..Gary Dretzka
Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

Munich Sets The Tone

In the last four years of Oscar, except one, there was a moment when the winner of the ultimate prize became crystal clear. The moment I saw the trailer for A Beautiful Mind, the die was cast. It had the size, the industry muscle, and the emotion that made it undeniable… even able to hold up against malicious attacks. (And even though I was not a fan of the film, which felt to me like a muscular Movie Of the Week.) Lord of the Rings: Return of The King won the Oscar the day after ABC signed off following Chicago's win. (Chicago is the odd film out, as many of us still believe that the race was very close and that a late starting campaign for The Pianist needed another couple of weeks to pass Chicago for the Best Picture win.) And the minute I saw the third act of Million Dollar Baby last year, the entire race had changed composition and the win was inevitable.

None of us will see Munich for a few weeks. But after finally getting to watch the trailer in Hi-Def Quicktime a few times, I have very few doubts. Munich is a prohibitive frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Picture on March 5, 2006.

But here's the thing.

The film that "has to" win doesn't always win. Steven Spielberg has already had this experience with Saving Private Ryan getting upset by the lightweight Shakespeare in Love. At least this year, the soft sister that threatens his win is also a film he also happened to exec produce… Memoirs of a Geisha.


This trailer has a lot to chew on.

First, it leads with the iconic Jim McKay footage of the Munich murders. But even before the "They're all gone" line, Spielberg has slipped in footage of his own as the suspects are taken away by German police, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski matching the archival footage.

Next, we get a moment with Golda Meir, played by Lynn Cohen, in a performance that has yet to turn up on the Oscar radar, but could catch a Supporting Actress nod if there are a few good scenes. What this actress, a New York stage performer heretofore best known for playing Miranda's nanny on Sex & The City, does in just a few lines is very, very effective. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."

This is not a film about Israel or kick ass Jews. This is a film about America in 2005. This film clearly intends to force its viewers to ask ourselves the question, which continues to be asked throughout the trailer in less direct ways, "Have we compromised our own values? Are we willing to take responsibility?"

The team is assembled. Here again Spielberg's casting is universal. Bana, an Australian, is the leader. Daniel Craig, a Brit, is the getaway driver. Irishman Ciaran Hinds is the "clean-up" guy. German Hanns Zischler is the document forger. And French ator/director Mathieu Kassevitz is the bomb guy.

We get into some of the wet work. And we have seen some of this stuff before. But it's really good stuff. It's The Guns of Navarone and Day of The Jackal and The Odessa File and Marathon Man and The Bourne Supremacy. And in many ways, it is The French Connection and Patton and In The Heat of The Night. Throw in a little Platoon and The Deer Hunter.

"It's strange to think of one's self as an assassin," says the 58-year-old forger.

"Think of yourself as something else then," responds the 37-year-old leader.

All of Bana's crew seems to face the soulful challenge. But Bana, the father, the husband, the hero, is where the focus of the heart lies.


The competition is filled with worthwhile and potentially worthwhile movies. But the film that threatens Munich is Memoirs of A Geisha, not necessarily on quality, but on the basis of it filling the "beautiful epic" slot that no other film really seems to fill. And the movie that could really increase the danger for Munich is Syriana. If it can get nominated for Best Picture, it could siphon off votes from the thematically related Spielberg movie.

The odd thing, to me, is that my sureness about Munich somehow draws Memoirs of a Geisha to it as its main competitor. They are natural opponents. Perhaps it is that both films are from filmmakers whose films have won the big award before. Perhaps it is that both carry the weight of a world of history and not just internal America stories.

It's not that Sony is any more committed to Geisha than other studios are to their films. Or even that I expect to love it. (I do expect to feel about Munich as I felt about the best Frankenheimer, Friedkin, or if lucky, Coppola.) It just feels like that movie… the velvet… the place Academy members always want to go.

Do you love Capote? Good Night, And Good Luck? Walk The Line? Brokeback Mountain? Crash? Constant Gardener? Etcetera? Congratulations. You could well see your film nominated. But it seems very unlikely that any of these films can win against these two films.

The race for the other three slots is very, very real and will likely be a bit of a mystery - unless Walk The Line asserts itself strongly in the next two weeks - until the very morning of the Oscar nominations.


Going back to The Guns of Navarone…. that film was nominated for Best Picture of 1962. But it, The Hustler, and Judgment at Nuremberg were all beat by West Side Story.

Even now, you could get into a bar fight about which film any group of people would think is best or even most important. And the last 23 years of Oscar don't make a clear case for how the Academy will swing on "must wins" with a strong film of opposing style in competition.

I picked 13 examples and the only thing that is consistent is that none of the overtly political films won.

Patton is the closest to a political statement, but it beat the far more politically charged M*A*S*H* (and Five Easy Pieces).

In The Heat of the Night dealt with race, but Guess Who's Coming To Dinner spoke to it more directly. (Also losing to it were Bonnie & Clyde & The Graduate.)

Chariots of Fire beat Reds.

My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove and Becket.

Shakespeare In Love beat Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.

Gladiator beat Erin Brockovich and Traffic.

Chicago beat The Pianist

Braveheart beat Apollo 13.

Rocky beats All The President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver.

Rain Man best Mississippi Burning and Dangerous Liaisons.

Silence of the Lambs beat JFK.

Million Dollar Baby beat The Aviator.

This factoid seems to lean towards Geisha. Yet none of these winners seem to have the intimate epic feel that Geisha is going for.

Arguing against both films is the Academy's lack of international vision. There was a brief period in which the Academy reached out with wins for Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, and The Last Emperor. All four were biopics of well-known people or, in the case of The Last Emperor, a person in a story that had historic significance. And interestingly, two of the male leads, John Lone and Robert Redford were not nominated. The number of other winners set outside of the U.S. without an American in the lead role? Zero. Still, this factoid seems to lean toward Munich, a real life story of historic significance.

Not a single Best Picture winner in the last 25 years was without a lead actor for which to campaign (though in eight of those years, the lead actor of the Best Picture winner wasn't even nominated). That would make Geisha a first. Advantage Munich.

And oh boy, is there a lot of death in the movies that have won. Only four of the last 25 winners do not have death or war as a central part of the story. I'm sure someone will die dramatically in Geisha, but Munich wins the body count hands down.


Of course, there is still room for another shift. Spielberg could make his film too long or it could be perceived, as some fear, as anti-Zionist. Geisha could have too small a heart. Or The New World could turn out to speak to the American heart in a more profound way for a larger group than previous work by Terrence Malick has.

Munich feels unbeatable… even when, in many ways, it goes against convention. It reads like an Eastwood film, deconstructing the political thriller the way Unforgiven deconstructed the western and Million Dollar Baby deconstructed the boxing film.

But how does Gladiator beat Traffic and Erin Brockovich? How does Rocky beat Network and All The President's Men? Or put the opposite way, how much did The Thin Red Line take off of Saving Private Ryan when Ryan lost to Shakespeare?

Munich probably can't be beat by Geisha head-to-head. But watch out for Syriana as the spoiler. And look to December 7, the date by which Munich and The New World will finally be revealed to eager awards voters.

In the meantime, let's keep fighting over the runners up… it's going to be a bumpy, confusing ride. There will be a lot of "fucking Merlot" drunk in a lot of hotel ballrooms before anything close to a consensus is drawn.

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- Email David Poland



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