Steven Spielberg, USA, 2005
The final shot of Steven Spielberg’s Munich is set in 1973, and
shows the recently opened twin towers of the World Trade Center dominating
the Manhattan skyline. Clearly, this image was not chosen by accident.
Munich is ostensibly about Israel’s covert and ruthless response to the
September 1972 killing of eleven Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympic
Games by Black September terrorists. Through Mossad, agents are dispatched
to hunt down and murder individuals linked with Black September (or simply
connected to terrorism against the Jewish state, period). Obviously, Israel
has never formally acknowledged financing these targeted assassination hit
squads, but their existence has been well known for decades (the film is
partially based on journalist George Jonas’ divisive 1984 work Vengeance:
The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team). By closing the
film with an image of the gleaming symbols of 9/11, however, it’s obvious
that Spielberg and his collaborators have a decidedly post-20th-century
message on their minds. But this sort of 20/20 hindsight linkage regarding
the rise of modern terrorism (i.e., innocent civilians are now fair game)
oversimplifies a far more complex set of circumstances.
The danger with retrofitting a historical event with modern political
realities is the obfuscation of the cause-and-effect reaction that occurred
during the time the film documents. Black September did not create Osama bin
Laden any more than Jewish resistance in Palestine to Ancient Roman rule
influenced the hit-and-run tactics of German warriors against Roman legions
in Northern Europe. There is no terrorist blueprint. From state-sponsored
terrorism to comparatively humble factions of resistance, it is very
difficult -- if not downright impossible -- to pigeonhole a terrorist (an
obviously pejorative designation that can easily be flipped to “freedom
fighter” or, well, unpleasant as it may be for some, American
Worse, if Munich’s message that combating violence with violence only
begets more violence is an indictment of the Bush administration’s
aggressive (and incredibly far-flung) response to the 9/11 attacks, it’s
chosen the wrong historical incident to use as its sounding board. Israel’s
answer to the massacre of its athletes at Munich was clandestine and
specific, whereas the U.S. retort has been obvious and all-encompassing.
Again: Two different nations, two very different geo-political situations.
By choosing to connect the dots between the nascent modern terrorist tactics
of the early '70s and post-9/11 antiterrorism policy, the makers of
Munich have dwarfed a handsomely crafted, taut period thriller in the
vein of The Day of the Jackal and Three Days of the Condor.
(Consider how many words have already been spent in this review on
everything but the movie itself.)
In a nutshell: Eric Bana plays Avner, leader of a small group dispatched to
Europe to eliminate a list of Black September-affiliated targets. Bana’s
team consists of icy killer Steve (Daniel Craig), post-hit cleanup man Carl
(Ciarán Hinds), creative bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and
forger/occasional grenade-tosser Hans (Hanns Zischler). Spielberg and
co-screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth do a nice job humanizing these
characters, revealing their doubts, desires and concerns. Each hit requires
special challenges that must be meticulously considered and dealt with.
Naturally, as the team moves about various European locales, it draws
attention to itself and, unsurprisingly, the hunters soon become the hunted.
Munich also takes great pains to put a human face on not just the
targets of the Mossad-financed hit team but also the Black September agents
who carried out the Olympic assault. There’s no doubt Spielberg intends to
force audiences to question the “eye for an eye” rationale as seemingly
ordinary, and even outwardly likable, individuals are shot, battered and
blown to bits in retribution for their pro-Palestinian sympathies and
affiliations. No character questions the motivations of the team more than
Bana’s Avner, who accepts the assignment despite the fact that his wife is
seven months pregnant and knows he’ll be away for a protracted span of time.
Is Avner merely a “dutiful solider” following orders, or is he a passionate
Jew determined to defend the blood and land of his people? Well, he’s all of
these. But as the film goes on and Avner learns he’s being targeted -- which
by extension means his wife and newborn daughter might be jeopardy -- his
moral compass waffles quite a bit. As a dissection of the stress and
psychological damage such dirty work inflicts on an individual, Munich
is an unqualified triumph.
Violence is the most basic form of politics, and Munich understands
this. But the added baggage of the current state of the world amounts to
nothing more than overkill. It’s interesting to consider what sort of film
Munich might have been if Spielberg had made it in 1986, well before
American shores had been stained so dramatically by the bloody mark of those
trafficking in the lowest common denominator of political expression.
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