Munich: Limited Edition (US - DVD R1)
Gabe gawks at Spielberg's masterful look at counter terrorism in the 1970s
Munich chronicles the true story of a secret Israeli hit squad assigned to track down and kill eleven Palestinians believed to have been involved with the planning of the 1972 Munich massacre of eleven Israeli athletes. Sent on the mission are men who, though experts in their particular fields, are relative novices when it comes to pre meditated murder. The squad leader, Avner (Eric Bana) is particularly torn between his loyalty and thirst for vengeance, and his moral fibre, which becomes quieter and quieter as the massacre develops.
I'd like to preface my review here by stating for the record that I am a massive fan of Steven Spielberg. I agree with the critical consensus that he tends to look for happy endings where they don't belong, and that he has an undeniable flair for the sugary-sweet. Despite these assertions at inadequacy, I believe Spielberg is the best storyteller in modern film, and perhaps only second to Akira Kurasawa in an all-time ranking. From a purely visual standpoint he's never failed, and from a material stand point he has only a handful of creative flops (I'm thinking Hook, Always, and Amistad here, I've never seen 1941 or The Terminal).
2005 was a great year to be a fan of the man with the grey beard's work. In the summer I marvelled at the pure visual grandeur of his 9/11 allegory, War of the Worlds, a picture that I had almost no hope in enjoying, based on the fact that it was finished on such a tight budget and that I didn't think the story needed to be retold. All the while I was resenting Spielberg for not yet dealing with his much-delayed Munich Olympics project. Little did I realize that the man was pushing it into production as a sat there in the theatre, shivering as tripods were vaporizing human beings.
I'm too young to have experienced the tragic melodrama that was the 1972 Munich Olympics, and learned about it in my adult life through Kevin Macdonald's 1999 Oscar winning documentary, One Day in September. As soon as I heard Spielberg’s name attached to the material I was hooked (though I did assume the project was going to centre on the Olympic event, rather than the aftermath at the time). Then came September 11th, 2001, and the events of September 5th, 1972 became more relevant then ever. After much admitted avoiding of the issue, Spielberg was ready to deal with that day in his own way with the one-two punch of War of the Worlds and this, his latest masterpiece, Munich.
Munich is an equally complex and simple film. At its base is a simple plot of vengeance. Vengeance has been a popular theme in cinema over the past few years, most likely because of the worldwide posttraumatic stress syndrome brought up through the attack on the Twin Towers. Films dealing with the theme of vengeance over the last five years have included Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, Tarantino's vengeance flashbacks, Kill Bill volumes one and two, and Tony Scott's hyperactive Man on Fire. There were two popular comic based revamps, Batman Begins and The Punisher, which were both based on glorified vigilantes. Horror movies stepped back into their grindhouse, revenge-thriller roots with Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects and to a lesser extent, the Saw movies (whose killer is a sort of emotional vigilante). Even Martin Scorsese dealt with the theme in his period opus Gangs of New York, and Wes Anderson as the plot thruster of his ode to quirky nature documentarians, The Life Aquatic.
The complexities of Munich are found in its subtext; the grey in between the black and white of glorious retribution. The best vengeance films of our modern resurgence deal in the moral ambiguity of the situation, and this is no exception. Some critics have chastised Spielberg and his screenwriters for refusing to take sides, while others berate him for being either a PLO or Israeli sympathizer. I think that the cold and disconnected look at the events Spielberg has utilized is the only way the story could've been told. The characters on both sides of the confrontation are presented as flawed human beings, which is ultimately what we all are. Yes, this is the story of the Israeli's, and the side plot analysis of the opposing camp verges on time padding, but the humanity of the situation remains intact.
I must also confess that I have become a massive Eric Bana fan as well. I adored Ang Lee's Hulk, and basically discovered the actor in that role (I still haven't seen Chopper, and his role in Blackhawk Down was far too brief). A year later I sat through the embarrassment that was Wolfgang Peterson's Troy, and discovered that the one shining light of dignity was Bana's performance as Hector. When I heard he was attached to the project I just about jumped out of my skin, and he was great, though occasionally he seems to have confused acting with mouth breathing.
Though Bana spearheads the cast, and steals the screen most of the time he's on it, everyone involved is so uncommonly sharp and convincing that I cannot believe that Crash won best ensemble cast at this years SAG awards. Say what you will, but it seems to be a popularity contest to me. Some of the international cast (Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler) is made up of solid as rock standbys whose faces you may recognize, but have trouble placing. That enigmatic genius Geoffrey Rush puts in some face time as the man in charge of the operation, who is equal parts collected, warm, and brutal. And let me take this opportunity to officially announce that I approve of the work of Daniel Craig, and if this role wasn't one of the finest ‘leaner, meaner’ James Bond auditions I've ever seen, I must've had my eyes closed (though when recasting of 007 was announced I originally wanted Bana to fill the shoes, but we can't always get what we want).
The technical direction is just about perfect. Steven, again, is the storyteller of his generation. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, hot off War of the Worlds, creates a similar hyper real, cinema verite on uppers style to that of the alien invasion flick. The 1970s come to life here like we've rarely seen a recent time period come to life before, in all their gaudy, grainy, sun-bleached glory. I love Munich because it looks like a Sidney Lumet or William Friedkin crime flick, complete with zooms instead of pans, and more concern over looking real than looking clean.
The suspense is thicker than ten Brian De Palma films. Each hit is preceded by a meticulously constructed set up, the camera moving from character to character, cutting back and forth between the hesitant predators and their oblivious prey. The images verge on iconic. Spielberg manages to take the tired pre-attack montage and make it work. Some of this technical wizardry threatens to undermine the emotion of the film, but I think that the line was successfully toed without crossing in this case. Any time the crew gets overzealous, the cast brings the film back down to earth.
The films Achilles heel is its occasional loss of focus. The story line tends to meander into the realm of TV miniseries, and occasionally the audience is privy to unnecessary information. Not unlike Peter Jackson's otherwise wonderful King Kong remake, Munich could do with a bit of fat trimming. The material doesn't correlate with the two hour and forty-four minute running time, and what should've been a drum taught classic is instead an occasionally saggy near-miss. Munich was the finest film I saw in 2006, but its lack of focus causes it to fall just shy of a career best for its director.
What would I cut? Despite the great performances and character deepening dialogue, the scenes where Avner meets with the French 'Godfather' Papa to explain his teams actions. These do bring warmth to the film when the main characters are at their coldest, but it also stops the narrative. The information given in these scenes could easily be given by other means. Spielberg also has a tendency to heavy handedly push Avner's growing frustration and sadness. But despite these discrepancies, the film never suffers from a case of Spielberg-itis, and is possibly the most mature in the director's cannon.
Munich is one of those films that I find nearly impossible to judge on a video quality level. Spielberg and Kaminski have colour-coated every location, ala Soderberg's Traffic. Some scenes are muted and grainy, while others vibrantly bleed colours over the entire frame. Most 'errors' in this presentation are most likely done with purpose. With this in mind, I'd say this is one of the better film to DVD transfers I've ever seen. A cleaner presentation would hinder the film's tactile nature.
Some sequences utilize the high contrast, bleach-bypass techniques the director and cinematographer made famous with Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report, and this DVD recreates the deep blacks very well. Some of the low-lit scenes suffer from some cross-colouration, especially in skin tones. The reoccurring bright red amongst muted colour motif leads to some bleeding, but again, I think this was on purpose. Detail levels are sharp even during fast camera movements. The heavy grain throughout adds to the gritty realism, and helps duplicate the look of early '70s crime dramas. Some films were not made for HD duplication.
How do you heighten the reality of a fact-based, documentary style film? By hiring Ben Burtt to do your sound design. The man behind the buzz of the lightsaber and the roar of the tie-fighter is in top form here, even when he rooted in the real world. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track (sorry DTS fans) is lively, well balanced, and it really hits when it needs to. The subtlety of this mix can be hazardous, as some viewers may crank their systems up, unaware that the reason they can't hear anything is because Spielberg and Burtt are about to blow something up. The LFE channel only kicks in when necessary, and doesn't numb the viewer like other, more aggressive tracks. This mix reminds us that moderation can be vital to building tension.
Music is supplied, of course, by Spielberg standby John Williams. I hate to say it, but this may be one of his weakest scores. Williams, in my humble opinion, hasn't been 'on' for years, with the exception of his work on Lucas' Star Wars films (which have an already determined style and a fair amount of completed themes to draw on). This particular score borrows pretty heavily from the pseudo-tribal melodies of Hans Zimmer's recent work with Ridley Scott, a style quickly becoming the tritest in Hollywood. Williams also seems to be borrowing heavily from his own Schindler's List score, the soft guitars of which sound sappy in this film. Some of the suspense cues are decent, but all in all this was pretty mediocre stuff from one of the world's most sought after composers.
The music is, like the effects, well balanced in all 5.1 channels. Fidelity is nearly perfect. Dialogue is audible and balanced well enough that I didn't once need to adjust the volume. The ambiance of city streets around the world is clear and tonally realistic. I honestly can't fathom a better mix for this particular film. Not a reference track for those who want to give their system a real work out, but a fine example of modern technology filtered through classic means of artistic creation.
For an extra bit of cash, those of us who really enjoyed the film can pick up this limited edition set. Basically the disc's producers have tightly crammed everything you'd ever want to know about the making of the film into just over eighty minutes of featurettes, seven in all. Really, this could've been one big documentary, but this kind of chapter chopping seems to be the norm on most of Spielberg's recent DVD releases.
Part one is an introduction from the man himself. Steve explains briefly the genesis of the project and his intentions as a filmmaker. This sections essentially stands as the director's defence against acquisitions of wrongful intent from both conservatives and liberals. He explains that the film is based on fact but that the events it depicts cannot be proven fact, so there is some creative discretion exercised.
Part two is entitled ‘The Mission, The Team’, and is kind of a recap of what the film is about and how the creative team built the script. It's a good example of why this really would've worked better as one large documentary because it lacks direct focus. It could've been easily mixed with part three, ‘Memories of the Event’. Here the producers give us more of a historical look at the Munich massacre itself. This was the most interesting part of the disc, and made me crave more fact-based material, but alas, I was whisked away to part four, ‘Portrait of an Era’.
This section chronicles the great lengths Spielberg and team went to in order to duplicate the age of polyester and bellbottoms. Producer Kathleen Kennedy politely describes the era as ‘unattractive’, and then excitedly explains that Europe looked a little better at the time. This is the section where Kaminski gets a chance to shine, explaining his process. After watching this I realized that this may be the last analogue film Spielberg will ever make. The film's look was produced by filters, gels, and film manipulation, not digital means.
Part five, ‘The On-Set Experience’, is a case of the section title dictating the content. Spielberg and company made this film on an insanely tight schedule, including over one hundred speaking parts, and several outdoor location shots. The majority of the sets were dressed to look like other countries, but on occasion the crew shot on location, as in Paris, where you can see a non-digital Eiffel Tower behind the actors. The producers seem to agree that the director works best at a break-neck pace, and that his first instinct is usually his best.
Part six is entitled ‘The International Cast’, and chronicles the selection of the hundred plus speaking parts. Most of the actors are relative unknowns in America, and seem to have all been shocked with Spielberg’s work ethic and pace. I have to agree that the international make-up adds authenticity to the film, even if actors are constantly playing characters from outside their actual nationalities. Bana describes the on-set experience as a trip to the United Nations.
The features are concluded with part six, ‘Editing, Sound and Music’, which is also pretty self-explanatory. The most intriguing thing about this section is the fact that post-production was in process at the same time as on-set production. The film was being edited as it was filmed, something Spielberg devotees will remember the director has done since the days of Jaws. We are also privy to sound man Burtt working his magic, which really should've been presented in 5.1 audio so it could be fully appreciated. Burtt explains the basis for some of the film's more unworldly sounds in his usual monotone drawl. And things are wrapped up with Spielberg praising Williams' sub-par score, and defending the aging composer, who was coming off Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, and Memoirs of a Geisha when he agreed to score Munich. Poor guy.
Munich gets my vote as best picture of 2005, although I didn't actually see most of the most critically lauded films last year. It represents a controlled and mature turn from one of history's finest directors, and features some amazing cinematography. The international cast is uniformly terrific, headed by Eric Bana who deserves to be one of Hollywood's top talents. This Limited Edition DVD isn't stuffed with features, but there's enough behind the scenes footage to offer an insight into the work ethic of geniuses. Less rabid fans of the film should be content with the single-disc release, which features a solid and subtle Dolby Digital track and a perfectly representational video transfer.
Personally, I hope Spielberg continues to challenge himself with work like this. There are so many slam-dunk opportunities awaiting him ( Indiana Jones IV, ahem) that I can't help but wonder if he's exhausted himself with his last two features. Here's too more adult drama from the master of intuition.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 9th May 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English and French, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Extras: An Introduction by Steven Spielberg, Munich: The Mission, The Team, Munich: Memories of the Event, Munich: Portrait of an Era, Munich: The On-Set Experience, Munich: The International Cast, Munich: Editing, Sound and Music
Easter Egg: No
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler
Length: 164 minutes
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