Munich (2005, Steven Spielberg)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When I saw this film theatrically, by myself at a midnight screening in January 2006, the trailers positioned before it at my screening included one for the controversial Flight 93 (later retitled United 93), an uneasy beginning to the new phase in which Hollywood believed 9/11 was old enough news to be fair game for an action movie from an A-list director, Paul Greengrass (swiftly followed some months later by Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center). The trailer was ceaselessly unpleasant, using nothing but air traffic control images while sound clips from cell phone calls on the flight raced around the 5.1 surround speakers. I’m not sure how well this was taken at the time but it seemed tawdry in the moment, in a way that Greengrass’ eventual film, however pointless it may have been, did not.

Be that as it may, the act of being confronted with what in this era still felt like a fresh wound for most Americans, even those with no real connections to it besides the ones sold to us at length by the media, ended up being a rather salient prelude to a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the moral and spiritual muck that terrorism and retaliation invite; how, after all, did my discomfort in the pleasantly well-heated movie theater as a sheltered 22 year-old white American food services worker compare to the constant reminders of instability that surrounds everyone around my age and in my class in that part of the world? I thought of myself as one of the good guys — opposed to Bush and the Iraq War, passionately anti-war in general, and broadly disgusted by nationalism, though if I had any thoughts about Israel and Palestine they weren’t particularly deep, I was just here for a night at the movies — but that this unexpected reminder of 9/11 elicited such a strong response in me at all suggested that I was no more immune than anyone else to feeling as if some strike on my country, with or without moral justification, was a censure of sorts against me. United 93 would finally go down as Hollywood’s first truly direct reaction to the 9/11 attacks, but Steven Spielberg’s Munich should be remembered as the movie that really captured the emotional shakiness of those times, despite the fact that it takes place in 1972.

As the film’s title indicates, it hinges upon the massacre of Israeli athletes that took place at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany, but this actual event really, apart from flashbacks, occupies only the first twenty minutes of the picture — which are almost assuredly its weakest, however competent they are. It’s here that director Spielberg shows his traditional stylistic fallbacks most glaringly, the presentation of news clips and of iconic figures (particularly Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who’s treated with slightly over-the-top reverence, at least in her actual onscreen appearances as played by Lynn Cohen) of the relevant period possessive of a “hey, remember this? and what about this?” quality that would also show up a decade later in The Post; none of the actual content is especially troublesome but the manner of capturing and editing it feels simultaneously rote and confusing in a way that doesn’t bode well for the film to follow. But from there, we fire off into the intense story of the barely-qualified Mossad bodyguard Avner (Eric Bana) and his quest with four others, none of them trained assassins (or bomb-makers, or cooks), to avenge the deaths of the Olympic players by murdering eleven people Mossad has deemed responsible — an important distinction, as the connection some targets have to the event is revealed to be tenuous at best — all done covertly without the organization’s direct involvement aside from their generous funding. The mission quickly goes off the rails, with innocent victims, clueless recklessness, vaguely nefarious sources, all the marks of a group of men who don’t really know what they’re doing, and eventually the picking off of their own ranks one by one — and most perversely, all this mess and unfocused destruction is still considered a full-on success by the troupe’s secret bosses.

The violent, deliberately morally confusing film that results recalls, more than any Spielberg film since Duel, the thematically similar work of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular his little-known but excellent Maugham adaptation Secret Agent, also about a non-spy — a writer — sent out to kill people for the government whose conscience begins to rattle and sicken him after the trail of death and waves of complication caused by his work become clear to him. Munich fuses this sensibility with the minutely detailed, fiendishly intricate excitement of Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal, equally exploiting the sense of fascination of being allowed a glimpse of such secretive operations, even cruel or violent ones; and the complete ideological breakdowns of The French Connection, in which we gradually become unsure if the hero cop we’re following is even a half-decent person, much less a hero. All that said, this is very distinctly a Spielberg film, and one of his best: no one defines characters so adroitly, sometimes in mere seconds; no one directs an action setpiece like him or launches into an indelible, enigmatic interlude the way he does — for instance, the sequence in France when we meet the father of Avner’s main information source, Louis, whose family and organization have no national allegiance; or a shockingly lurid but totally galvanizing sideline involving a hired killer from the Netherlands played by Marie-Josée Croze. Or observe the way that we have a full understanding of how each of the five Mossad killers (the others are courtesy of Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler), without excessive overexplanation, react and respond inwardly to the violence and increasing ambiguity of their undertaking. It needs no laying out because it is built into each of their performances and into the way they are situated and narratively aligned within the film, rivetingly so.

Spielberg is correctly recognized as perhaps the cinema’s all-time greatest poet of the action sequence, responsible in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in other hands would almost certainly have been a forgettable film, for some of the most unspeakably impressive such moments since William Wyler sent Charlton Heston et al. running laps in Ben-Hur. Numerous fluidly designed and blocked scenes in this film indicate he lost nothing in the intervening decades, but this is hardly a fresh insight. What he gets less credit for is this: of all popular directors of the last few decades, he may be the most intelligent in terms of the use of screen violence. He understands the primal appeal and the repugnant ugliness of it and is able to exploit both simultaneously. There are exhilarating blasts and deaths here that show how no amount of movie magic can conceal the waste and horror of the events depicted. A horrifying hotel blast offers some wrenchingly real pictures of life suddenly shattered. Later, the unforgettable sequence featuring Croze has a woman who has killed one of Avner’s partners being slaughtered as she attempts to bargain with the Mossad agents using sex. She finally collapses on a chair nude and limp, covered in blood, and one of her killers closes her bathrobe before another insists that he leave it open as revenge for the way she left her own victim lying pathetically in bed. Of all the rough spots in Munich, this is the hardest one to escape. And what matters is that, whatever else these men are, and whatever prompted their actions, there is no mistaking what they are in this moment; there is no room for denial, and the film makes that culpability absolutely impossible to escape.

And this, inevitably, ruffled feathers. In the conservative talk-radio vision of the world, the only options are to be blindly pro-Israel or to be anti-Semitic, and in the aftermath of Munich‘s release Spielberg, Academy Award-winning director of Schindler’s List, was painted as the latter. This despite the fact that the film hedges quite a bit on its dark view of the assassination program, insofar as it doesn’t really acknowledge anyone in the fight as politically or ideologically “superior” per se and at one point even has Bana parroting some propagandistic Zionist statements to a Palestinian he has a lengthy conversation with at a supposed safe house (set up for his group, and apparently for others at the same time, by his French contact) that play, certainly these days, as downright repugnant — the usual party lines about God and destiny and, most ludicrously, how “there are lots of places for Arabs.” To his credit Spielberg doesn’t exactly underline this as totally righteous; he gives sparring partner Ali (a gracious Omar Metwally in a thankless part) the last word and some discomfortingly vicious editorials of his own, and elsewhere depicts Avner as being blindly patriotic in origin, a condition that fades a bit in the course of the film (in contrast to his partner Steve, who right up to the end of the film is proclaiming “Jewish blood” to be the only blood that matters), but he doesn’t exactly sell the anti-Palestinian view as any sort of failing on his conflicted hero’s part either. He’s quite careful, almost slavishly so, to present “both sides”; and in fairness, the film is about a violent terrorist attack and its aftermath, but it also investigates the perceived justification for that attack without demonizing either its perpetrators or the semi-fictional men who avenged it — it would be insane to claim it has some sort of radical or even leftist position on the conflict overall. Yet this wasn’t enough; the film was broadly painted as an attack on Israel by the usual gang of idiots who’ve never done any kind of critical thinking in their lives.

But more importantly, that’s not even what the film is about; it would be impossible, even for such a filmmaker as Steven Spielberg, to wring a worthy thriller out of a mere rant. The specifics are crucial, but the real essence is within the underlying values and elemental clashes that they uncover. At times the “heroes” become monsters, and just as often, the people they are sent to assassinate are shown unmistakably as people, people with thoughts and hearts and lives; a little girl playing the piano, a discussion about the beautiful evening, a bag of groceries, all the signs of what we don’t want to humanize because it hurts too much. Munich may not be a strictly pro-peace parable; but it explicitly calls into question the purpose of killing for vengeance, killing for government, and most of all, killing for religious belief. The senselessness is claustrophobic, but so is the logic that allows it to continue, the way these things have persisted longer than any of us have been alive and how therefore they “must” go on.

Aside from an impeccable cast of mostly character actors (Daniel Craig was not yet a star at this moment, Casino Royale hitting theaters mere months later), with Bana delivering a particularly nuanced and well-controlled performance that’s ultimately the film’s most broadly powerful element, the director is aided tremendously by his usual crew; editor Michael Kahn’s work is flawless as always; Janusz Kaminski’s remarkable photography, despite the use of a blown-out color palette that unfortunately does date the film, generally gives the production a sense of nightmarish immediacy; and even John Williams offers one of the subtlest, finest scores of his career. These three, the screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, and Spielberg himself force us to linger on what most would skirt past, while never allowing the film to stop being the story of a man, the family he leaves, and the juxtaposition of his increasing maturity with an external world that invites his most black and white ideals to fester.

Munich, its story’s deliberate disorganization marked by the abandonment of its initial structure of the systematic location of eleven people and the destruction of each of them, ends with a quick title card describing the aftermath of the events depicted in the film, before panning over to a shot of the intact Twin Towers, over which the credits begin to roll, a moment that’s distressingly “neat” in a film that otherwise refuses such boxing in. The message, as an outgrowth of earlier comments from various characters and real-life figures about the world beginning to listen to decades of grievances from the Arab world about the many and myriad crimes against it, is obvious, though not absent of irony given how much the events of 9/11 itself caused even further marginalization of Arab and Muslim peoples and culture in the West. Full disclosure: at the time I was blown away by the catharsis of it, the opposite reaction I’d had at the Flight 93 preview three hours earlier; it probably bears mentioning that I also really liked Oskar Schindler’s “I could have…” monologue the first time I saw Schindler’s List. Today it seems like the most pointlessly on-the-nose and tastelessly Spielbergian flourish of the whole film, and all these years removed there’s no doubt the film would be better off without that line being explicitly drawn, especially now that the preoccupations of those times seem ever more distant with each passing day, and as 9/11 starts to become just another historical event like the Munich massacre itself. We don’t have those associations to make that moment especially resonant anymore, if it ever even was to people less naive than I was at the time; luckily, the rest of Munich doesn’t require resonance within modern-day headlines to succeed on its own terms, and after a decade and a half its moral questioning and storytelling mastery have proven themselves enduring in a way that few other artifacts of its time are.

***

[Heavily expanded from a review posted in 2006.]

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