Steven Spielbergís Munich opens with a recreation of the 1972 moment when Palestinian terrorists took a group of Israeli Olympic athletes hostage. Although we donít see it until flashback scenes much later, we know that those 11 athletes were murdered. Sportscaster Jim McKay is shown delivering his heartbreaking ďtheyíre all goneĒ announcement to the world. The horror of the event is effectively conveyed.
One person who feels that horror deeply is Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard to Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen). He is asked by the Prime Minister to lead a top secret team whose job will be to get revenge upon those who planned the Munich massacre. Accepting the assignment means leaving his wife and child, perhaps for months or even years on end. Avner struggles with the personal cost, but is so filled with fury over the massacre that he agrees to the terms. Geoffrey Rush plays Ephraim, a governmenthandler who coaches Avner on the rules of secrecy.
The team consists of Steve (Daniel Craig), the assassin; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker who builds bombs; Hans (Hanns Zischler), a forger; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), who makes sure no evidence gets left behind following each murder. Using information bought in the underground, the group takes out each target with precision. Sometimes itís easy; other times there are unexpected difficulties, as when one targetís little girl gets in the way of the assassination attempt.
Munich is not exactly a straightforward docudrama about the aftermath of the Olympic massacre. While the film is based on actual events, it does more than just tell the story of the revenge team. Instead, Spielberg and writers Tony Kushner (ďAngels in AmericaĒ) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) delve deeply into political matters. Itís clear that while the movie takes place in the early 70ís, it is meant to make comment about the state of Israeli/Palestinian conflict today.
The approach is undoubtedly thought-provoking. Spielbergís point seems to be that the two sides have become hopelessly linked in a cycle of violence and retaliation. Itís gone beyond the historical origins of the feud, and has become about getting revenge for other acts of vengeance. Put another way, it goes around and around, perpetuating itself endlessly.
As the story progresses, Avner starts to doubt the righteousness of his actions. There is some evidence that his team is being played Ė that someone is being paid to reveal their whereabouts to the Palestinians, just as they are paying to discover the whereabouts of their targets. The mission also seems hazy at times, as when Ephraim orders Avner not to take out any targets who are in the Middle East; he and his team can only get the ones in certain locales. Some conversations with Carl also make Avner wonder if heís solving the problem or adding to it. One of the most powerful moments comes when Avner brings his concerns to Ephraim, who tells him: ďIf these men live, Israelis will die.Ē Thatís the problem both sides have become enmeshed in. The conflict continues even now, thirty-plus years after the events depicted in the film.
Munich is an exciting thriller, especially in the way it shows Avnerís team pulling off the assassinations. Scenes of bombings are alarming in their violence and suddenness. I also liked the fact that the film doesnít shy away from asking hard questions. In a year when weíve had an unusually large number of political films, here is perhaps the most political of all. Itís inspiring that an ultra-successful director and a major Hollywood studio would have the guts to take on such an intense topic.
I liked the film very much and admired it greatly. My one drawback is that I think Munich delivers more intellectually than it does emotionally. At least, that was the way it struck me. Lots of compelling issues are raised, yet the story wasnít as strong in a personal way. I remember how Schindlerís List brought a vivid emotional quality to its depiction of the Holocaust, and how Saving Private Ryan generated captured both the horror and the humanity of combat. Munich is more concerned with exploring issues. It does that brilliantly, but I wish it had touched my heart as much as it touched my mind.
Then again, Iím always thrilled when a movie touches my mind at all. In a time when lots of movies are disposable entertainment, Munich is brave and conscientious and important. It is a film that deserves to be seen.
( 1/2 out of four)
Munich is rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 43 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat