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Vengeful ‘Munich’ packs punch

Rama Gottumukkala | Tuesday, February 28, 2006

There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” that echoes one from 12 years earlier in the director’s career.

In 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” a young girl runs through a melee while trying to escape from Nazi soldiers. Decorated in a brilliant red dress, the girl provided a stark contrast to the rest of the film’s black and white imagery and her plight was one the audience – and Oskar Schindler, the film’s protagonist – couldn’t ignore. Her sudden death gripped viewers in the heart of the film’s conflict and shocked Schindler into action, perhaps even single-handedly changing his character’s destiny for the better.

Fast forward a dozen years and a similar trial-by-fire is visited upon Avner (Eric Bana), a young and idealistic Israeli government agent in “Munich.” A girl, not quite as young this time but still innocent, is placed in harm’s way simply because her father had a hand in the murder of 11 Israelis by a Palestinian terrorist group during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. And again, this precarious scene in “Munich” precludes what comes next. But this time, the girl’s fate is jeopardized by a nation’s pained attempts to exact blind vengeance, instead of Nazism.

Chosen to lead a four-man Israeli team in tracking down and wiping out the Olympic terrorists, Avner believes strongly in the job and proves to be all-too-effective at his task. But as the body count rises, he begins to morally question his nation’s bloody quest for revenge.

“Munich” is a difficult film to watch, with each successive mission turning bloodier and casualties falling on both sides. Yet through it all, Spielberg manages to tiptoe a careful line, allowing “Munich” to remain politically even-handed despite primarily seeing through the eyes of the Israeli side of the brutal conflict.

As possibly the world’s foremost Jewish-American, Spielberg had very little to gain from this film. After all, “Schindler’s List” was a film that won seven Oscars – including Best Picture and Best Director – and staked Spielberg’s claim as one of the world’s greatest living directors. Here was someone who could lay claim to “Action King of Hollywood” – having directed the Indiana Jones trilogy, “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws” early in his career – attempting to balance his oeuvre with a heartfelt look at the horrors of the Holocaust – and succeeding masterfully.

Amidst the controversy swirling around the production of “Munich,” Spielberg faced intense scrutiny from all sides, even from those who likely cheered his previous effort in “Schindler’s List.” Jewish author Jack Engelhard vehemently accused Spielberg of being “no friend to Israel” largely on the basis of the ambiguous message presented in “Munich.” Amidst all the criticism, the question isn’t how Spielberg made the film. The more perplexing question is, “Why?” Why “Munich,” and why now?

While debate about the film’s message may rage on for years, there’s very little fault to be found with the film’s technical brilliance. Featuring superb cinematography, the film transports viewers into the heart of the visceral conflict. Each locale of the film’s increasingly global scale – as Avner’s team races from one mark to the next – is exquisitely shot and each has its own unique feel. As the film’s narrative darkens, so too does the gritty appearance and frantic pace of the cinematography and editing, respectively. On a purely technical level, “Munich” is a fascinating look at Spielberg’s craft in the 20th century.

A film like this one is defined by its performances and Bana’s performance as Avner, the tumultuous emotional center of “Munich,” is as raw and visceral as the film’s content. Bana’s pose in the film’s theatrical poster, seated all alone and silhouetted in a dark hotel room, is just a small sample of his striking role in the film. Long gone is any semblance of Dr. Bruce Banner and Hector, the roles in “Hulk” and “Troy” that catapulted Bana to international stardom. Bana spearheads a strong ensemble cast – including Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig (the future James Bond) and Ciaran Hinds – that remain wholly absorbed in their respective roles, driving the film’s action forward.

The plight of the young girl in “Munich” proves to be a microcosm for the film’s difficult content. The resolution of this one tense scene leaves Avner shaken – after all, he’s no monster, just a loyal citizen doing a job for his country. But, unlike in “Schindler’s List,” it changes little of the protagonist’s course of action, instead leading him down a much darker path.

“Munich” lingers in the back of the mind long after the credits roll. Few films have its guttural power, but even fewer leave audiences with such a complex and unclear message – just as Spielberg intended.