaring melodies for the end credit theme only. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s adds beauty to only one scene, a family dinner that is idyllic yet sinister, as we question the motivations of those present.

The camera lingers on the gruesome aftermaths of the murders, making the violence horrible, up-close and vivid, as is should be. After each of the assassination scenes, no feeling of relief, satiated blood lust or victory is evoked. A key shot is a swarm of blood circling in spilled milk, an image signifying purity corrupted by slaughter.

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Kushner and Spielberg clearly believe that violence begets violence, raising the question of how to combat terrorism without becoming a terrorist. The screenplay poses questions it can’t possibly answer. Seeing the surviving members of the assassination team at the film’s end, they resemble hollow shells and not the powerful young men they once were. As Avner pleads in the last scene, “there’s no peace at the end of this, no matter what you believe.”

The most obvious Spielbergian touch is, reflecting “Schindler’s List,” the image of an innocent girl wearing a red coat, oblivious of the violence occurring around her. “Munich” keeps us riveted but this is a painful film. There’s suspense and the screenplay maintains a grim fascination but none of this is “fun.” Rather than inducing my awe, as so many of his films have done before, this time, Spielberg has my respect for taking a genuine artistic risk.

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