“We’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew. That’s what I was taught…If I lose that, I lose everything. That’s my soul.”
– Robert, an Israeli bombmaker and hitman, to team leader Avner
Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’, the film that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, is a visceral, intelligent and haunting study about the futility of responding to violence with counter-violence. It uses the experiences of an Israeli hit squad, retaliating to a brutal terrorist attack, as a gateway for questioning the policy of swift retribution pursued by a nation-state. Of course we are invited to draw our own conclusions, but given that ‘Munich’ was released a scant four years after the September 11th attacks, and given the poignant final shot of a Manhattan skyline containing the still-intact twin towers, it’s clear that the target audience is as much America as Israel. One can readily identify the potential pitfalls of treating this material in an overly sanctimonious or heavy-handed way, especially in a post-9/11 context. Yet, remarkably, one of the great strengths of ‘Munich’ is found in its refusal to grandstand or provide clear answers. These are raw, complex issues and the filmmakers respond by delivering a raw, complex film. This is Steven Spielberg as you’ve never seen him before – oblique, spontaneous, subtle and angry.
The film opens with an arresting recreation of the central tragedy when, on September 5, 1972, members of the PLO’s Black September faction invaded the Olympic Village and held the Israeli Olympic team hostage, ultimately killing all 11 athletes. From the get-go Spielberg keeps us at a distance, convincingly mixing snippets of archival news broadcasts with staged footage of worldwide audiences tuning in. Consequently, we see the event as a TV viewer or a spectator in a crowd of onlookers might see it, getting only snippets of incomplete (and often incorrect) information. Only later in the film do we gradually see the complete details of the killings via three strategically placed flashbacks. In a clever touch, the sequence ends with each athlete’s name being read aloud on television, intercut with Mossad agents reading the names of the 11 Palestinian masterminds of the plot. Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) agonizes over more “dead Jews in Germany” and concludes that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” A targeted revenge mission is chosen over additional airstrikes on PLO camps because it will appear more deliberate and will get the world’s attention.
The remainder of the film tracks the Israeli hit squad as they travel throughout Europe eliminating names in a series of magnificent and suspenseful set pieces. Avner (Eric Bana) is the loyal, yet inexperienced team leader who leaves his wife and newborn child to fulfill a perceived obligation to his homeland. He is given a team of four sharply-drawn characters to join him in the multi-year operation: Steve (a pre-007 Daniel Craig) is the South African getaway driver, brash and unapologetic, but betraying fear as time wears on; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a toymaker-turned-bombmaker who shows reluctance almost from the outset; Hans (Hanns Zischler) is the document forger, cold and pragmatic; Carl (Ciarán Hinds) is the cleaner who doubles as Avner’s conscience, offering philosophical commentary and kvetching from his years in the field. Another key player is Avner’s handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), offering no sympathy or reassurances, voicing inconvenient truths and constantly demanding results. These performances are uniformly excellent, providing a convincing portrayal of how a secret operations team might actually function. All five members are well-developed, and each is given their moment to make crucial, and sometimes surprising, contributions for better or worse.
We observe the team as it comes together in righteous zeal and certainty, and then we watch as it begins to fracture under the psychological toll of navigating a world of shadows. The film’s color palette is warm and soft in the early stretches, but the presence of blood red is embedded throughout. Soon the body count rises, the target list grows to a seemingly endless length, team members are picked off in chilling ways, and the “hall of mirrors” effect sets in. In parallel, the film becomes cold and drained of color as the initially sanctioned mission morphs into one of personal vengeance, and as killing becomes a habit for Avner, bleeding into his spiritual and family life. The final exchange between Avner and Ephraim, against a gray Manhattan backdrop, is hollow and heartbreaking, mirroring the futility of Avner’s (and our) search for resolution.
Depending on the day, I might place ‘Munich’ above Steven Spielberg’s other “serious” movies (e.g. ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’), simply because it is relatively free of cloying sentiment or blatantly obvious creative flourishes. Spielberg often gets nailed for those things, but I don’t mind them in films like ‘E.T.’ or the Indiana Jones series because they seem appropriate to the overall tone of those pictures. However, it is very refreshing to see the pure craftsmanship that he can apply to a subject as dark and unsentimental as this. At times you feel like Spielberg is operating in guerilla filmmaking mode, and he has said that he cut way back on storyboarding and pre-visualization for this film, preferring to go with his first instincts when composing a shot or sequence. I sense that Spielberg trusted his technique – as well as the audience – more with this film, refraining from spelling things out or underlining themes visually or through music (John Williams’ score is also mournful and understated, never dictating emotional responses).
The result feels more spontaneous and exciting – each assassination set piece is expertly staged and truly suspenseful in a Hitchcockian sense, offering something gripping and new with each changing locale. The film has an excellent sound design (courtesy of the great Ben Burtt), emphasizing unique dissonances and exaggerating small elements, like footsteps or an elevator creaking to a stop, to really draw out the suspense during each killing. Lending realism to the proceedings, Spielberg also employs effective period techniques like the slow-zoom, hearkening back to ‘70s paranoia thrillers like ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and ‘The Parallax View’. Overall, the film authentically captures the tone of the ‘70s (I can only imagine), and has a refreshing international feel to it, as though you are travelling among world capitals with the team. ‘Munich’ is an impressive display of Steven Spielberg’s total command of technique, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his larger, effects-driven blockbusters.
Despite the impressive technical craft on display, one of my favorite elements of ‘Munich’ is the literate, brilliant script by Eric Roth and playwright Tony Kushner, working from the (allegedly) non-fiction book ‘Vengeance’ by George Jonas. Roth has had some misfires in his repertoire (‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, ‘The Postman’) but oh Johnny when he connects, he connects (‘Forrest Gump’, ‘The Insider’). This film certainly belongs in the latter category of smart, adult dramas Roth has scripted. Tony Kushner’s contribution (probably via most of the dialogue) is absolutely crucial, providing exchanges so finely honed that they cut deep. This is a film that can effortlessly transition from complex ethical discussions to frank, brutal violence without losing its sense of purpose and tone. The script is loaded with subtext, providing constant reminders of the longing for home that is so central to the Jewish faith, and to Avner personally. For some reason, the most memorable scene for me occurs on a pastoral French estate, where Avner meets the source providing information on the Palestinian targets. Played by Michael Lonsdale (‘The Day of the Jackal’), he is an aged patriarch and former resistance fighter, who deals in a world of intersecting secrecies in order to provide for his large extended family. Though he acts in a kind, fatherly manner toward Avner, much to the chagrin of his real son, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), the old man firmly reminds Avner “You could have been my son. But you’re not. Never forget that.” Seen in context, those words are at once forgiving and portentous, exemplary of the entire script’s precision and depth.
‘Munich’ is really not an easy film to watch. It is bloody, dark and unforgiving – Spielberg’s darkest film by far. Like a lot of classic films, this one takes a real toll on the viewer, probing emotions that are not easily explored, and offering little hope. But as an exciting and thoughtful piece of post-9/11 entertainment, few films have surpassed it.