I’ve been struggling to find a way to describe Munich, Steven Spielberg’s latest film and surely one of his highest achievements. It’s a powerful film, and haunting, though without the contemporary setting of Syriana, the year’s other political treatise/mea culpa, and this works in Munich’s favor. Whereas Stephen Gaghan’s film is set in a woefully plausible near-future, Spielberg manages to show us the big picture by stepping back three decades. Knowing in advance how the story plays out in the history books, we can see again just how it’s affected us since then. It’s often easier to see the present through the lens of the past.
The story plays out in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, where Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes, and tells of the Mossad’s retaliation efforts and assassination attempts on the men who supposedly planned the attack. Freed of detail, it would be an ordinary revenge story, perhaps even some kind of fatalistic neo-noir, but it’s impossible to make that film. This is terrorism, and we’ve come so far and so little since Sept. 11, 2001, that to act as if the story is about anything less than the most important subject we face is an insult to the widows and orphans of everyone who’s ever died at the hands of a terrorist. Spielberg as much as alludes to this with the film’s stark opening: a swimming sea of names of cities victimized by terrorism, among them London, Amsterdam, and Jakarta, before the name of Munich is brought into blood-red focus. The events that happened there 33 years ago were horrific, yes, but the worse truth is that those events were few among thousands.
The killings at the Olympics are dealt with immediately and rapidly, as Spielberg, working from a script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, once again reminds us that he’s a master of pacing and storytelling. The film is a fictionalized version of true events, and the opening sequence features a dizzying blend of old newscasts with modern movie-making; everything looks real, as if it’s actually happening, and simultaneously removed from reality, lending the happenings an odd weight by acknowledging that we’re watching a story, and we know it. A few moments later, Avner (Eric Bana) is tapped by the Mossad to lead the retaliation effort, a decision reached in a meeting led by Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen). She utters the first of what will be the film’s many uncomfortable lines: “Forget peace for now,” she says, noting the historical precedent for a society’s denial of its own moral code to pursue what it perceives to be a greater good or victory. But Spielberg isn’t picking sides here; if anything, he’s just as disgusted by the Israeli response as he is the terrorism that provoked it. As one of Avner’s colleagues later states: “You think the Palestinians invented bloodshed? How do you think we got the land, by being nice?” This kind of escalating retaliation is insane, pointless, and deadly, Spielberg says, but we do it anyway because we tell ourselves it needs to be done.
Avner is a loving husband with a daughter on the way and, like most of Spielberg’s men, he has daddy issues. His father is never seen, but is often praised for his fighting for Israeli independence. Avner’s mother abandoned him at a kibbutz, where he was raised; as Avner’s wife puts it, he literally sees himself as Israel’s son. Assigned to lead a team of four other men in an ongoing and off-the-books mission to kill those responsible for the Munich murders, Avner sets out to make contacts throughout Europe and track down the names given him by the Mossad. Shaky at first, they begin to approach their assigned killings as business transactions: build a bomb, blow it up, grab a beer, take a shower, find the next man on the list. Their coldness is matched by Spielberg’s stark style. Each shot is nothing more than what it has to be, but nothing less than what it should be; like an old-school master, the director’s style is invisible at times, placing the emotion of the story above any need for self-congratulatory flair (for examples of the latter, see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
This is the real horror of Avner’s work: that he begins to view it as just another part of his day. Doubts begin to surface about some of their targets’ actual involvement with planning Munich, but Avner and company do their jobs anyway. There’s only one true revenge killing, carried out after one of Avner’s crew is killed, and it’s horrifying in its unflinching realness. That’s what makes the violence in Munich so upsetting. We live in an age when horror movies have become pornographically barbaric, but the killings here are hard to stomach because they’re sadder and truer, both cleaner and more terrifying than any grindhouse story at the cineplex. The stress of the lifestyle and the violence he’s causing begin to affect Avner in a number of ways, including ongoing nightmares about the Munich killings, whose events are spelled out for the audience throughout the film in Avner’s tortured dreams. He also begins to become deeply paranoid. There’s one chilling scene reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s final unwinding in The Conversation, wherein Avner, convinced that his room has been booby-trapped, dismantles his phone and TV, rips apart his mattress, and finally ends up on the floor of his closet, too weary and fearful to sleep.
Bana shines as Avner, showing some of the skill he managed to slip by Wolfgang Petersen in Troy and none of the clumsy trappings of Hulk. His performance is involving and astonishing, a portrait of a strong but ultimately pitiable man, driven to murder out of self-doubt and nationalistic pride. Likewise, the men playing Avner’s team members turn in solid supporting roles, notably Daniel Craig as hotheaded Steve and Ciaran Hinds as the soft-spoken Carl. At one of the crew’s first meetings, Steve notes that it’s hard to think of himself as an assassin. “Think of yourself as something else, then,” Carl advises him. It’s fascinating to see these men be so caring for their families or each other and yet approach their killings as routine jobs.
This has been quite a year for Spielberg. War of the Worlds also explored our feelings about terrorism, albeit in a more roundabout way, but Munich marks his return to doing what he does best, which is to show us what beauties and horrors we can carry out in the name of justice, or love, or freedom. Munich recalls Schindler’s List in its absence of artifice and complete focus on the story at hand. Aside from a few brief moments in interchanges between Avner and his wife, there’s no humor to lighten the heavy load Spielberg’s asking us to shoulder. He’s called this film his “prayer for peace,” but it’s more than that. It’s a call for responsibility, a recognition that violence begets violence in an unending cycle, the end result of which is death. Avner’s nightmares about Munich run throughout the film just as the ramifications of the real killings echo in our culture today. Spielberg forces us to look at the ethics of killing our killers, and at killing just because we can. These are hard questions, and worth asking, maybe now more than ever.
Correction: The original version of this review quoted Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) as saying “Forget peace for a while.” The line in the film is actually “Forget peace for now.” The error has been corrected.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Munich / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()