With all of the recent rhetoric and attention paid to terrorists and terrorism as the current U.S. administration had made that priority number one, people seem to forget that this isn't some relatively new problem, but one that's been going on for thousands of years. Of course, with bigger and more powerful weapons, as well as 247 news coverage, it seems more prominent nowadays. Yet, it has been and could possibly be something that's always present, ready to strike with little notice.
Long before 911, the terrorist incident that riveted the world occurred on September 5, 1972 when eight members of the Palestinian "Black September" group stormed the Munich Olympics, killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine more hostage. They demanded the release of some 200 comrades from Israeli jails, but five of the terrorists and all the hostages were killed the next day when West German police staged an unsuccessful raid and rescue attempt.
With his latest film, the simply titled "Munich," director Steven Spielberg looks back on those fateful days. Yet, rather than focus solely on that incident and what led up to it, the filmmaker shows us what happened afterwards, at least as inspired by what's been reported about Israeli's response. The result is a completely riveting and engaging, dramatic thriller that doesn't have the telltale signs of being a Spielberg film, yet is one of his better works and is easily one of the best films from 2005.
Coincidentally or not, it bears a striking resemblance to Brian De Palma's visually hypnotic and equally engaging "The Untouchables." In that 1987 film, Kevin Costner plays federal agent Eliot Ness who, accompanied by a ragtag team, sets out to bring down mob boss Al Capone. With a wife and kid who he worries about, the unlikely hero believes in his convictions and does what's necessary to uphold the law and get his man. Along the way, plenty of people -- both good and bad -- end up dead.
Here, the terrific Eric Bana ("Troy," "The Hulk") plays an Israeli Mossad agent who similarly doesn't seem like the hero type, is surrounded by a small but eclectic team, worries about his wife and child, and is full of conviction. And the body count on both sides is similarly high. But with this story being set in days that were more gray (like today) than the black & white ones of 1930s Chicago, and with this sort of mission -- to find and assassinate those responsible with (as they instructed Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now") "extreme prejudice" -- the film is decidedly more complex.
That is, at least in terms of theme as well as character motivation and dichotic reaction to the task at hand. The characters here differ in how they relate to their mission. All are understandably upset by what's occurred and want revenge. However, with the body count rising, collateral damage spreading and their retaliation sparking more of the same back from the other side, they begin to question whether two wrongs make a right. They also wonder if they're just wasting their time since more terrorists will simply replace those they've vanquished, all as their government has officially made them unofficial free agents, thus washing their hands of any global backlash.
They're all valid points and timely ones to boot. With recent actions to find, stop and/or kill terrorists seemingly generating more of them, one's watching of the film will likely raise questions -- in some viewers' minds -- of whether mankind has learned anything over the past thirty-some years, let alone the course of time. Spielberg -- who works from Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's adaptation of George Jonas' work "Vengeance" -- uses all of that to give the film some weighty, philosophical depth.
And that's a good thing because on the surface this is a riveting suspense thriller featuring the vengeful assassination squad moving from one target to the next, only to eventually find the tables turned on them. When Spielberg really wants to direct -- and not just make some popcorn flick like "War of the Worlds" -- he can do so with the best of them, and this is proof positive of that. Shooting the film to look like a European import, he's crafted a work that's pure Hitchcock. Yet, unlike De Palma and his obsession with that auteur, this isn't just spruced up homage.
Instead, it's an exciting and absorbing work that rivals any similar sort of thriller I've seen in years. Playing off Hitchcock's old axiom of it being better to let the audience know there's a bomb in a scene rather than just have it suddenly explode, Spielberg creates some incredibly intense and riveting suspense sequences where the team plants and then prepares to detonate their various booby-traps. Not content with just that (and obviously playing off the cold, hard reality of such work), the director throws in unsuspecting victims who wander into the upcoming field of destructiveness, thus heightening the tension.
After two such sequences, I began to worry a little that the film was going to become just one such scene after another, thus potentially making it somewhat monotonous despite the brilliance of each individual moment. Thankfully, the veteran filmmaker avoids falling into that trap and delivers a film that's engaging and zips by despite its 160-some minute runtime.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the film looks fabulous from every aspect of the production team (especially cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's terrific camera and lighting work) or that it's populated with a solid cast.
Bana is fabulous in the role as the agent who's torn between duty and questioning the long-term success of their actions. Those making up his team -- Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler -- might not be as flashy as their counterparts in "The Untouchables," but they're nevertheless good, especially Hinds. Supporting efforts from the likes of Ayelet Zurer as Bana's wife, Mathieu Amalric as a nebulous French informant and especially Geoffrey Rush as the team's only officially unofficial government contact are also on the money.
Some may fault the film for not having a centralized villain (one is named, although only briefly seen), but that's part of the terror of terrorism. And while some Israelis have condemned the film for supposedly making them look bad in terms of retaliation and how the response was carried out, and others may complain that the Arabs are portrayed mainly as villains (despite one scene showing the Palestinian side of the strife), this is a terrific piece of filmmaking. Part compelling drama, part cautionary tale, and all wrapped up in an expertly designed suspense thriller, "Munich" is definitely a must-see event and is one of the best films of 2005.