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Munich (2005)

June 28th, 2006 · 1 Comment

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Following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by terror group Black September in a hostage crisis at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Mossad dispatch a German bred agent named “Avner” (Eric Bana) to Europe to track down and assassinate the Arabs responsible.

With a South African driver (Daniel Craig), a cleaner (Ciaran Hinds), toymaker turned bombmaker (Mathieu Kassovitz) and a documents forger (Hanns Zischler) on his team, Avner also enlists the aid of a French informer, whose apolitical father (Michael Lonsdale) traffics information, but refuses to pick sides or work with any government.

Traveling to Rome, Cyprus, Paris, Beirut, Athens and Holland to execute the hits, the Israelis ultimately attract the attention of Black September. Avner grows increasingly paranoid. Eventually ending up in Brooklyn to settle with his wife and newborn, Avner questions his Mossad contact Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) on the logic of using violence to quell violence, and where it all ends.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, who shot the film clandestinely, and decided the film’s promotion would be kept almost as quiet, Munich was attacked by many for hitting whatever sensitivity they brought with them into the theater; bias against Palestinians, bias against Jews, bias against people who don’t pick one side over the other.

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Munich was a difficult movie for me to enjoy, and one that was impossible not to keep thinking about. Adapting Canadian journalist George Jonas’ book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, playwright Tony Kushner, working from an early draft by Eric Roth, turned in a work of historical fiction that raises important questions, but refuses to tell the audience how they should feel about any of them.

The operational details of a counter-terrorist team are exposed in fascinating detail here, from the mechanics of remote controlled explosives, political conflict when the home office hinders the team from doing their jobs, and a field agent’s paranoia over who he can trust, and whether what he’s doing is making any difference.

As you’d expect, the pacing and style with which Spielberg recreates the assassinations are visceral filmmaking at its best. Despite the lethal reputation of the Mossad, none of the hits go as planned. The bombmaker doesn’t use enough explosive, the next time, he uses too much. In the film’s best sequence – Athens – the explosives don’t work at all, prompting an improvised hit.

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Amid this technical virtuosity, Kushner’s script has the characters wrestle convincingly between faith and vengeance. Israeli Prime Minster Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) concludes “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values. I’ve made my decision,” giving her approval for the operation. When Avner makes the decision to retaliate against a Dutch hitwoman (Marie-Josse Croze), his bombmaker has had enough, citing that “Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong.”

In the best scene of the film, the Mossad team are awakened by a PLO unit seeking refuge in the same safehouse as the Israelis. Convincing the Arabs that they’re ETA, they quarrel over the radio (eventually agreeing on Al Green) and Avner has a dialogue with a Palestinian, telling him they can’t win, and asking whether chalky soil and stone huts are worth all of this. The answer, “We want to be nations. Home is everything.”

Whether or not the Israeli counter-terrorists actually experienced this much soul searching (Spielberg believes they did), the movie is unlike any he’s made. In spite of the cloak and dagger elements, it is not an entertainment. Instead of punctuation signs, the characters mostly remain question marks. All we learn about Daniel Craig’s character is that he’s a driver without remorse. Avner’s wife (Ayelet Zurer) is a particularly black hearted realist who mocks his idealism and offers anything but a rosy assessment of their relationship. It’s left up to the audience to figure out how we feel here.

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I can see now why the movie received such a timid response from audiences. The filmmakers give us no escape valve here. No sides are taken, no agenda is arrived at and no answers are given, including an answer to the most pressing question of the day, whether retaliating against terrorists only invites more violence.

Whether you believe the Jews have no business in Israel, or that Arabs are butchers, that violence begets violence, or that every society has the right to defend themselves, Munich is uncanny in its ability to lend some degree of support to all of these prejudices and also demonstrate how destructive they all are in the long run.

Tags: Paranoia

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Carmen // Jun 28, 2006 at 9:37 pm

    This question mark is exactly what I appreciated most about this movie. Too often a film makes up our minds for us, shows us details which unfailingly lead us to an assumption that is jaded.
    Spielberg ends the movie with characters physiologically and emotionally wrapped up in trust and betrayal, and the biggest question posed seems tobe how deep can one go before losing trust in their own selfhood.

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