Munich Review

This review contains plot spoilers.

Munich begins with the 1972 Olympic Games held in the city of the title, when eleven Israeli athletes were kidnapped and then killed by the pro-Palestinian Black September movement. In Israel, a decision is made from the very top, from Prime Minister Golda Meir herself, that there has to be revenge. Avner (Eric Bana), Meir’s former bodyguard, is recruited to lead a five-man team to assassinate eleven Arabs who are believed to be involved with Black September.

It’s easy to overrate a film like Munich when so much major-studio product treats its audience as if it uses its brains only to keep its ears apart. And of course the more cynical will cry “Oscar bait”. Munich certainly has flaws – overlength being the main one – but on the whole it’s an absorbing examination of recent historical events, and a look on how violence erodes the soul. By the end of the film, Avner cannot return to the normality represented by his wife and child: he fears his own assassination, and there’s a sense that none of the killings he has organised have made any improvement. Those who have died have only been replaced by people who are worse. Violence simply breeds more violence, as Spielberg’s final shot hints at. Spielberg and his screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth take pains to be even-handed. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Avner’s team is accidentally double-booked in a hotel room with a group of Palestinians and an uneasy truce develops for a short while, while both sides of the issue are aired. Spielberg illustrates this in a short scene where one group wants to hear Arab music on the radio while the other plays French songs. They compromise by playing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”. That’s certainly amusing, and welcome levity in a fairly grim and humourless film, though it’s one moment where Munich steps dangerously close to Hollywoodised corn. Another miscalculation is a sequence near the end which intercuts Avner and his wife’s lovemaking with the killings of the Israeli athletes. But on the whole Spielberg keeps his tendency towards sentimentality in check.

Few would dispute that Spielberg is one of the most naturally gifted film directors currently working – what he does with that enormous talent has been the issue. Munich is a very well made film. Janusz Kaminski’s Scope camerawork deliberately evokes the 1970s: gritty and grainy, underlit in many scenes so that windows blow out. (This lighting style seemed out of place in Catch Me If You Can, but it’s far more appropriate here.) The assassinations are tense, at times deliberately horrific. Eric Bana gives a fine performance which holds a potentially sprawling narrative together and there’s a strong, well-chosen and extensive supporting cast.

Munich wasn’t hugely successful at the box office, indicating the difficulty of making an essentially downbeat story on a large (and undoubtedly expensive) scale for a major studio and then selling it to an audience. Spielberg squared that circle with Schindler’s List, a film that overcame two major commercial stumbling blocks (black and white photography, three-hour-plus running time) to make $95 million at the US box office. But that film, for its many harrowing moments, told an essentially redemptive story. For Avner and his team, there is no redemption.

The DVD under review is the Asian release of Munich, which is NTSC format and encoded for Regions 3 and 6. Menus are available in the five subtitle languages and at least you can skip over the anti-piracy ad at the beginning.

Munich is transferred to DVD in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is faithful to the deliberately low-key colour scheme and any grain is intentional. I did spot a couple of minor examples of edge enhancement, but nothing too distracting.

The only soundtrack option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Although this is a very dialogue-driven film, the soundtrack is still very immersive, with the surrounds being used for ambience, John Williams’s score and some directional effects. Given that there are several sequences involving gunfire and explosions, the subwoofer is given quite some use as well. Some dialogue in foreign languages is subtitled into English. There are twenty-one chapter stops.

This is the standard edition of Munich (a two-disc edition is available in Region 1), so there are only a couple of extras. There's no commentary, as is usual with Spielberg's films on DVD. Instead, there is an optional introduction (4:35) by Spielberg. He describes how he came to the project – co-producer Barry Mendel had been developing this for some years. He discusses the book (Vengeance by George Jonas) from which the film was derived, and the issues involved in dramatising historical events.

The other extra is a short featurette, “Munich: The Mission, The Team” (13:12), produced by Laurent Bouzereau. If you’ve seen others of his documentaries on DVDs, you’ll be familiar with the style: interviews with various key participants, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage and film extracts. Tony Kushner is featured heavily (there’s no mention of his fellow credited screenwriter, Eric Roth) as well as Spielberg, producers Kathleen Kennedy, production designer Rick Carter and most of the principal cast. No doubt they are all under contract not to criticise the film they’re involved with, but the mutual backslapping doesn’t become too obtrusive, as it can do in featurettes like this. Both the introduction and featurette are non-anamorphic in a ratio of 16:9.

Munich may be set in the 1970s but it’s certainly timely and relevant today. It’s a well-made and acted film, which generally holds the interest over more than two and a half hours. It’s hardly escapist fare, though, and in places is quite harrowing, but anyone looking for something more thought-provoking would do well to watch it. In the standard edition, at least, the extras are nothing outstanding.

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