The year may finally prove that, Masters of the Hollywood Universe both, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are artistically from different planets -- Lucas' Revenge of the Sith attempts to palm off a mega-frisbee game between Yoda and the Emperor as "clandestine" political commentary, while Spielberg's Munich wears its worldly anguish frontally, nakedly. The wise old gnome, speaking with the weight of the ages, is here not Yoda but Golda, Prime Minister Meir, that is (Lynn Cohen), pondering Israel's course of action following the slaughter of eleven Israeli hostages at the hands of a Palestinian group amid the 1972 Munich Olympics. Every civilization must "negotiate compromises with its own values," so "Black September" is to be followed by vengeance, a mission to track down and snuff out the raid's suspected architects, as well as to show the world the nation's own willingness to counter brutality with brutality. Not that Israel is eager to take credit for the deaths about to precipitate: Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard appointed leader of a batch of Mossad agents, is first made "officially unofficial" by officer Geoffrey Lewis, so that the only one to address is a bank box perpetually full of money. (Info ain't cheap. Where does the cash keep flowing from? The Israeli people's pockets? Other countries' sympathies? "Keep receipts," in any case.)
A mensch one moment, wife (Ayelet Zorer) with a bun in the oven, and the next a Jewish international man of mystery, surrounded by the most jittery of crews -- a South African hothead (Daniel Craig), a jumpy technician shanghaied from toys to bombs (Mathieu Kassovitz), a document forger (Hanns Zischler), and an old pro (Ciarán Hinds) whose main job seems "to worry." First stop: Rome, where Target Number One reads a translated Scheherazade on the sidewalk, commenting on "the relationship of narrative to survival." His, incidentally, is just about over, as Bana and Kassovitz corral him on his way back from the market so that their bullets can mix milk with blood, the crimson river spreading from under the perforated body. A similar trope occurs earlier, Spielberg dissolving from a wall splattered with a hostage's viscera in the '72 attack to the clouds growing sanguine, a red dawn witnessed by the hero from his airplane's window. A moment of spiritual unbalance, as Armond White has suggested? Perhaps, for Spielberg's Munich raid itself is certainly fashioned as cosmic montage, with a steady flow of TV chatter and dueling monitors scrambling to capture the confusion and human suffering while the entire world seems to watch. Magnificently edited, the opening is a mournful cantata for the death of hope, and it haunts the rest of the film -- Bana's repeated visions of it are not flashbacks, but an unconscious response to the pain in both sides of the conflict.
The narrative still has Rome, Paris, Beirut, London, Athens, and Brooklyn in the itinerary, yet Munich remains a model of lucidity and immediacy to further shame the deliberate muddiness of Syriana. Still, dangers lurk -- Eric Roth, a Forrest Gump culprit, adapted George Jonas' book Vengeance, and Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was brought in even out the overall comfy/edgy schism. Which of them is responsible for the line about "chasing the mice in your skull"? Or for stranding Bana's squad in a flat with a PLO gang, so that both groups can articulate the thorniness of the situation, Al Green serenading them all from the nearby radio ("Let's Stay Together," natch)? Sincere didacticism or not, Spielberg is by now more aware than ever of the power of cinema, and maybe even of the contradictions in his enormous resources; a reconstruction earlier on of the famous shot of the ski-masked Palestinian hostage-taker in the balcony is shot from inside the apartment with a TV screen on the foreground emitting the simultaneous broadcast, and the filmmaker later on illustrates his own media-manipulation of reality via Hitchcockian cross-cutting with a child and a bomb. The explosive is for another killing, this time too weak; in another case, the bomb is too strong and nearly annihilates the entire hotel. Doubts begin to settle -- are they killing the right people? By the time they track down a murderous spy-babe (Marie-Josée Croze) only out of personal revenge, it hardly seems to matter anymore.
Munich stumbles but is laceratingly charged, thunderstriken virtually, by Spielberg's deeply felt moral analysis. People may liken the one-two punch of War of the Worlds and Munich to his 1993 frivolous/serious combo (Jurassic Park and Schindler's List), though one look at either film this year and the director's growth becomes evident -- where Schindler's List had a Nazi playing Bach (or was it Mozart?) in the middle of a massacre, Munich replays that raid with a deepened ambiguity, the heroes this time doing the decimating. Likewise, Spielberg's trademark honeyed glow gets lavished exclusively on the extended family of French anarchists presided over, Corleone-style, by Michel Lonsdale, who identifies with Bana's "butcher's hands, gentle souls" (for the rest, Janusz Kaminski's lighting is bled off color, all harsh darks and sunlight). By insistently humanizing all facets of the conflict, Spielberg lends heft to every single loss of human life, and the hero's spiritual deadening, drained from within, achieves palpable power as death piles upon death and an Israeli soldier thinks it an honor to shake the killer's hand. Then it's off to Brooklyn for a zombified reunion with wife and baby, but horrors palpitate still in his head, exorcised (or are they?) by mentally aligning images of the athletes' massacre during his sweat-flinging orgasm. (Less sledgehammer catharsis comes in a quintessentially Spielbergian bit earlier: Bana swallowing sobs during a phone call with his little daughter, human essence transferred through technology.) Terrorism and vengeance, Spielberg says, are a "dialogue" that can never end. Does he speak to us now? The final shot gazes at the New York City skyline, Twin Towers in the distance.
After the quandaries of Munich, even a gorefest like Wolf Creek comes off as featherweight. Still, Greg McLean's much buzzed-about opus (like Spielberg's, "based on a true story") practically gives itself a hernia attempting to shock jaded horror fans out of their PG-13 apathy -- body parts severed and flaunted, women bound and tortured, protracted wailing, chortling, and agonizing. Last year's second overseas homage to The Texas Chainsaw, following the similarly grueling High Tension; this one is from Australia, which allows the filmmaker to both explore the ominous Outback locales and explode the lovable-Aussie stereotype. Indeed, as the cheerfully butchering maniac, John Jarratt skewers Crocodile Dundee's tourist cuddliness for the visiting outsiders (Nathan Phillips, Kestie Morassi, Cassandra Magrath) caught stranded in the titular crater. It is nature versus civilization, or rather one level of savagery versus another, the mysterious watched under the baking Australian sun -- could it be a coincidence that Jarratt also starred in Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock? Tastemakers bitch at the violence and cobble the picture with Saw 2 as the beginning of the end, though Wolf Creek offhandedly gets under the skin; its unvarnished horrors, brought into the light of the desert, resonate pungently long after the geeky parade of the Saw series has evaporated.
Reviewed January 5, 2006.