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Spielberg's first mature film

  • Jun 6, 2007
Pros: Balance, depth of investigation, engaging, at times edge-of-the-seat

Cons: Unnecessarily long, moral ambiguity hamfisted at times

The Bottom Line: I never would have expected a man with a child-ish/like eye to be able to make a film that wallows in vast moral grayness.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

For about thirty years, the overwhelming majority of films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture had two ingredients: each were based on an historical event or a biography, and they were between 145 to 195 minutes long. Mr. Spielberg had to be aware of this. The Color Purple, having only one of the ingredients, failed to get any attention principally for the potential apocryphal story that he said: “There, they have to give me an Oscar now.” Realizing the trend, he made Empire of the Sun which had both ingredients but failed to cause any excitement for a host of reasons (mostly, I think, due to the notion that empathizing with anyone in the film was so difficult it seemed flat). He finally hit on the formula with Schindler’s List.

Munich, apart from having these ingredients and (to a cynic) created this way specifically for another shot at the Best Picture nod, is Mr. Spielberg’s first mature film. Given that this is probably not a popular conclusion I think I need to explain why—I will do this at the end of the review for those interested.

Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is invited to become a deep agent for the Mosad after the Jewish athletes to the 1972 Munich Olympic games were killed by a terrorist group called Black September. Avner’s mission is to take his team of four and locate then kill those responsible. Avner and his team (actors Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Yvan Attal) travel around Europe and Lebanon finding and assassinating people (not all of whom were involved in Black September). Most of the names they get are through a Frenchman whose family is expert in finding anyone and selling the information to individuals (not governments). The film juxtaposes the Israeli action with Palestinian action in a balance, so there is quite a large amount of violence and bloodshed. This is the thumbnail sketch of a nearly three-hour long film.

The movie is sort of a fait accompli so I don’t know that there is much to give away, but if you are using this review to determine whether to watch it, you may want to skip the analysis.

The opening sets two tones. The first is that the story will not be truly linear; the second is that the film would be divided fairly evenly between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As the film begins there are three different narratives. The common thread is the archival footage of the events in Munich that September of 1972. It shows the confusion the media had at the time: at first the media claimed all the athletes had been freed; this had to be retracted after an explosion killed all of the athletes. Interspersed with the archival footage is Black September placing the photos of the athletes on a table (obviously done prior to September) and Israeli agents repeating the same action with photos and names of those in Black September (obviously sometime after the killings).

What Munich has that sets it apart from all other Spielberg movies is serious moral ambiguity indicated by these early montages. Ambiguity is a difficult thing for many people to handle because it has no solid foundation. I applaud this; however, Mr. Spielberg has had no practice in presenting ambiguity on film, so it was a bit problematic.

Early in the team’s operations, Mr. Spielberg handles this ambiguity between Israelis who, according to Prime Minister Golda Meir, are showing the world how “expensive” it will be to kill Jews now, and the Palestinians who are seeking a home beyond the refugee camps that were almost 30 years old by the events in the story. At first, the film shows instead of tells these events. The Israelis assassinate someone; then there is a radio or television report of an attack somewhere in Europe by Palestinians, invariably killing several. This is the pattern for the first couple of assassinations.

As the movie progresses, the structure changes. For one, there are so many more executions—rather than doing a couple and detailing them and making them representations of a whole, the movie adds more and more and focuses deeper and deeper on the gore. After the second or third of these, it becomes impossible to keep up with who these people are; further, not everyone who was killed had anything to do with Black September. As the structure changes, so does the motive for the chosen target and it the narrative just blindly elides this. The structure changes so that there are long discussions about the rightness or morality of their task. Of the five, two see it as a job, one as a philosophical pursuit. Avner muses and cannot really answer and Steve (a most cardboard character) says something that seems very out of place given the rest of the team “The only blood I care about is Jewish blood.” Extremism knows no bounds, but due to the rest of the team, this seems sort of tacked on.

There is an interesting scene between Avner posing as a member of the Basque separatist group ETA and a Palestinian; however, it is weakened by the length of it and the speechifying quality. The Palestinian said something that is prescient today (though it is hard to say if it was prevalent at the time): I will have many children and they will hate Israel and they will have many children and they will all hate Israel; we can just wait them out. If current trends continue, the Palestinians will outnumber Jewish Israelis by the middle of the next decade creating a de facto apartheid government.

Apart from the problems with length and speechifying, Munich is a very engaging movie. The issues covered (even in a ham fisted manner) are contemporaneous to the film and relevant today. The action is entertaining even if a little over the top when it comes to the gore factor and there is enough edge-of-the-seat storytelling to engage full attention with little effort.

In short, all in all, I liked it.

The film ends in Brooklyn in a park on the river looking at the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the newly created neighborhood, began in 1973 with the start of construction of the World Trade Center. Avner discusses his problems with the moral gray area he felt he was in with his Mosad case manager, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). Despite obvious differences, Avner offers to break bread with Ephraim who then refuses—as if he is sickened by the moral questioning or relativism offered up by his former ward. As the credits begin, the focus is on the World Trade Center not quite finished. At first this bothered me because it seemed heavy handed, but after a little contemplation, I realized it was a fitting backdrop for the discussion and final rudeness. It was also a way to make sure that the movie left the viewer understanding the film was “inspired by historical events” but also contained information and situations at play currently.

The analysis of the film is complete. For those interested, I define my belief that this is Mr. Spielberg’s first mature film.”

For someone who has reportedly tried so hard to get the approval of the Academy for his directing, he only started to try to make mature films in the middle 1980’s after making blockbuster after blockbuster.

Let’s start with Jaws, 1975 (there were a few movies before this one, but other than Duel--1971—they were all episodes for series or movies few would remember seeing.

Jaws was well made and enough to scare people a few people away from the ocean for a little while (yours truly emptied a beach in Jacksonville when I was 7, the year after I had seen the film by screaming ‘SHARK’ when seaweed wrapped around my ankle—I have been and will always be a lover of the ocean so I ran back into the water after this was verified). While it is still a good movie, it isn’t necessarily an adult movie—just a suspenseful one. The film takes on no moral or ethical issues it just goes after a shark.

From here it is best that I group the movies by type and only cover the exceptions to the rule.

First are the serial/adventure flicks: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Jurassic Park. They are certainly popular, but again they don’t tackle any issues larger than killing rampaging dinosaurs or stealing or recovering ancient artifacts. My complaint is not with these films. Even if I don’t like some or most of them, I cannot deny that they are fun for the eyes and entertaining. However, they are what I refer to as the Spielberg-Monkey connection. An infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually reproduce Shakespeare. For Spielberg it is an infinite number of special effects and a near infinite amount of money can produce an automatic blockbuster (even if it generally stinks).

Next are the science fiction films: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Minority Report, War of the Worlds--Hook is related thematically with E.T. so I will put it here, though I understand if someone disagrees. These are, again, well made and entertaining, but they don’t tackle any issue with regards to ethics or any level of maturity.

Next are the comedies: 1941, Always, Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal. These tend to be less popular; the reason I give to this is that he is widely known for adventure stories and sci-fi, not for comedies. Still, you can argue that they are entertaining, but they again do not take on any issues beyond mistaken identity, false identities or ghosts and airplanes.

What follows are the attempts at maturity or the ones I find problematic.

Most people would be fine with a career with as many successes as this, but he decided to try a different tack. This started with The Color Purple. At the time, people complained that a white man couldn’t make a film about African American sharecroppers in Georgia during the Depression. Anyway, it was widely received, and it isn’t bad; however, it simplifies the book and doesn’t have any level of exploration of mature ideas. This is where I started to get angry with Mr. Spielberg. He had to make sure there was a huge Hollywood ending to a film. This would continue.

Empire of the Sun, as I said, had the ingredients. The problem is that it was boring. Christian Bale was fantastic in it and he owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Spielberg. He carried the movie by himself as a preteen, but it was a movie that wasn’t complex or engaging or varied enough to require a heavier hitter. I remember snippets, but it was about as boring as The English Patient but had even less to wrap your mind around.

Schindler’s List would require an essay all its own. For this he got his Academy Awards, and it was widely well received. Still, I always ask this question: without looking it up, name one of the Jews in the film. None ever have been able to. It is impossible to un-dehumanize the people in the camps since we are not given names or back-stories or any other facets that would allow empathy; all you are left with is pity and that is only a different flavor of dehumanization. However, unless you are willing to frame a Holocaust film in the manner of Sophie’s Choice it is not even a little morally ambiguous—there are clear cut good and bad guys. This, to me, is not much different in a structural manner than humans against a shark or humans against dinosaurs—clear-cut good guys and bad ‘guys.’

You can file Saving Private Ryan in the same general vein; clear cut good guys and bad guys. People praise the first 20 very gory minutes; there is no denying it is very realistic, but it relies on special effects for this. Compare Private Ryan with Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line released in the same year. Malick relied on natural lighting, internal monologue, and a far more personal face to face kind of killing that made it far more emotionally riveting than the fear and nausea caused by exploding brains and extremities floating around unattached to anything. Most people I know found The Thin Red Line dull. I did not, but I can see how. But if you simply look at the way the personal impact of the facts of the war on men one is far emotionally superior to the other.

Amistad is no different. The good guys and bad guys are easily defined. Except for introducing Djimon Hounsou, the film is utterly forgettable.

Few movies have made me as angry as Artificial Intelligence: AI. This was the first real attempt to tackle something complicated. Mr. Spielberg stared maturity in the face and decided he couldn’t take it, so he created a puppet show. One of the most heart wrenching scenes I’ve ever sat through is how David (Haley Joe Osment) begs his ‘mother’ not to leave him. What this woman did was unforgivable and she is among he evilest of people I’ve ever seen in film. The potential issue is when “intelligence” stops being “artificial.” If you view David as a child, her abandonment is felonious. If you view David as a pet, her behavior is still horrible (felonious to me) and no different than leaving an unwanted dog or cat in the median of an interstate. After the abandonment/dumping, the ‘mother’ simply disappears from the story, how convenient. However, instead of look at this issue, he creates a Pinocchio story as eye candy to trick the mind and heart away from the larger issue.

Finally, after almost 40 years behind the camera, he made a movie that tackles one of the most, if not the most, intractable issues in the world today. AI is the last Spielberg movie I paid to see and the first one since Schindler. According to, he is slated to make the next Indiana Jones chapter. He is also supposed to make a biopic called Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin is helping write it as is Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame, so this has a good chance at being excellent). Finally he is announced to direct something called Interstellar described as a romp through modern theoretical physics (which really does sound good to me). I have a feeling that I will be paying to see at least one of these in the theaters—something impossible to imagine after AI.

If you have made it this far, thanks for bearing with my rant.


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More Munich (movie) reviews
review by . April 29, 2009
Having lived through the coverage of the slaughtered Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics, I felt like I was experiencing the actual events as they were occurring over again. Speilberg did an excellent job using stock news footage from the tragedy and overlaying actors into recreated scenes. Though these events are actually shown piecemeal throughout the film, the actual story is about what transpired afterwards. The Israeli government hired a hit squad to track down and eliminate 11 individuals …
review by . November 15, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
Having lived through the coverage of the slaughtered Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics, I felt like I was experiencing the actual events as they were occurring over again. Speilberg did an excellent job using stock news footage from the tragedy and overlaying actors into recreated scenes. Though these events are actually shown piecemeal throughout the film, the actual story is about what transpired afterwards. The Israeli government hired a hit squad to track down and eliminate 11 individuals …
review by . June 19, 2006
"Munich" is powerful and perhaps one of Spielberg's most compelling and thought provoking work. He weaves a tapestry of political and social threads focusing on terrorism and the cost of violence. "Munich" is truly amazing in balancing linear storytelling and horrific acts of violence, demonstrating the impact of the aftermath. Spielberg's "Munich" seen through the eyes of Eric Bana's Avner is a powerful allegory that even in the most just and noble fights against terror we eventually become that …
review by . May 22, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
Steven Spielburgh's "Munich" is a fearless classic. He takes the 1972 Olympic slayings of innocent Israeli athletes and recreates the ordeal in all its horrifying detail. We get some of the footage from ABC's "Wide World of Sports" to create authenticity, but the reinactment has all the immediacy and horror of "Schindler's List" and more. After the outrage, one of Golda Meier's trusted bodyguards (Eric Bana) is summoned to join a team of assassins meant to seek vengeance on the perpetrators. The …
review by . May 11, 2006
Attempting to understand what drives people to kill other people for any reason is, in the pit of the soul, a challenging enigma. Whether that 'reason' is war between countries at odds, protecting one's self when endangered, revenge or vengeance for deeds perpetrated by 'the other', for panic in the moment of survival - each of these feels wrong despite the fundamental belief to the contrary at the moment of killing. MUNICH is about killing, about vengeance, about protection of 'home', about existence …
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Paul Savage ()
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At its core,Munichis a straightforward thriller. Based on the bookVengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Teamby George Jonas, it’s built on a relatively stock movie premise, the revenge plot: innocent people are killed, the bad guys got away with it, and someone has to make them pay. But director Steven Spielberg uses that as a starting point to delve into complex ethical questions about the cyclic nature of revenge and the moral price of violence. The movie starts with a rush. The opening portrays the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes by PLO terrorists at the 1972 Olympics with scenes as heart-stopping and terrifying as the best of any horror movie. After the tragic incident is over and several of the terrorists have gone free, the Israeli government of Golda Meir recruits Avner (Eric Bana) to lead a team of paid-off-the-book agents to hunt down those responsible throughout Europe, and eliminate them one-by-one (in reality, there were several teams). It’s physically and emotionally messy work, and conflicts between Avner and his team’s handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), over information Avner doesn’t want to provide only make things harder. Soon the work starts to take its toll on Avner, and the deeper moral questions of right and wrong come into play, especially as it becomes clear that Avner is being hunted in return, and that his family’s safety may be in jeopardy.

By all rights, Munich should be an unqualified ...

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