In MUNICH, Steven Spielberg has created an intensely profound, if somewhat flawed, work. Moral debates about right and wrong abound with as many variations as there are characters to expound them, and there are many of both. The message, though, is unequivocal. Killing is an awful business that kills more than the victim, it also kills the soul of the person performing the act. The question of MUNICH is, therefore, what is worth paying that price? And the answer, equally unequivocal, is home, whatever form that entity might take. And thereby hangs the thorny dilemma of MUNICH, summed up in one of the many surreal conversations that its hero, Avner (Eric Bana) engages in during his mission. Questioning a Palestinian terrorist who is unaware of Avner’s true identity as an Israeli, he asks him if he really wants his father’s piece of chalky land with an olive tree on it, a piece of land that he has never seen. Yes, is the answer, it’s my home, and if I don’t get it, my children or their children will, if it takes 1000 years.
It opens with the massacre of Israeli athletes by the Palestinian group Black September at the 1972 Olympic Games. The screen fills with actual footage including the commentary by Jim McKay and Peter Jennings on the scene as hostages are taken, transported, and finally slaughtered on the tarmac of an airport. The reality of what happened, and the motive for what happens next, indelibly etched on the screen not as history, but provocation. In reaction, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, presiding over a cabinet meeting, sadly, pragmatically admits that there are circumstances that force a civilization to make compromises with its ideals.
She’s just as sad when she meets with the agent of that compromise, Avner, a Mossad agent who was her favorite bodyguard, and who now is asked to take a mission he must accept before learning that it is to assassinate the 11 people responsible for the Munich massacre.
He accepts, leaving Israel and his wife and unborn child behind, and is put in charge of four other agents, a toymaker turned bombmaker (Mathieu Kassovitz), an antiques dealer who is also an expert documents forger (Hans Zischler), a clean-up guy to make sure that all traces are removed after the kill (Ciaran Hinds), and a weapons expert (Daniel Craig) who, when it comes to collateral damage, has no qualms admitting that the only blood that matters to him is Jewish blood. Nonetheless, they scrupulously avoid killing anyone else, but that’s something that, like everything else in their lives, becomes relative. The odd exhilaration of that first kill plays out as the team, using biblical references, earnestly discusses whether or not it is right to rejoice at their success. It’s an ongoing discussion that eventually evolves into defining under what circumstance people with the targets become fair game themselves.
The action itself, full of unlikely alliances and improbable détentes, plays out like a thriller, each assassination equally terrifying for different reasons, exacerbated by a sense of paranoia that becomes a palpable entity in an atmosphere where no one outside the team can be trusted. The increasing sense of imminent, if not actual betrayal from without creates a claustrophobic sense of camaraderie on the team.
It starts in sunlight for Avner, with his case officer (Geoffrey Rush) explaining the details of his mission as they walk about a beachfront, including the necessity of getting receipts (we’re a small country, kvetches a bureaucrat). It’s all sunlight and laughing children and army types with guns guarding the scene. In the course of mission, Avner, who is established as a decent human being, never loses his zeal, but he does, predictably begin to lose his soul. That predictability is neatly sidestepped with the way it plays out, from the terror of his first kill to a calm hope expressed months later and over a dinner that he’s obsessively prepared for more than the number of people present, that one day he won’t care at all, spoken with an earnestness that reeks of the coldness he longs for and that he has almost achieved. By the end, he’s empty, reflected the film’s palette, which has subtly transformed into an overexposed and grainy vista, colors bleached out into a ghost of themselves.
Throughout, the film forces us to watch the slaughter in Munich in bits and pieces interspersed along the main timeline in which the Israelis kill off the perpetrators of that tragedy. And this forces us to do something else, something disturbing on whole other level beyond mere gore and violence. The carnage of one strikes a familiar and jarring resonance with the other, the dedication, the willingness to give up everything in order to kill strangers.
Less successful, and frankly puzzling, is a correspondence made between the final bloodbath in Munich and a scene of aggressive sexual coupling. The usual Spielberg schmaltz is evident, too, but reined in, comparatively, and even mocked at one point.
MUNICH posits a stark world where violence breeds violence in a never-ending Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest, or, more directly, to teach the world that they shouldn’t mess with the Jews (though the word used by the character expressing the sentiment, while also having four letters, isn’t “mess”). At the same time, and beyond the moral question of who has forfeited the right to live, is how the film depicts the horror involved in the process of taking a human life. Justification, even justice, falls to the wayside as an assassin looks into the eyes of the dying man or woman and in that moment, the sheer sacredness of life becomes irrefutable, and the taking of it a fearful thing. By making this point so forcefully, Spielberg performs his mitzvah. He doesn’t create a fantasy world of tidy, happy endings. Rather, he pays appropriate tribute to those who fight the good fight and then have to live with the consequences that we’d rather not know about.
Click here for the DVD review of MUNICH.