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AT THE MOVIES: There’s No Place Like Home: Munich (***)

Steven Spielberg’s second film this year, Munich, was talked about as an Oscar favorite long before anyone saw the film.

His reputation, the weighty subject matter, the late December release date – this was to be the Oscar best pic contender to beat.  The film was clothed in secrecy, similar to last year’s Million Dollar Baby, which entered the race in the final round and knocked out the competition.  There was some talk that the movie wouldn’t be finished by December and would have to be released early in 2006.  That probably would have been the better way to go for Spielberg, truth be told.  Now, the expectations are simply too high, the element of surprise is gone, and what’s left seems to have been rushed to completion, to capitalize on all  that buzz.

In 1993, Spielberg released both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. It was unheard of, astounding that anyone could go from one genre into another with so  much success.  People assumed he would have as good  a year in 2005, with War of the Worlds and Munich.  But neither film is as good as its 1993 predecessors.

But, in fact, Munich’s only true flaw is that it isn’t the Big Oscar Movie everyone expected it to be, and  does better when looked at apart from that manic, silly race.  What is left is an interesting, if a bit ambiguous, political thriller that ends more mixed up than it begins. It is far darker than anything Spielberg has attempted thus far and comes with all of the sap drained from it.

Munich is a fictionalized account of the 1972 killings of Israelis by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics. It opens on a lovely young Israeli couple, Avner (Eric Bana) and his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zorer) as they await their new baby.    Avner is called upon by Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) and the Israeli government to take on a most heroic task – to hunt down and kill those involved in the Munich killings. 

It is to be an eye for an eye and a show of power and force.  Avner must leave his beloved wife and homeland to become an invisible man of sorts – someone the Israeli government doesn’t know, someone who can’t be traced to anyone.  But the problem is, Avner is human, too human for such an inhumane occupation.

Like Dorothy going to Oz, Avner joins up with a team of assassins in various cities. The retribution killings don’t go as expected and seem to be ordered by people who have other agendas than avenging the Munich murders.  With each assassination, the toll taken on the team gets worse and worse and,  eventually, the shooters become the targets and realize that their contribution was hardly monumental, but rather just another day of murders and terrorism in the Middle East; nothing was accomplished, no one paid any real price other than business as usual.

Munich is a film that gets more interesting the more it’s ruminated upon.  The final product itself has a rather confusing third act, which appears to have been rushed and probably could have been “fixed,” if the director had had just a few more weeks. Instead of getting better as it goes along, Munich rather falls apart, which is unfortunate, given how much of the film succeeds.

Filmed in hues of gray and brown, borrowing its look from the work of William Friedkin, Francis Coppola and Sidney Lumet, Spielberg’s Munich seems like a page right out of the book of ‘70s bleak crime dramas.  Its script, by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, refuses to dumb down its material, and never offers the kinds of speeches we’re used to in Spielberg’s films – and though that is to the film’s credit, audiences are used to having the “message” delivered to them in a complete and succinct way and when we’re not told how to feel, will we even know what we’re supposed to feel?Munich isn’t a film that is going to tell anyone how to feel – it isn’t even going to be, what Spielberg hopes it is: A prayer for peace.  What it is, more than anything, is an artist’s interpretation of our terrorist nation.  Many people will go to see it because they want a confirmation of their own frustration with the conflict.  There is no doubt that watching the unmasked violence in the film will have its intended effect.  But will it matter?  Probably not.  But Spielberg is to be lauded for making a Hollywood movie without a Hollywood ending. 

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