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Munich: ambitious but fatally flawed

March 03, 2006 22:41 IST

MunichSteven Spielberg's Munich begins with the kind of opening guaranteed to make you both squirm and shiver, look away and clutch your armrest.

With a powerful recreation of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, inter-cut with actual archived news footage from the event, Spielberg juxtaposes a frightening reality right onto our faces, telling us, using blood and bulletins, of the carnage that had occurred there.

Palestinian terrorist outfit Black September trooped into the athletes' living area, took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, and later killed each one of them.

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While the film serves overwhelmingly as a shocking re-telling of this not-so-distant nightmare, it is not about this action. It is about the counteraction.

Based on the controversial book Vengeance by George Jonas, screenwriters Eric Roth and Tony Kushner delve into the alleged actions endorsed by Israel. The film follows the claim that Israel surreptitiously put together a squad of assassins to get back at each of the men Israeli intelligence had zeroed in on as masterminds of the massacre plot, a claim never confirmed by the Israeli government or its infamous secret service, Mossad.

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So we're suddenly in the midst of Israel's retaliation. Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, with the kind of make-up that creates an instantly recognisable figure) reluctantly but firmly decides that action is the call of the hour, and terror must be fought with terror. She calls Mossad man Avner (Eric Bana), and the frightfully no-nonsense Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) briefs him: This is an operation totally off the books. Avner will, from this point on, get his orders from a deposit box. Mossad, and the Israeli government, no longer share responsibility for his actions.

The squad is being created, and this is indeed, like Tommy Lee's band, a motley crew. There's Robert, the bomb specialist, played neatly by Mathieu Kassovitz; an overzealous German forger Hans (Hanns Zischler); Carl, (a fabulous Ciaran Hinds) the control-freak who ensures the operations are carried out relatively cleanly; and ever-ready South African Steve, played by upcoming James Bond Daniel Craig. Avner, the central protagonist, is the cool-as-ice leader of the squad.

Thanks to long-time Spielberg ally Janusz Kaminski's masterful cinematography, the film -- as it hops from world capital to world capital with our band of murderers -- is shot superbly. Each frame seems like it has been meditated and mulled upon, and some of the visuals are startling in their effectiveness.

MunichSpielberg, a director who believes strongly in the use of the graphic metaphor, as well as one with extraordinary attention to detail, is at his strongest with these delicately framed scenes, like when Robert tinkers with a bomb detonator.

The cast is formidable, and Eric Bana deserves kudos for his restrained telling of a character whose flaws are in the very way he is written. Avner never draws empathy from the audience, and his motives, up until the end of the film, remain essentially foggy and unclear. His relentless precision is admirable but largely inexplicable, yet Bana does well to make the character as human as possible. With a face suggesting a young and hunky Bill Murray, Bana drips with silent emotion, giving Avner a heart -- only moments before the script breaks it.

It is a solidly thrown together ensemble, and the entire assassination squad does well, especially Ciaran Hinds, an actor capable (and guilty) of stealing many a scene. The redoubtable Geoffrey Rush keeps the story on fine footing by turning out to be the only actor without a diction-mangling accent, and the Frenchmen, played by Mathieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale, are brilliant and crucial to the overall picture.

Of course, Spielberg manufactures moments. With characteristic simplicity, he mixes blood symbolically into milk, and, later, makes us nervous as hell as we wait for a young girl to blow into smithereens. There are scenes in the film strong enough to make you terse and marvel.

But after several of these admittedly stagey sequences, the film tragically begins to resemble a vehicle for these very moments.

Munich is an ambitious film, but it severely lacks consistency. While the first depiction of the assault during the opening scenes is enough to jolt audiences to our senses, Spielberg seems to exploit the massacre repeatedly as the film goes on, with increasingly graphic detail, enough for it to be called gory. There seems no purpose to this sadistic barrage of bullet-ridden images, not doing much to emphasise an already well-made point.

There is a section of the film where Avner, against his better judgement, goes with his French informant Louis (Amalric) to meet his Hemingway-gone-soft Papa, played by Lonsdale. Suddenly we are taken away from the shadows and the explosions, and suddenly the film does not seem like Spielberg's. It feels like Steven trying his hand at a Martin Scorsese movie: A film about bad men who live unforgivable lives, but people we are supposed to, nevertheless, like.

While handled deftly, this isn't Spielberg territory, and the film's artificiality grates, despite the (quite frequent, admittedly) moments of sparkling genius.

But Munich is not about the moments; it is about the big picture, and this is a flawed one. Spielberg's rhetoric is admirable as a Jew who sides neither with Palestine nor Israel, and his ultimate moral is dismissively, tragically clichéd: An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind, violence begets violence, murder solves nothing.

MunichIf this strikes the veteran director as a revelation that he needs to ponder over for more than two-and-a-half hours, most audiences would disagree. The moral, while true, is a simplistic one, and this ponderous picture does not justify its existence with such an unfinished ending.

And the last scene is the worst, a what-was-he-thinking juxtaposition where Avner is making love to his wife, while visualising the Munich massacre in its most brutal form. This is a misguided, demeaning, and uncharacteristically sensationalised montage, and very disappointing coming from a director such as Spielberg.

Seeing Munich, one can safely say that the director is at the top of his form when it comes to his craft. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his art.

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Raja Sen