Editor’s Note: This month marks the 10th Anniversary of Munich. Feel free to share your memories of this film in the comments section below.
Sometimes, a master filmmaker makes a film that is exceptional yet still overlooked. Steven Spielberg has had that happen to him on numerous occasions (too many, really), but never more so than with his 2005 epic Munich. This film should be considered with his great ‘serious’ works like The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan but it is largely forgotten, and that is a real tragedy. Munich is a fascinating story that is both thrilling and thought provoking, set up like a thriller while posing serious questions concerning responses to terrorism.
The main part of the story is about Israel’s retaliation against the terrorist group Black September after the 1972 Munich Olympic games massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) contracts Mossad soldier Avner (Eric Bana) to lead a team of four others to assassinate key members of the terrorist group that organized the attack. His team consists of Steve (Daniel Craig, a year before becoming Bond), clean-up man Carl (Ciarán Hinds), bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), and forger Hans (Hanns Zischler). The team is only to operate in Europe and stay out of Muslim countries (referred to as Arab countries throughout the film). Avner enlists the aid of Louis (Mathieu Amalric), an independent information gatherer. Through him, they find and eliminate their targets.
The genius of the film is not in the thrilling and meticulous assassination sequences, though they are impeccably done, it’s in the morality and the contemplation done by the characters before and after each hit. Most action films avoid the morality of the kill because of some notion that it would make the hero look weak, but here, Spielberg and his screenwriters Tony Kushner (who at the time had just come from adapting his own play Angles in America for HBO and would later write Lincoln for Spielberg) and Eric Roth (writer of Forrest Gump and later The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) chose instead to make each kill be felt by one or all of the members of the group in one way or another. This adds a layer of psychology and depth to a film that could have been just another revenge film (albeit a good revenge film). There is a turmoil in these characters, and that’s what makes them fully realized characters and makes them all the more human.
Avner is haunted by the events at the Olympics, having nightmares where he is witnessing firsthand the actions. This mission is intensely personal for him. For Steve, the mission just seems like revenge against generic Arabs for centuries of persecution and for Carl and Hans, this just seems a little routine, though Carl has deep reservations about what the mission’s very existence says about the state of Judaism and even if the mission is justified, he wonders if it’s right. And poor Robert, a toymaker and bomb dismantler who is there out of duty to Israel and is always shaken to his very core when a hit is successful.
Each one of these members slowly unravels (except Steve, who always seems okay with everything, eager even) over time. Spielberg uses the character’s traits to draw out their insecurities and may telegraph a bit much sometimes on who is going to crack next, he always maintains a high level of empathy for his characters. He lets them do the moral heavy lifting, never seeming to want to point us in a direction either for or against their actions. He lets the events inform us and is restrained enough to let us make our own decisions. He isn’t his usual self with Munich, like with Minority Report three years prior (another great piece of work that has largely been removed from discussion) and that could play a part in why this film wasn’t and still isn’t thought of as much as it should be. He’s not preaching or taking a defined moral stance, like he did with Schindler’s List, which is easily one of the ten best films ever made. There, he took defined evil and showed a ray of light in the darkness. Here, he’s showing shadows in the darkness that are working for the light, though that light may be a little dull. Spielberg doesn’t often work with nuance, he’s typically very straightforward, but with Munich and Minority Report and most recently in Bridge of Spies, he’s trying to tell us that while he likes to see moral cores to things and has fun with the black and white, good vs. evil straightforward stories he’s most famous for, he also realizes that those scenarios are not particularly truthful (though they do make damn good movies).
While the film was inspired by true events, much of the details had to be constructed because much of the specifics are still unknown due to classified files or complete disavowal of the events. While some would then dismiss the film as pure speculation, whether or not this actually took place or not is irrelevant. Even if completely fabricated, the questions Munich asks are pertinent not only to the response to the 1972 massacre, but to government and personal responses to terrorism today as well. We’ve always lived in a dangerous world with extremists of one belief or another threatening those that don’t agree with them, but since September 11th, 2001, there has been an ever increasing threat and an ever escalating response to these actions. The events depicted in this film sparked those escalations, now to the point of all-out war on terrorism-harboring nations, innocents be damned. It’s just these escalations that Munich is warning about. It calls into question what the appropriate response to terrorism should be. A nation doesn’t want to appear weak and invite more terrorist acts, but retaliation also breeds retribution. It lends credence to the saying ‘in the land of an eye for an eye, the one eyed man is king’. Munich offers no answers to this dilemma, nor does it attempt to, it simply puts out there the toll of these decisions on the people that are sent do fulfill these orders and the cost of them, not only in money or reprisals (which as you watch, after each success the team has there is a larger retaliation from Black September on the news), but in humanity. Avner is left a broken man, paranoid and afraid and abandoned by the very people who praise him on a job well done. This film is a textbook on what not to do to the people placed in harm’s way for a cause when they come back.
Munich may not have been around long enough to emphatically call it ‘one of the greats’ but it certainly stands as one of Spielberg’s best films though not quite alongside his immortal classics like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Schindler’s List quite yet. It marks a stark departure from his typical story though retains much of his expertise in building suspense and not ignoring the weight of what the actions depicted have in the grand course of humanity. We are left to question the decisions made that led to the events in the film like Ian Malcom questions if the dinosaurs should have been created in Jurassic Park. That is the brilliance of Munich. Spielberg treats us to a heart-pounding adventure story of a group of men trying to make people pay for the slaughter of others and in the end, we see them becoming similar to the men they hunted, leaving us conflicted and forcing us to take stock in ourselves. This could be why Munich is not discussed often. It is too hard to look at yourself after watching it and finding yourself rooting for men who kill terrorists with terror. Its moral complexity is why it is a phenomenal film that should be considered and reconsidered often, especially since it stays so unfortunately pertinent to our daily lives.