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Category:    Home > Reviews > Action > Drama > Political > Spy > Munich (Widescreen/Basic DVD)

Munich (Widescreen/Basic DVD)


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: C-     Film: A-



I have had a mixed relationship in my encounters with the work of Steven Spielberg, who began as an edgy, underrated director on TV until his telefilm Duel became a hit in European theatrical release and after the megahit Jaws followed, it was the big screen henceforth for the man who became the biggest star director since Alfred Hitchcock and the most commercially successful director to date.  A friend who also has issues with him once said that if you are that successful, then you are doing something wrong and for Spielberg, the battle between art and commerce has been a fascinating one.  Early adult storytelling with The Color Purple (it was the best of Spielberg, it was the worst of Spielberg) and Empire Of The Sun had fans, but the critical response was mixed.  Then came his trilogy of even more mature films in Schindler’s List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan, but even they had limits, though they are strong films.  However, they still had some of the trappings that held him back from his best potential as a bold, uncompromising filmmaker, proven by the commercial films that followed.  That is why Munich (2005) is that much more remarkable, because even his longest-time critics are faced with an inarguable work in that it trashes the final vestiges of anything that made him “the feel good director” in the first place, even when that came down to predictable standards that at least spelled out a safe ending (Schindler’s List turns out to be years before the final scene, Saving Private Ryan is explicitly told in flashback though its opening scenes are still too painful for many to take) where there is some kind of resolution that conforms to the booklike Classical Hollywood model.


Eric Bana is Avner, a young man recruited to head an elite team of counter-terrorists to avenge the nightmarish Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.  They have 11 names and all of them are marked for execution by an Israeli government that cannot take anymore and feels the need to send a message that this aggression cannot be tolerated anymore.  Avner is recruited by no less than Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) who is concerned about the future of her young, vulnerable country.  This team will officially not exist and have the resources to get the job done.


Spielberg is uncompromising like never before in his depiction of what Black September did and how Israel responded.  To keep the realism and naturalism going, as well as reach out beyond words, he takes the interesting risk of not using title cards to make the story clearer, in part also because it seems he feels that there is no simple clarity to this situation and his is correct.  Like Syriana, you must have a maximum attention span to understand what is going on, but for that the viewer gets a huge pay-off in what Spielberg is trying to communicate.


Screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels In America) and Eric Roth (who has been penning some impressive work since the underrated thriller Suspect back in 1987) manage to pull together so many issues and ideas together with such a natural seamlessness that it is a lesson in great epic documentation and narrative.  That only enhances Spielberg’s mission, making the most extravagant, grandest statement of his career.  With this film, he undoubtedly joins all the giant filmmakers he has been emulating and paying tribute to for decades in a work that defies simple explanation and deeply succeeds in making the kind of big statement most filmmakers only dream of.  There is no happy ending, but an open-ended conclusion that makes every frame more relevant every day, with unfinished business ranging from the characters to the filmmaker himself.


Unlike any other Spielberg film, death and mortality haunt everyone and no one is safe, a most ironic thing since the terrorists and counter-terrorists are supposedly in control.  The loyalty and reliability of everyone is questioned, from allies to enemies.  Germany still has it in for the Jews decades later, the U.S. is still trying to have it both ways, elites in the Muslim power base have their religious propaganda machine in full swing to find willing solider victims to do their dirty work and Israel is understandably split between how to handle it all.  After the attack, the initial response makes sense, but like some current U.S. world situations, when is enough enough?  When does an operation become a vicious cycle of violence that takes on a life of its own and how can that cycle be stopped?  Those are just the beginning of the very hard questions Spielberg asks and the boldness of that alone shows a new cinematic maturity that will give even his staunchest critics a new respect for him.


To especially make this film after 9/11 and other insanities that followed is not something any one playing it safe does.  As a result, Spielberg received more vicious criticism and attacks upon himself and his work than in all of his other films combined.  Israeli insiders condemned it, Black September survivors though he should have consulted them about it (!) and a media heavily slanted in the direction of The Bush Administration unusually ignored the film as some media insiders may have felt in undermined the catastrophic Iraq policies with Abu Ghraib, failures in Afghanistan and the ultimate failure of not letting any kind of civilized democracy take hold in The Middle East when the chance was there because perpetual war is the policy instead of any solutions that would put lives ahead of war profiteering.  Yes, Spielberg has never been bolder, gutsier or more cutting edge and over the next few years, this will become more and more apparent as the film continues to show up on HD and other venues.


Cheers also go to an amazing cast of many unknowns, who gave exceptional performances where it counted, as well as new James Bond Daniel Craig showing he is a better actor than credited for, Geoffrey Rush as Avner’s semi-contact and Michael Lonsdale as the mysterious patriarchal contact who seems to be enough of his friend in this cold, cold world.  Lonsdale is one of the great French character actors who has been top rate for decades in films including Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, John Frankenheimer’s amazing Ronin and as the ultimate pompous stuffy rich James Bond villain Sir Hugo Drax in Lewis Gilbert’s gloriously outrageous Moonraker.  The casting is flawless.


The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image is shot exceptionally well by Spielberg’s latter day cinematography partner, Janusz Kaminski, A.S.C., who has been accused since their earliest work of simply controlling the amount of light in each frame in oversimplified ways as part of their narrative strategy.  Prior to Kaminski, Spielberg liked to celebrate light outright as if it was godlike in scenes, but also had a strong corollary with the idea of the light that comes from a film projector.  The new alliance has had its ups (Schindler’s List taking commercial monochrome stock and finding a strong narrative use for it) and downs (A.I., Minority Report, The Terminal, which were all problematic in their own ways) but here, they are on the money all the way.


The team combines the period look, documentary approach and that of the Spy Thriller into a remarkably striking combination that shows they know the connection between films like Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1971) as well as why the James Bond films were more than just commercial films (a series Spielberg has referred top as the greatest movie franchise ever) and brings it all together with one of Spielberg’s more complex uses of color and light.  Michael Kahn’s editing is some of his best too.  The standard DVD transfer here has problems capturing all of this, though it is as good as this format is going to be able to do with the detail and Video Black challenges such superior shooting call for.  Never has Spielberg spoken so clearly, thoroughly and visually well in any of his films.


The only sound mix here is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, which might be the only thing that would fit on this basic edition with one disc holding a nearly three hour film, but this does not capture all the nuances of the exceptional soundtrack mix.  This is one of John Williams’ best scores in many years and though Spielberg is always going for exceptional sound design, the detail and character here is particularly exceptional because it serves his most complex narrative to date.  In one way, it is the next logic step in the kind of sound you would get in the great thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, but it also expands the cinematic space in clever ways we do not get enough in multi-channel mixes in general.  This version is good, but when the HD-DVD version offers Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Digital True HD, or even DTS or DTS HD, what is missing will be more apparent.


For this basic version, only an introduction by Spielberg is included.  As he addresses the film briefly, you can see that even he knows the burden and task of the film is the most tremendous he has ever taken on.   A special edition Standard DVD set was also issued and those extras will eventually surface on the HD-DVD version we will look at upon its release.  In the meantime, if you missed Munich, it is a must-see film to catch up with and no film has ever lived up to the Spielberg legacy more.  If he had any concerns about that legacy, Spielberg can let it all rest on this film, because it is the masterwork of all films to date.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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