2005 will be remembered for a quartet of fine films about international connectedness: The Constant Gardener, Lord of War, Syriana, and now Munich, Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited, controversial look at Mideast terrorism.
Munich’s basic structure as adventure tale/psychological thriller comes from Vengeance, a book by Canadian journalist George Jonas which, although disputed by some, purports convincingly (I’ve read it) to be true. Playwright/co-scriptwriter Tony Kushner (Angels of America) was no doubt responsible for the film’s poetic flourishes. Some are seamless (the cheer of “Mazeltov” to mark both the birth of a baby and the death of a target), and some self-indulgent (sexual orgasm as metaphor for conscience). Munich‘s flaws are minor and easily overlooked. Overall, it’s a masterful work — complex, convincing and amazingly easy to understand.
It was more than 33 years ago, October 5, 1972, when Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. In the following years, Palestinian terrorists throughout Europe were mysteriously assassinated. Never proven, but commonly suspected, is that the deaths were the work of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
Munich, “inspired by real events,” is the story of a five-man team authorized by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, The Station Agent) to eliminate 11 men connected to the Munich massacre. “Munich changes everything,” Meir’s character says. “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
The team has unlimited funds and carte blanche to choose its methods. Unlike the random slaughter wrought by terrorists, Israeli counter-terrorists pride themselves on surgical precision. Small bombs send an unmistakable message, but up-close murder — two shots from a .22 — is equally effective. The team crisscrosses Europe, chasing its quarry from city apartment to seaside villa. Helping them is a far-flung, powerful underground of outsiders run by rich French men who hate all governments and sell their services to the highest bidder. Devoid of the rationale of patriotic passion, Louis (Mathieu Amalric, La Moustache) and “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale, The Name of the Rose) are the most chilling characters in the film.
Unlike make-believe spies, real-life intelligence operatives are prized for their ordinariness, their ability to melt into the crowd. In haunting, nuanced performances, the superb actors in Munich capture the eerie banality of people who kill for a living. The team leader is the youngest member, former commando Avner (Eric Bana, Troy), son of a Mossad father and a mother who can’t forget “those who died in the camps.” Carl (Ciaran Hinds, The Phantom of the Opera) is the cleanup man who ensures no evidence is left behind. Document forger Hans (Hanss Zichler, Undercover) starts an antique business to serve as the team’s front. Toymaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz, Amen) builds bombs with more dedication than experience. Hot-headed driver Steve (Daniel Craig, The Jacket) believes nothing is wrong if it’s done for Israel. He is convinced, “If they live, Israel will die,” echoing the mantra of Ephraim, their enigmatic case officer (Geoffrey Rush, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers).
“Terrorists and counter-terrorists inhabit two different worlds,” writes Vengeance author Jonas. “They are not the same. Counter-terrorists murder murderers.”
Alas, such fine moral distinctions get lost as Munich‘s story progresses. No matter how careful the team is, innocent bystanders are killed. Some of the members begin to question their assignment. “Jews don’t do wrong because wrong has been done to us — we are supposed to be righteous,” one cries. But their descent down the screw of violence is the nature of the job. And so is futility: Their efforts don’t halt terrorist attacks against Israel, which, in fact, escalate. “Every man we killed has been replaced by another,” Avner anguishes.
Munich has been criticized from all sides: Its humanization of terrorists is pro-Palestine… Its humanization of counter-terrorists is pro-Israel… Spielberg is a liberal, so his film must be anti-Bush… He’s an American Jew, so it has to be anti-Palestine… Sigh. You’ll find whatever message you want — or don’t want — in Munich.
Truth is, Spielberg’s laudatory attempt at evenhandedness is so meticulous, the movie is overlong as a result. But patient viewers will be rewarded. Munich is fascinating onscreen, difficult to deal with afterwards, and impossible to ignore or forget. Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller