Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Geoffrey Rush
MPAA Rating: (for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language)
Running Time: 2:44
Release Date: 12/23/05 (limited); 1/6/06 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Since the start of the millennium, Steven Spielberg—arguably our greatest modern cinematic storyteller—has honed his ability to tap into the more complex and sometimes darker side of humanity, and with Munich, he has crafted perhaps his most artistically and thematically mature work to date. Munich is devastating in its vision of political strife concentrated down to its fundamental human core. The film sees international conflict as an extension of that all-too human craving for revenge and how, when acted upon, those feelings not only result in furthering tensions and clashing but also in the utter annihilation of the souls of those directly participating in the fight. Spielberg and screenwriters Tony Kushner (the playwright's exceptional film debut in which he is not adapting his own work—here working off a novel by George Jonas) and Eric Roth do not take sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that still rages to this day but present both parties in a similar light, a choice that has already called political groups on both sides to arms. The result is less a simplistic call for peace than a poignant and melancholy reflection of how two groups of people, each with that desperate human longing for a home, can look right past their similarities and hope for the destruction of the other.
The film opens in the early morning hours of September 5, 1972 as eight members of the Palestinian Black September group, disguised as athletes, are let into the Munich Olympic Village compound by a group of American athletes, believing the men are looking for the beer garden. The men break into the lodgings of eleven sleeping Israeli Olympiads and take them hostage after killing two. The media coverage is unprecedented, and as the world watches, news that all the hostages are safe and the terrorists are dead is eventually replaced with Jim McKay's simple statement, "They're all gone." The nine hostages are murdered, and five of the terrorists are killed in a standoff with German police. Watching the tragedy as it unfolds are Avner (Eric Bana), an Israeli intelligence officer, and his pregnant wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer).. Avner is soon presented with an opportunity to avenge the deaths of the eleven athletes when Mossad agent Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) offers him the job of disappearing from the world to assassinate eleven men Israeli intelligence believes to be responsible for the Munich massacre. He and his team of four will ensure that justice is carried out.
To accomplish their mission, Avner and his team traverse across Europe, hunting down the people on their list. Our introduction to the story proper is in the form and style of an international thriller, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski providing a gritty but polished 1970s' cinema look. Spielberg follows each assassination from planning to execution, and we see the progression of the agents' skill. The opening kill is fairly simple, as Avner confronts the mark face-to-face in the lobby of his apartment. His gun shakes, and he cannot pull the trigger immediately, giving the target a chance to talk for a bit. Perhaps because of the initial moral difficulty of killing someone while looking them in the eyes or to lessen the chances of being caught, they begin to distance themselves with the use of explosives with the expertise of team member Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), who in his previous life made toys. One of their cardinal rules at first is to keep innocents out of the line of fire, as we see in the second killing when they abort a mission when the target's young daughter answers the phone rigged to explode. Eventually, this rule becomes secondary, and in one explosion, a newly married couple is blinded by an accidentally larger blast than had been intended.
Things on that level become much worse as the film progresses (the screenplay eliminates a few real-life mistakes involving civilian or accidental casualties, but the point remains nonetheless), and by the end, we are left to ponder if most of the listed targets had any direct dealing with the Munich massacre in the first place. This eventual shift in perception is all the more challenging because the film takes such an unbiased view of the larger conflict surrounding this specific episode. We have a glimpse of this presentation of the material near the beginning when we see a shot of Palestinian families mourning after it is wrongly announced that all of the Black September members have died. As the film progresses, we see each target participating in their lives. One is an intelligent writer. Another is a family man, and because of the initial scare of his daughter accidentally being killed, we see him as a father. Another casually talks to Avner on the balcony before the planned attack. In one intensely personal scene with a group of Palestinians staying at the same safe house as Avner and his men, one of them talks to Avner about the Palestinian need for a home, one to which an Israeli like Avner, whose mother survived the Holocaust, can most certainly relate.
So it is under these circumstances of the mission that the team morale slowly begins to transition from a naïve sense of justice to a more cynical outlook and personal decline. At first, Avner blindly follows orders. He has a list; these men must die. There's no question about the validity of the decision. Eventually, Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the crew's clean-up man, states his concerns about and questions Israel's execution of the plan, which is met with the consternation of the outspokenly supportive Steve (Daniel Craig). As Palestinian reprisals for the assassinations hit the news and another group begins to systematically hunt down Avner's squad, the men all begin to doubt the righteousness of their actions, and in one scene of anguish, Robert confesses to Avner that he simply cannot participate anymore in fear of losing his soul. Avner is our window into the personal conflict befalling the crew, and Eric Bana portrays his moral decay with haunting precision. Spielberg bookends Avner's psychological downfall with a recreation of the Munich murders. At first, it provides Avner motivation for taking on the mission, but when he recalls it while making love to his wife near the end of the film, he has become defined and consumed by Munich.
Munich has no easy answers and is not looking for any. Spielberg is often criticized for finding happy or at least hopeful endings to his films no matter what has come before, and so it is fascinating that with Munich the director makes no such move. There is no shred of hope, because there are no winners in this situation, even success will leave permanent remnants of and result in suffering. As one character intones, "There is no peace at the end of this," and that—in the simplest and saddest of terms—is more than likely the truth.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.