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Munich   B+

Universal Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner (based on the book "Vengeance" by George Jonas)
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Geoffrey Rush.

Review by Rob Vaux

Meals play a big role in the imagery of Munich: mundane, ordinary scenes in which a number of people gather around a table to share food. The normalcy of the act stands in stark contrast to the characters engaging in it: assassins, intelligence operatives, information brokers, and commandos. One of them runs a toyshop. Another says grace while surrounded by a bevy of grandchildren. They're fathers, brothers, uncles, friends. They are supremely unexceptional in manner and appearance. And yet they are involved in the bloodiest and most extreme sort of work: an act of revenge instigated by an outraged nation, whose repercussions can be felt to this day.

Director Steven Spielberg has taken considerable heat for his presentation of this story, based on the Israeli government's response to the murder of 11 athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Critics claim that it's unduly harsh on one side or the other, that it's dangerously naïve, that it glosses over the details in favor of simplistic aggrandizing, and a host of other complaints. Any topic as charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to create controversy, but Spielberg works to eschew the notions of politics here, focusing instead on the intensely personal humanism at which he excels. He leaves undeclared the rightness or wrongness of what takes place; his message is only the terrible cost that retribution inflicts, both on the men who carry it out and on the country they represent.

The setup is briskly detailed, with the assumption that the viewer is aware of what happened. In September, 1972, eight men belonging to a group called Black September (later revealed to be part of the PLO) enter the Olympic Village in Munich and seize nine members of the Israeli team, killing two others. Twenty-four hours later, after a botched rescue attempt on the tarmac of the NATO airfield at Firstenfeldbruck, five of the terrorists and the nine remaining athletes are killed.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (played here by Lynn Cohen) authorizes Mossad to undertake the assassination of all Palestinians associated with the Munich deaths. Responsibility falls to a young man named Avner (Eric Bana), the son of an Israeli hero with a wife and a baby on the way. Munich methodically charts the way he and his team track and kill five men with allegedly close ties to Black September. The atmosphere is terse and no-nonsense, evoking political thrillers of the era like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor. The men under Avner's command are bland and unassuming; most have little experience with assassinations, and look more like vacationing businessmen than killers. Their faces match the European cities they prowl on their hunt: anonymous and interchangeable, narrow streets flanked by the same blank buildings. The Palestinians they seek appear neither monstrous nor fanatical. Some have children. Others chat amiably with their killers just minutes before their lives are snuffed out. When the violence comes, it's sudden and messy, surprising the perpetrators as much as the victims. And as the mission drags on, its purpose and long-term goals sink into an all-too-familiar quagmire.

The deliberately rough-edged art direction (and camerawork by Spielberg's ever-present DP Janusz Kaminski) relentlessly narrows our attention down to Avner and his team, until we're interpreting events solely through their internal emotions. In the beginning, they're succinct and matter-of-fact: deeply committed to avenging their country's fallen. As the film goes on, they slowly lose their outlying humanity, burned into hollow shells by the dazed, numbing, brutality of killing as a lifestyle. They have no proof that the men they target are responsible for Munich, only the assurance of their government that it is so. Their assassinated targets are replaced by hard-line fanatics, escalating the conflict and diminishing hopes for any kind of resolution. And yet they continue along the path: setting their next goal, targeting their next subject, and hoping that their part in it all can somehow come to a merciful end.

Paranoia sinks in as well. The film's most interesting relationship revolves around Avner and his principal source of intelligence: a French family with endless resources, avowed neutrality, and the never entirely refuted possibility that they are selling him out to the other side. Their interaction displays his fracturing sense of identity exceptionally well. The Frenchmen accept their role in the shadow world of espionage and do not blink at the moral compromises they make. Avner, in contrast, is a constant source of suspicion and questions, using the men he's bargaining with to reflect his own growing doubts about his purpose.

The results are an effective examination of the old "eye for an eye" adage, demonstrating the price exacted by vengeance and the way it blurs the differences between the wronged and their opponents. One could argue that such a cost is necessary -- that evil acts demand harsh responses and men such as Avner must pay the price -- and Munich doesn't shy away from that belief. Images of the Israeli athletes and their terrible fate recur throughout the film, and while alternatives are proposed (capturing the terrorists and putting them on trial, for example, as Israel did to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann), it's clear that extreme measures may be necessary regardless. And yet the consequences of retaliation -- the toll it exacts -- are unflinchingly clear, as are the parallels between Israel's situation in 1972 and America's in the post-9/11 era. Munich demands that we acknowledge them, not to preach or to pursue some political agenda, but to ensure that we understand what playing hardball really entails.

On a more mundane level, the film is somewhat problematic. The structure grows repetitive at times, and though technically adroit, it only fitfully connects on the most visceral level. The need for accuracy trumps some of those concerns, and Spielberg brings a bracing sense of vérité to the affair, but viewing it still takes on the occasional feeling of a chore. Entertainment is not the key concern here, however, nor is the comfort level of the audience. Munich's greatest asset is the singular rejection of its director's characteristic optimism, presenting a tale that defies absolutes in favor of a messy, complex reality. People will draw what conclusions they may from it -- is assassination justified? does justice demand undue sacrifice? can morality be maintained in the face of a perilous world? -- but the truths it reveals are worth pondering no matter what your political stance. For that, Munich deserves our utmost respect.

* * *

Postscript: Those interested in the murder of the Israeli team at Munich should seek out Kevin Macdonald's extraordinary documentary One Day in September, which provides an exemplary account of the tragedy.

Review published 12.22.2005.

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