Knowing that I was going to a Steven Spielberg film, I was expecting something perfected to manipulate the audience into tears: a carefully engineered drama, a bit too pushy sentimentality, and between that lots of action professionally choreographed to keep you amused. At the end, a director's message too loud and bolded for my taste.
However I was completely and totally surprised! Instead we got a realistic, serious and questioning film! Everything that the audience had to gain as a message and a contemplation was hidden naturally and subtly - in the characters' fullness.
Five ordinary recruits in the military - not the trained Mosad field operatives - have decided to give up themselves for those things that give life a destiny, a cause and fulfillment: ...duty, beliefs, Past, Future, feeling for obligation to the ancestors and a sacrifice for those to come after...
Just as any ordinary Jews would.
Yet, as they proceed with their mission, that world gradually falls apart. They loose touch with the myths that shaped their life, that motivated them to accept this mission on the first place! The ordinary men are strongly affected by the very nature of the deeds they have taken upon themselves, even if they still find those deeds fully justified. They slowly break out of their ordinarity and innocence. ...to whatever is lying beyond. In several excellently acted shots Avner, returning home and hailed as a hero, discovers the abyss that has grown between his evolved self and the eulogical pride of his peers, family and superiors. What used to make sense to him, as it still does to his countrymen, has dissolved by too many a crossing the limits. Crossing the limits when exceptions -had- to be made. Exceptions from law and from conscience. From righteousness.
For, in each murder the agents are not lucky enough "to simply kill an enemy" (today the laguage would be even more distanced - perhaps "eliminate a terrorist"). We are intimately with them as they have to take the ultimate decision to convert the breathing, fleshed, intelligent, warm, human, talking in his fright with body most sincerely, human. Human, to this moment full of memory and hope - ...to convert him into a dead corpse. To choose the moment they will cut away a future: now or 2 seconds later? ...or never.
Although later they try to avoid the shock of face-to-face execution by planting bombs, the Fate (director) each time leads them and us to discover the target as a human being. The overpowering blasts are incredibly realistic, both physically and psychologically!
The cinematography is amazing, the cities of Europe are recreated in a feast of visuals! With slightly unrealistic beauty they possess some fairytale quality! Spielberg manages to create a mythical dream about 70's Europe! He made me wish to go back in time when the terrorists, secret services and even cities were more innocent, human and romantic. Nostalgic.
This is contrasted by the series of powerful still shots of the consequence of murder. However they are all unenforced as if slipping unintentionally in the field of view of the camera. The most symbolic ones as if unwittingly distracted the cameraman's attention from his task of filming and made him stop there for a second, on an image that in my opinion could take its place in a photography exhibition. Thus every single death makes its point to us as well as it does to the protagonists.
This achievement is mirrored in the dialogue! The film abounds with crystallized one-liners by people fully aware of the tragedy of their self-destruction. Also, remarkably, the writers did an effort in putting us in the context of Israeli and Palestinian emotional worlds, to spare us from abstract moralizing and judgement on their violence and readiness for self-sacrifice. Unfortunatey, this "from-above" attitude is commonly prevailing in the placated West of today when watching on TV the news from Middle East.
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