Summary: A haunting, harrowing exploration of heroes and homelands, expertly directed and perfectly executed.
Review: Tackling a piece of complex cinema is like trying to eat an elephant. You have to start somewhere, and it will be awkward. For Spielberg’s 2005 film ‘Munich’, I’ve chosen to broach the subject by philosophizing my impatience. There is an artistic relationship between a film’s length and its subject. Like a piece of music that requires time and space to build and create emotional resonance, a film in excess of two hours often is so because of reasons beyond plot intricacies. ‘Munich’ is a paradox of pacing and running time. It waxes long but plays with the requisite immediacy one expects from a film so firmly grounded in the documentary style. The meaning of its length is found in the film’s philosophical heart, which, in his introduction on the DVD, he simply relates as (if I recall correctly) “the artist’s intent”. That is, empathy, extended in every direction.
I know a thing about politics, and the film knows a thing or two, so of course I could look at it from that angle. However, that would, I feel, miss the grander scheme. ‘Munich’ is to my mind a meditation on heroes. The film opens with a brilliant montage crosscutting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre with the subjective reactions of the concerned parties, Arabs, Jews, etc. watching their televisions. The handheld, highly dynamic camera and the overlapping actions and dialog set up a potent sense of realism and empathy for all sides. As the film’s plot gathers steam, complicates and finally untangles, the filmmakers never stop being lavishly empathic. The brutal nature of real-world espionage shatters our illusions of heroic, sexy, mentally balanced spies protecting our interests abroad. It is not so much that heroes do not exist, but that villains share the same faces. All anyone wants is home. What they do to get it is another matter.
What I love about Spielberg is how his films come alive. While, inescapably, the artifice came through, ‘Munich’ tempted me to believe what I was seeing was real. This is obviously damn good filmmaking. How he accomplishes this is surprisingly obvious as well. It’s also enormously complex. Cinematographically, ‘Munich’ is not a representation cut into pieces. It is not a million little shots of plot-worthy or atmospheric details, ala the ‘Bourne’ films. It is expertly staged, with a great deal of depth in most of the shots. Layers of actions and sounds cross over each other, fighting for attention. This is a common feature of all Spielberg’s films, but with Janusz Kaminiski’s docu-style cinematography, the effect amplifies. The film’s texture, partly because of the production design, feels very much like a ’70s era movie. I can compare it to ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Godfather’.
The production design is worth praising a little more. I appreciate their effort to defy convention and strive for accuracy on weapons and their messy effects. The bombs, for example, even have delayed sound. Silenced weapons don’t have the laser-ish sound effect heard in so many thrillers. Instead, they sound like suppressed gunshots, which makes so much sense it’s painful we still have to put up with everybody’s weird idea of what they should sound like.
There’s a lot to praise, and it’s too easy. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. In the end, ‘Munich’ is proof that Spielberg is still a formidable, flexible filmmaker, perfectly capable of handling the most harrowing issues with a steady hand and a philosopher’s soul. This is cinema’s mirror directed at the souls of heroes and the homes they protect. What they reflect back is not easy to see. It is haunting.