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Steven Spielberg has delivered. His profound take on the sci-fi genre in the Tom Cruise starring vehicle War of the Worlds pales in comparison to Munich, and in many ways, everything the director has ever touched seems to be fair game for re-evaluation. Munich could very well be the director’s defining moment.

Where War of the Worlds entertained, the film still succumbed to the usual Spielbergian trappings by retreating back into safe, family friendly territory before the closing credits. Anyone who has seen the film knows the moment that spoiled the fun.

Munich seemed ripe for one such moment. In fact, with his track record it’s a wonder Spielberg didn’t allow the film to veer off into that all too saccharine world full of schmaltz and happy endings.

And with touchy subject matter like the Israel’s response to the Black September attack on the Israeli team in the Munich Olympic compound in 1972, one wrong step for the director could have spelled disaster.

Fortunately for everyone involved, Spielberg had his approach for the film fully fleshed out, and what audiences will find is a thought provoking, unrelenting look at the methods used by modern governments to combat terrorism. For those quick on the uptake, this does entail allusions to September 11th, but that isn’t all that Munich is.

To frame his statement, Spielberg tells the story of a young Israeli intelligence officer named Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) who is tapped by a Mossad officer named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) to embark on an extremely important mission in the wake of the Munich massacre. Avner is instructed to join four other men to form a hit squad, charged with hunting down a list of suspected Black September masterminds behind the tragedy.

They are instructed to leave all family and contacts behind and work outside of the government in anonymity. For Avner, this means leaving behind his pregnant wife and mother to serve a country he has always felt and sense of dedication towards. Employing the most classic of Spielberg thematic devices, we are given evidence that Avner’s father also served as a Mossad officer, which meant being away from home for long stretches of time, at one point imprisoned while serving his country.

This of course suggests that Israel has become a surrogate father for Avner, but suffice it to say, this is not overstated or played at the levels of cheese that it could have been. In fact, Avner’s own issues with impending fatherhood provide a subtle enhancement of the theme, endearing at the darkest of moments, providing a perfect blend of affection and sheer dread.

Avner is given strict instructions with a detailed list of names to eradicate and nothing more. As the hit squad sets to work tracking down their targets and making contacts for information, they slowly begin doubting the underlying purposes behind their mission, and the means with which they are instructed to carry out their mission.

It is probably wise to refrain from digging into too many intricacies as far as plot and message are concerned because a film as important as this is worth discovering. However, Spielberg’s approach to the film is nearly as vital as the subject matter at hand. Taking place in 1972, the film actually lends a look and feel as familiar as any entry from that time period.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked with Spielberg several times before including on Schindler’s List, paints with seventies genre clichés without ever allowing the line of forced inference to be encroached upon.

Sure, anyone can select a film stock with more grain for effect, but everything from framing to shot choice is spot on in recreating the tone necessary to make the film feel grounded in the past. Even the editing work in both the film and sound departments helps to flesh this aspect out to a greater degree.

Take for example a sequence in which a bomb has been rigged underneath the mattress of a target and members of the hit squad are stationed outside waiting for the sign to trigger detonation. As Avner is stationed inside the hotel, waiting to send out the signal, Steve (Daniel Craig) is waiting in the car, all the while singing “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” in a nervous yet subdued manner.

Cross cutting between events occurring all around, the sequence loses its footing, weaving creepily into a chilling spiral of tension and urgency. It is nearly reminiscent of some of the aural experimentations found in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

Munich is the result of a filmmaker with a message firing on all cylinders. Sure, he may have knocked one out of the park with War of the Worlds, but still managed to fall short in the tail end of the third act of that film. Here, Spielberg manages to refrain from such dalliances, delivering a film as good, if not better, than anything he has ever offered before.


Mario Anima

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