Director : Steven Spielberg
Screenplay : Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Eric Bana (Avner), Daniel Craig (Steve), Ciarán Hinds (Carl), Mathieu Kassovitz (Robert), Hanns Zischler (Hans), Ayelet Zorer (Daphna), Geoffrey Rush (Ephraim), Gila Almagor (Avner's Mother), Michael Lonsdale (Papa), Mathieu Amalric (Louis), Moritz Bleibtreu (Andreas), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Sylvie)
It is by pure coincidence that the same week I saw Steven Spielberg’s Munich, I happened to be reading and reviewing the recently published book New Hollywood Violence, which contains an intriguing chapter by Thomas Leitch called “Aristotle v. the Action Film.” Leitch’s chapter, in which he compares the typical Hollywood kind of action -- better referred to as “spectacle” -- with Aristotle’s notion of action as “a freely chosen, purposive, ethically consequential expression of human agency” puts into perfect relief what is monumental and unique about Spielberg’s film, despite its flaws.
Based on George Jonas’s 1984 book Vengeance, which also served as the source for the 1986 made-for-TV movie Sword of Gideon, Munich tells the semi-fictionalized story of how the Israeli prime minister and military officials assembled a team of Mossad agents to track down and assassinate 11 Palestinians they felt were responsible for the kidnapping and subsequent massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In a sparse, tense opening sequence, Spielberg shows us the kidnapping of the athletes by the PLO branch Black September in a rapid succession of striking, jittery images, one of which puts a creepy new spin on the infamous mediated shot of a hooded kidnapper looking over a balcony by showing us the scene from inside the dormitory room while the live image plays out on a television screen.
The action then cuts to the assembling of the team, which is to be led by Avner (Eric Bana), a young Mossad agent with a six-months-pregnant wife. He is an unlikely leader for a worldwide mission of assassination, as are his various team members: Steve (Daniel Craig), the driver and muscleman; Carl (Ciarán Hinds) who cleans up any traces of evidence they leave behind; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker turned bomb-maker; and Hans (Hanns Zischler), who is an expert at forging documents.
The rest of the film follows Avner’s crew as they move around Europe, tracking down their various targets and killing them, usually by remote-detonating a bomb (which makes more of an impact and thus attracts media coverage). Each of the killings is staged as its own setpiece, perhaps to mitigate the unavoidably repetitive nature of the narrative. Thus, while the first killing involves Avner and Carl gunning down a man in the corridor of his apartment building, the next involves a remote-detonated bomb in a phone that leads to a Hitchcockian moment in which the target’s young daughter unexpectedly answers the potentially deadly call.
As the killings mount, so does the emotional toil on the Israeli assassins, and it is here that the film diverges from typical thriller territory and enters into a moral realm rarely addressed in such films. On a purely narrative level, Munich fits perfectly into the contemporary action genre as described by Thomas Leitch. Most importantly, the film is predicated on the notion of reaction, rather than action. That is, Avner and the other agents, at the behest of their government, react violently to a violent action perpetrated against them as Jews. As Leith argues, such countermeasures are unwilling but inevitable, and most importantly, they are “cloaked in the moral justification of reaction.”
Munich’s heart is in the question of that moral justification, something its characters struggle with mightily. Working entirely on the word of their Mossad contact (Geoffrey Rush), a man who conveys complete confidence in his morality without ever offering any evidence, the Israeli assassins ruthlessly murder men who might or might not have blood on their hands. Their first hit is followed by a light-hearted scene in which they share wine in an open café and celebrate (in one character’s words, “rejoice”) their success. But, with each succeeding assassination, the job becomes grimer, to the point that some members of the team are no longer able to rationalize their activities. Even Avner begins to lose his moral bearing, as well as his own mind. Munich’s most gut-churning scene, in fact, depicts Avner tearing apart his own bedroom, convinced that there is a bomb planted somewhere. Most tellingly, each place he looks (under his bed, inside his telephone and television) is a mirror image of one of his own assassination techniques.
Thus, Munich uses the basic framework of the Hollywood thriller to investigate and ultimately undermine the simplistic morality that justifies typical cinematic violence. In a sense, it forces the viewer to see the reality in the fantasy, which is why Munich cannot be mistaken for a one-sidedly pro-Jewish view of worldwide terrorism. In fact, Spielberg and his screenwriters Tony Kushner (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Ali) go out of their way to not only question the moral validity and political usefulness of Israel’s plot, but also to give voice to the Palestinian point of view, most directly in a scene in which Avner argues with a young Palestinian about the Middle Eastern conflict. His adversary’s argument that all Palestinians want is a “home” is then mirrored in a conversation later in the film from the Jewish perspective, thus showing that the two sides are essentially arguing for the same thing.
Yet, it is in this sense that the film also stumbles, as Spielberg clumsily mixes Avner’s personal moral demons with a larger global perspective. As the film becomes more fully centered on Avner’s interior conflicts, Spielberg attempts to reinsert the larger view, culminating in a genuinely terrible sequence at the end of the film in which Avner’s orgasmic lovemaking with his wife is intercut with flashbacks of the Munich massacre. If there is one thing that can be said about Spielberg’s films, it is that his technique always has a clear and direct purpose, which is one reason why his work is so accessible and popular without being artistically bankrupt. Yet, this sequence is misguided and confusing, as it conflates an incident with which Avner was only indirectly involved (like millions of others, he watched it unfold on TV) with events with which he has direct moral responsibility.
Even with this crucial misstep, though, Munich is still a frequently powerful, gripping (if overlong) film, made all the stronger by the fact that Spielberg doesn’t try to force-fit an audience-pleasing coda into the final act. There is no equivalent of the “Tell me I’ve lived a good life” speech that sullied the end of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or the “I could have saved one more” speech at the end of Schindler’s List (1993). Rather, Spielberg ends his film on a deliberately provocative image that digitally reinserts the Twin Towers into the New York skyline, effectively aligning his retelling of Israel’s morally and politically ambiguous reactionary measures with the United States’ current military foray into Iraq.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures