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— Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon

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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a remarkable fact-based thriller that ratchets up the tension like Hitchcock’s best.

Black September

The DVD would have benefitted greatly from documentaries on the real events
The DVD would have benefitted greatly from documentaries on the real events

With a timely subject matter that effectively depicts the specter of terrorism and the vicious cycle of violence it creates, Munich takes a far more significant place on the global stage than its Oscar competition, most notably the attention grabbing Brokeback Mountain and the best picture winner, Crash.

While Munich reenacts to a limited extent the actual hostage taking and subsequent massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich (historic news footage is also used to great effect in recreating the period), the thrust of the story surrounds the Israeli response to that Palestinian attack.

Recruited by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to lead an expert team to hunt down and assassinate 11 people considered responsible for the massacre, a man named Avner discovers there is considerable danger in becoming a monster while attempting to destroy a monster.

Artistry

Based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas, Munich is a fascinating movie on many levels. Most obviously it’s a riveting espionage thriller that gains extra gravitas from the real-life events. But it’s also a masterfully crafted piece of cinema from creative and artistic points of view.

Nice touches abound. There’s a scene inside the hotel room of one of the hostage takers; he’s moving out onto the balcony even as the room’s TV shows the real-life live news coverage of him doing the same, as seen from below.

Then there’s a truly Hitchcockian scene in which Avner’s team rig a bomb in the house of one of the targets. The catalyst involves the target answering the phone, but the whole dynamic of the plan changes in a heartbeat when it’s the target’s young daughter who picks up the phone.

All along, the counter-terrorists face the fine balance of making a profound statement while surgically removing the source of their troubles and taking into consideration the safety of the innocent.

Vengeance

Ultimately, as summed up by Golda Meir (uncannily portrayed by Lynn Cohen, The Last Days of Leni Riefenstahl), the challenge is figuring out how to respond to a group of people who are determined to destroy you.

Along the way, Avner enlists the assistance of a man known as Papa (Michael Lonsdale, Ronin). A power player of sorts, he’s also an avid cook. While preparing dinner, he comments to Avner about how they’re both tragic men. They both have butcher’s hands, but gentle souls.

Eric Bana embodies Avner with an incredible amount of humanity and soul; his performance is all the more impressive considering how he simply blended in with the crowd in Black Hawk Down and appeared truly miscast in Troy.

The rest of the cast is equally superb; rounding out Avner’s Mossad team are Daniel Craig (the new James Bond in the forthcoming Casino Royale), Mathieu Kassovitz (Amelie), Ciaran Hinds (Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life), and Hanns Zischler (Ripley’s Game). Also lending solid support are Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (The Dybbuk) as Avner’s pregnant wife and Geoffrey Rush (Shine) as Ephraim, Avner’s handler.

Foreshadowing

Avner gets instructions from his friend and boss
Avner gets instructions from his friend and boss

As with 1993, when Spielberg unleashed the mega-hit Jurassic Park in the summer then skillfully presented Nazi horrors in Schindler’s List that winter, Spielberg got the fun (albeit macabre) stuff out of his system in War of the Worlds during the summer of 2005 before tackling Munich only months later.

Even if it weren’t based on a true story, the material here would still work as a solid political thriller.

Like the best of those thrillers, Munich builds the tension and becomes more involving as the movie progresses. That’s an art in itself and no small feat, especially considering the movie’s 160-minute running time.

After following Avner’s team on a tour through a number of Europe’s capitals, the film ends on a stunning, thought-provoking note in Brooklyn with the majestic Manhattan skyline in the background. The final frames chillingly foreshadow events to come nearly three decades later.

DVD Extras

Spielberg tends to be skimpy with the supplemental materials on his DVD releases. He consistently shies away from commentary tracks and considering the massive amount of film knowledge he could pass along in a commentary, that’s almost criminal. With the 2-disc collector’s edition of Munich, Spielberg continues that modus operandi. (Note: A single disc edition is also available, in separate widescreen and full screen versions.)

Deluxe editions for other historical dramas, particularly Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, have provided documentaries that focus on the factual material used in researching those movies. The deluxe edition of Munich would have benefited greatly from a similar type of documentary, one that focused on the events surrounding the massacre in Munich and included a third-party historical perspective on Mossad and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, so the second disc is relegated to the typical behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Disc 1 showcases the movie, with an optional introduction by Spielberg. His intro is very good; he acknowledges the intricacies of blending fact with hypothetical accounts and he defends the film as not being an attack on Israel and not being an endorsement for non-response; the movie explores why a country would consider counter-violence as the best defense against violence.

Disc 2

Disc 2 contains a collection of featurettes, cumulatively clocking in around 75 minutes.

Munich is an amazing production that was shot quickly and went through a brief nine weeks of post-production. Collectively, the featurettes do provide a good look into the sprint that was the making of Munich, including interviews with the multinational cast. In particular, the featurette Memories of the Event sprinkles original news footage, including some of Golda Meir, with cast and crew recollections of that early ’70s period. Also informative is Portrait of an Era, which documents the recreation of the 1970s in Europe and the factors under consideration which led the production to film primarily in Malta and Budapest (with a trip to Paris and the Eiffel Tower to help expand the movie’s remarkable global feel). Other challenges faced during production included the limited availability of studio space; the shortage would ultimately drive the production into building sets in an ice skating rink. Topping it off, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (whose frequent collaborations with Spielberg include Schindler’s List and Minority Report) comments on the color scheme used to give each country a different look and feel.

Along the way, there are also some interesting observations regarding how Spielberg has changed as a director over the years, the significance of the color red in the production, the on-set bonding between Israeli and Arab (as Palestinian) actors, and the unique casting choice of Guri Weinberg, who plays his father, Moshe, one of the Israeli coaches killed in the Munich massacre.

Also on hand are the usual cast interviews and technical details regarding the film’s editing, sound, and music.

Completing the deluxe package is a 36-page photo book. The book is nicely produced and features some very good productions stills, but, given the choice, a running commentary by Spielberg would’ve been preferred.

Picture and Sound

Disc 1 presents the feature film with English and French tracks in 5.1 Dolby Surround. The soundtrack effectively highlights the gorgeous vocals of Lisbeth Scott as well as captures the chaos during the film’s gunfights and the mayhem surrounding the bomb explosions.

Also available are English subtitles for the deaf & hard-of-hearing as well as French and Spanish subtitles.

The disc also includes the Descriptive Video Service; the audio track provides spoken descriptions of the main visuals for the blind or visually impaired.

The anamorphic widescreen picture, in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, is a solid presentation that effectively captures Kaminski’s skillful cinematography, including the noir feel of some of the espionage scenes.

Disc 2 is presented in English only, with English subtitles for the deaf & hard-of-hearing as well as French and Spanish subtitles. Given the source material is primarily new video footage, the picture and sound quality are fine.