Brilliantly conceived, superbly directed, and beautifully acted, Babel is inarguably one of the best films of 2006. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his co-writer, Guillermo Arriaga (the two also collaborated on Amores Perros and 21 Grams) weave together the disparate strands of their story into a finely hewn fabric by focusing on what appear to be several equally incongruent characters: an American (Brad Pitt) touring Morocco with his wife (Cate Blanchett) become the focus of an international incident also involving a hardscrabble Moroccan farmer (Mustapha Rachidi) struggling to keep his two young sons in line and his family together. A San Diego nanny (Adriana Barraza), her employers absent, makes the disastrous decision to take their kids with her to a wedding in Mexico. And a deaf-mute Japanese teen (the extraordinary Rinko Kikuchi) deals with a relationship with her father (Koji Yakusho) and the world in general that's been upended by the death of her mother. It is perhaps not surprising, or particularly original, that a gun is the device that ties these people together. Yet Babel isn't merely about violence and its tragic consequences. It's about communication, and especially the lack of it--both intercultural, raising issues like terrorism and immigration, and intracultural, as basic as husbands talking to their wives and parents understanding their children. Iñárritu's command of his medium, sound and visual alike, is extraordinary; the camera work is by turns kinetic and restrained, the music always well matched to the scenes, the editing deft but not confusing, and the film (which clocks in at a lengthy 143 minutes) is filled with indelible moments. Many of those moments are also pretty stark and grim, and no will claim that all of this leads to a "happy" ending, but there is a sense of reconciliation, perhaps even resolution. "If You Want to be Understood... Listen," goes the tagline. And if you want a movie that will leave you thinking, Babel is it. --Sam Graham
At its core, Munich is a straightforward thriller. Based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas, its built on a relatively stock movie premise, the revenge plot: innocent people are killed, the bad guys got away with it, and someone has to make them pay. But director Steven Spielberg uses that as a starting point to delve into complex ethical questions about the cyclic nature of revenge and the moral price of violence. The movie starts with a rush. The opening portrays the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes by PLO terrorists at the 1972 Olympics with scenes as heart-stopping and terrifying as the best of any horror movie. After the tragic incident is over and several of the terrorists have gone free, the Israeli government of Golda Meir recruits Avner (Eric Bana) to lead a team of paid-off-the-book agents to hunt down those responsible throughout Europe, and eliminate them one-by-one (in reality, there were several teams). Its physically and emotionally messy work, and conflicts between Avner and his teams handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), over information Avner doesnt want to provide only make things harder. Soon the work starts to take its toll on Avner, and the deeper moral questions of right and wrong come into play, especially as it becomes clear that Avner is being hunted in return, and that his familys safety may be in jeopardy.
By all rights, Munich should be an unqualified success--it has gripping subject matter relevant to current events; it was co-written by one of Americas greatest living playwrights (Tony Kushner, Angels in America) and an accomplished screenwriter (Eric Roth); it stars an appealing and likeable actor in Eric Bana; and it was helmed by Steven Spielberg, of all people. While it certainly is a great movie, it falls just short of the immense heights such talent should propel it to. This is due more to some questionable plot devices than anything else (such as the contrived use of a family of French informants to locate the terrorists). But while certain aspects ring hollow, the movie as a whole is a profound accomplishment, despite being only "inspired by true events," and not factually based on them. From the ferocious beginning to the unforgettable closing shot, Munich works on a visceral level while making a poignant plea for peace, and issuing an unmistakable warning about the destructive cycle of terror and revenge. As one of the characters intones, "There is no peace at the end of this." --Daniel Vancini
A Mighty Heart
A Mighty Heart comes at the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl with a de-glamorised intensity: it's not a melodrama about Pearl's kidnapping and killing at the hands of Islamic terrorists, but a near-documentary about the process of trying to find him. Thus the center of the film is not Pearl (Dan Futterman) but his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie), a cool customer who manages--almost--to maintain her calm throughout the weeks-long ordeal. Director Michael Winterbottom is less overtly political here than in his Road to Guantanamo, although the reactions of various authorities, from U.S. officials to local Pakistani cops, give the flavour of different attitudes and approaches. Jolie, playing the Dutch-Afro-Cuban Mariane Pearl, does nicely at playing her character's control (others marvel at her sangfroid), yet she remains recognisably human throughout. By no means a star turn, the movie leaves Mariane for long stretches, and other actors shine: Irfan Khan as a detective, Denis O'Hare as Daniel Pearl's Washington Post editor, and Will Patton as a stymied diplomat. As engrossing as the movie generally is, the point of emphasising the police-procedural method is sometimes obscure. Oddly enough, by rejecting the usual string-pulling of conventional Hollywood drama, A Mighty Heart ends up without a strong point of view--as good as its pieces are. --Robert Horton