The killing feels
A DVD review of MUNICH by Camus
 
Daphna: We should stay at home.
Avner: You are the only home I ever had.
Daphna: [Laughs] This is so corny.
Avner: What? That took a lot for me to say!
Daphna: I bet. Why did I have to marry a sentimentalist? You're ruining my life.
Avner: [to their newborn baby] Your mother's teasing me.
German born Israeli assassin Avner (Eric Bana), revealing
himself to be the arch-sentimentalist, Spielberg himself.

 

The DVD of Munich has an intriguing opening that you wouldn't have found in the cinemas. Whether this was approved by Spielberg (how could it not be?) or hastily included after the flak got too thick from those who believed Spielberg was hitting out at Israel and therefore condoning Black September, it's the strangest introduction. Why? Because it's a film-maker telling us what his film is about (at best). At worst, it's an apology. Why make a film? To communicate, to elicit an emotional response, to make money. But why make a film and then feel the need to tell its audience what its purpose is before we see it? Does John Carpenter turn up and go "I want you to jump when the movie goes Boo!" at the start of Halloween? Simply for the fact that Munich does include what are still horribly topical politics, Spielberg really should have let his excellent movie simply and eloquently speak for itself. Also describing the film as a prayer for peace, is a little rich. That's a little like calling Thomas and the Magic Railroad a rallying cry for war. Well it was in this house.

I was eleven in 1972 and the terrorist event of the decade played out on live TV. Black September was a terrorist group (we can't add the "freedom fighting organisation" here because their ultimate goal was to wipe a country off the map, regarding Israel as invaders of their homeland). Their eleven members killed two Israeli athletes after breaking into to the Munich Olympic Village. It was a terrible irony that American athletes helped the Black September members over the huge gates. They held nine more Israeli athletes hostage and the next day, at a local airport, after terrible mismanagement by local law enforcement, all nine were massacred. Munich is the story of what a country believed was politically necessary after such an horrific event. Israel was to show no weakness, an eye for an eye. Essentially, here's an unlimited budget, find and kill significant enemies of Israel. But, as Geoffrey Rush's rather oleaginous Mossad chief, Ephraim, explains "Cut your nails and they grow back," but his argument was that you absolutely had to cut your nails…

Avner, a security guard with a famous father, is chosen as the team leader. He's a Spielbergian hero almost tailor-made. His wife is pregnant, he believes he is doing right, gets into the swing of it and then it all goes pear shaped as his character arc takes him into the darkness of guilt, the morass of perverted morality and confusion. It's been said that Spielberg's 'message' – that killing people in revenge makes you feel bad regardless of the cause – is not exactly the best and most prominent spine for a film well over two hours long. But I think that view is a little narrow. As a movie, it has no climax (not a good thing for a movie usually). There is no event – except for the unbelievably silly and pointless inter-cutting between Avner fucking his wife and flashing back to the Israeli athlete's deaths (Nick Roeg, where are you?) – no true narrative 'wham' at the conclusion. You're either with Avner the whole way or the movie won't work for you. The fact that, as a human being, you can well imagine that killing people will rot you from the inside, doesn't deter from the film's thriller aspects but it's not satisfying in the sense of 'having a proper ending' is satisfying. An ending would have been nice.

Eric Bana is a damn fine actor. You'd have to be to pull off being convincing as an Aussie convict (Chopper), a Trojan Prince (Hector in Troy) and a German born Israeli hell bent on despatching his country's enemies over a long period of time. Bana is terrific because he's convincing and easy to watch. The way the killings gang up on his soul is etched carefully and methodically in his very touching performance. The moment when he loses it after his as yet unmet baby daughter says 'hullo' over the phone is as true in performance terms as an actor can get. As a father, that particular emotion is far too near the surface to fake effortlessly. Bana does a great job. His group are also well cast and all give solid performances, notably Daniel Craig which bodes well for his shtick as a spy of a more colourful and less 'Seth Efrican' nature.

Spielberg has always had the clout to surround himself with smart people who make smart choices. It's only the inclusion of the more obvious sub-text (is sub-text supposed to be obvious?) that has to be laid at the director's feet. Avner, a cook and assassin, spends his time staring at perfect kitchens in shop windows all over the world. This is Spielberg's metaphor for 'home', the point of all the bloodshed (the concept of what's 'home' not an MFI kitchen). It's direction that's on the nail, not great for sub-text. It's worth a literal shot, Avner passing it by giving it an admiring glimpse but not whole repeated scenes. As Mossad (the Israeli MI6) forces amass, they start changing into women's clothing for an assault on a terrorist cell. And what's playing on the soundtrack being played by a band on stage nearby? "Black Magic Woman" by Santana. Oh. It's obviousness like this that yanks you out of the movie. If I got these connections after ten viewings because they were subtly woven into the fabric of the film then, terrific. But Spielberg can't resist throwing the whole pie at you. That's OK for many but not anymore for me.

Another mallet-like strike of metaphor; Avner is told he has a butcher's hands and a gentle soul. Oh, come on. Is his soul gentle because he loves his family? Terrorists love their families. Is his soul gentle because he looks like Eric Bana (admittedly he looks like a gentle soul). Is his soul gentle because he is doing wicked things for the homeland? Spielberg (and the producers and writers) are trying to tell me that there are many complex reasons for being a gentle soul and a cold blooded killer. T'cha. He's a cold blooded killer regardless of the motivation. "We are supposed to be righteous!" says Avner's bomb maker. Duh. Avner has chosen to do these horrible things in the name of homeland security. Hero to many, cook to some, cold blooded killer to the (deserving?????) few. Yes, there's a good reason for the question marks.

There is a point to be made at an excellent piece of recurring dialogue. Each victim is asked the same question at any face to face assassination. "Do you know why we are here?" It's a wonderful piece of sub-text that escaped Spielberg's desire to make everything so obvious. "Do you know why we are here?" serves two purposes. If the victim acknowledges, he is admitting his guilt and therefore giving the assassins reign to open fire. It's notable that none of the victims acquiesced. The question's principal purpose sub-texturally is to let the killers off the hook. If the answer is "Yes," to the question, it's practically an invitation to be put out of his/her misery. No guilt for the trigger pullers. But the cumulative emotional effect of one's actions can rarely be masked by sophistry.

Only one person is assassinated outside the eleven names Avner and his team are given and in many ways it's the most effective, the most brutal, the most affecting. There is a bit of business (and it's not whether her gown stays closed or open) that makes the scene compelling. The 'honey-trap', the gorgeous, sexually promiscuous girl drinking alone at an expensive hotel, has already brought about the death of one of Avner's team. Avner and Steve (Craig) arrive at her river house and she knows why they are there. The desperation in her comes off her flesh like a stench and it's that flesh – her power – that she reveals. It's a lost and last ploy. Shot twice and dying, she still has locomotion to comfort a cat and sit. As she passes by Steve, he grabs her arm and says "Where are you going?" as if she's any threat to him now. Avner interrupts wanting another shell for his bicycle pump gun. Steve lets her go and drops the shells absently from his pocket. These are men at work and the scene is so chillingly nasty (as the boys play it like another day at the office) that it ramps the movie up a gear. This is not a happy movie. It does not have a happy ending. It only has any ending by virtue of it having to stop at some point…

Roy Scheider tells an interesting and revealing tale about Spielberg just after the actor's extraordinary performance as Bob Fosse's alter ego in All That Jazz, in 1979. Spielberg admired the film, says Scheider but was overly concerned that "You're not going to make any money, he dies in the end." Scheider had to remind his Jaws director that this was actually the point. That this particular Spielberg, young audience-conscious Spielberg, could unerringly miss the point in the no man's land between art and commerce, is not surprising. Daddy Spielberg (why every time Spielberg is interviewed does he insist on calling attention to his offspring, both natural and adopted? Has he been to Politician School P.R.?) and by definition the older Spielberg are now both more concerned about how history will judge him as an artist. None of that crap concerned him while he was a kid. Adoration and big bucks did the business in those days. After all, Steven Spielberg does not become Steven Spielberg Inc. just because he can direct a movie. The artist Spielberg has no one on Earth to whom he has to kowtow which made the DVD opening of his latest re-imagining of history all the more befuddling.

Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Well, in the twenty first century, history is re-written by film-makers. There is no doubt in my mind that Spielberg's technical skill is still intact. His command of the frame, the camera movement and the performances all still impress. Michael Kahn's usual invisible editing is slightly frayed, action cuts mistimed (OK, maybe this was the point but there are a lot of repeat action cuts to stretch out the explosions one imagines, a style not interwoven into the whole movie) but I do know he and Spielberg were really busting a gut to get Munich ready for Oscar consideration. Williams' score is restrained and effective but I wish he and Spielberg would drop the overt 'Jewish' violin motif. It's glutinous syrup and on meat as unpalatable as this, it doesn't sit pretty. Yes, it's meant to invoke the lead character's fluffy inside and hard exterior (yawn) and his ambivalence but as that is so freakin' obvious, the score comes across as cloying. No, where Spielberg trips up is in his eclectic choice of project. He has become the acceptable and questionably artistic megaphone for Jewish causes and the only downside is that people will believe the movie Schindler's List, (yes, I know it's based on a true story) they'll believe the movies Saving Private Ryan (not a true story) and Munich and the truth of any objective history – if there is such a thing – will disappear between the odd and even numbers of a movie screenplay. Try finding it. That space doesn't exist.

But isn't that a small price to pay for raising public awareness? Imagine the credit. Major Historical Events re-imagined by Steven Spielberg. That's your truth, right there. Has the price risen since the beginning of the paragraph?

sound and vision

It's Spielberg. It's not going to be much less than damn near technically perfect. In the Region 2 pressing, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic, Kaminski's 70s colour work is suitably haunting and metallic. It's not just the flared trousers and sideburns that give the period away. The sharpness and desolate colour scheme across continents bring back the era. Spielberg favours, in certain scenes, white out lighting, as if his protagonists are haloed against their blinding destinies – and if you think that sounds pretentious, you'd be right. Solid blacks are important in this movie – good and evil, black and light. In some scenes you half expect his Close Encounter aliens to come scurrying out of the over-exposures. But there's not a scratch on it, nor should there be.

But, as I believe, sound makes pictures and Ben Burtt's work (supervising sound editor and designer) is exemplary. It's a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and the .1 (sub-woofer) gets a subtle workout. Of course, Munich features gunfire and explosions and both are truly and crystal clearly wrenching. Even when you know what's coming, the blast is significant. Lots of work for the rear speakers which maintain their atmospheric contribution throughout but more importantly there was only one word of dialogue I could not get on first viewing (Louis was speaking with a French accent so I had to dig around to get it but I did in the end). A remarkably fine disc with truly excellent sound and picture quality.

extra features

There ought to be three newly coined names in DVD reviewers' lexicons. Let's have a go at defining what needs names. The first (and here's the dictionary definition):

    1. (noun) The first edition of a DVD, with one or more rarely two discs which contain the bare minimum in Extras, paving the way for the packed 'Special Edition' to fleece fans of the film again and again.
    2. (noun) The term 'Special Features' meaning only an interactive menu and scene access.
    3. (noun) The saccharine 'Making Of' which tells you nothing about the actual making of the film but delights in telling you how lovely everyone is.

So how about suggestions for those definitions?

    1. A Teaser, A Pre-Specked (Pre-Special Edition), a Miser, A Down-Payment, a Pickpocket, a DVD-R (minus Real Extras)...
    2. A Nada, A Niente, an Emperor (no clothes).
    3. A Bouzereau (named after Laurent, the chap who seems to make all the 'Makings of'), a Laurent (same reason), a Backslapper, a Love-In.

There is a glorious spoof of No. 3 to be made. Looking forward to it. Munich is guilty of two of the above (1 and 3).

Munich, The Mission, The Team is more a cripplingly short (13 mins 12 secs) "Isn't Steven just the most caring, lovely, sensitive human on the planet," promo. Yes, a writer gets a look in and the actors have a line or two but it's so "Aren't we good for caring," and comes across as almost a desperate plea for playground acceptance. The Extra that should have been on this disc (as its natural accompaniment) is the superb 1998 One Day In September by Kevin McDonald. Luckily it's out there on one of its own. Ever since the 'Making Of's were homogenized, we've lost something that used to make DVDs special…

Introduction (apology?) by Steven Spielberg – we've gone into that…

What else… DVS (Descriptive Video Service). Essentially narration for the visually impaired.

Anything else? Subtitles in English, Arabic and Icelandic. Now there's a mind-fuck. I know it's more to do with licensing territories etc. but what a choice. Two languages spoken by the polarised west and east and Icelandic! Cool! What else? That's your lot. No wait. There is the wonder of the end credits and the name of the B Camera Dolly Grip… It's Pat Garret. Why didn't they list that as an Extra?

summary

Excellent movie, superbly technically presented with a paucity of any meat save the feature, a real Pre-Specked. Spielberg is settled into his late career phase now amassing work he believes will secure his status as an artist. Just a small matter. To me, the man was an artist in 1975. All this worthy stuff is, well, just worthy, not necessarily artistic in the way a fuck off humongous mother ship hovers over a mountain is artistic or a bloody huge fish jumping… I'll stop now.

Munich

US 2005
159 mins
director
Steven Spielberg
starring
Eric Bana
Daniel Craig
Ciaran Hinds
Mathieu Kassovitz
Geoffrey Rush

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles .
English
Icelandic
Arabic
extras
Making-of featurette
Introduction by director
distributor
Universal
release date
12 June 2006
review posted
28 June 2006