(for strong graphic violence, sexual content, nudity, and strong language)
Released: December 23, 2005
Runtime: 164 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Lonsale, Mathieu Amalric, Ayelet Zurer
Day 26 of “30 Days of Spielberg”
With the cold, chilling precision (and cynicism) of a David Fincher movie – not to mention some explicit sexuality/nudity not seen before in a Spielberg film (thoughts on that in a P.S. to this review) – Munich is Steven Spielberg’s second film from 2005 that tries to make sense of our post-9/11 world. It’s hard to think of another movie that makes us think about modern terrorism in all of the ways that we need to be thinking about it. It’s also the first of his career to actually feel like one of those classic 1970s political thrillers, the kind his contemporaries were making during that era while he was busy redefining the modern blockbuster.
War Of The Worlds was a more sober, emotionally weighted summer tentpole that analogized the actual attack on New York City through an alien invasion. In Munich, Spielberg analogizes our response to that attack through a true story. He’s not dissecting logistics or strategies, per se, but our politically polarized philosophies and the effect on the soldiers who are ordered to carry them out.
The parallel Spielberg draws – working it out as a cinematic midrash – is to one of the most horrific terrorist strikes of the 20th Century: the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by radicalize Palestinians at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. The Israeli response to that heinous mass murder may be what we see unfold on screen (in abrupt, graphic brutality), but it’s the 21st Century United States War On Terror that’s on Spielberg’s mind. And ours.
Based on the George Jonas book Vengeance, Munich is a fictionalization of Israel’s methodical yet ruthless counter-terrorism response to the Olympic massacre. More is likely invented here than the typical dramatization because, to this day, there is no official documented account or history of Israel’s covert undertaking to assassinate every member of Black September (the PLO terrorist group that committed the Munich murders) and those who helped them.
Jonas’ main source for his book was Yuval Aviv (nicknamed Avner, played by Eric Bana here), the leader of an off-the-books team sent out by Mossad (Israel’s CIA). They infiltrated Europe where most of the terrorists had remained, either in safe havens or under aliases. Jonas worked independently to verify Aviv’s accounts, but the government never cooperated. As with the book, Spielberg takes us through every clandestine operation in detail (in John le Carré style), one by one, as the team carries them out.
This is all framed by the Olympic massacre itself, not simply as the film’s introduction or split into bookends but as told chronologically in recurring segments throughout the course of the narrative. By doing so, the purpose of these harrowing Mossad missions is kept right in front of us (something we seem incapable of doing as it relates to our current global terror crisis, as politicians and media are more concerned about “narratives” than the unvarnished truth). Structurally, they serve as markers and reminders. At any point we’re disturbed by the actions Avner’s team is taking and possibly asking ourselves “why”, Spielberg flashes back to the next phase of Black September’s systematic inhumanity to remind us.
Whether it be the Olympic flashbacks or Mossad’s stealth reprisals, Spielberg stages, films, and assembles the least sensationalized action scenes you’ll ever see. Sure, Schindler’s List wasn’t crassly reductive either, but neither was it so steeped in genre. Stylistically, Munich is very much fashioned in the form and spirit of 1970s espionage thrillers, from smooth disciplined tracking shots to fast pans and quick zooms. The approach is, in many respects, completely against type for Spielberg, with few of his auteuristic giveaways (although he still can’t pass up a good rearview mirror reflection). It’s more Kubrickian than even A.I., and yet he’s in total command of its aesthetic and the tense, distressing mood it creates.
One of Spielberg’s biggest restraints is how he uses John Williams’ score – or doesn’t, as the case often is. Music is often a staple of spy thrillers, particularly in action sequences, and certainly wouldn’t have been out of place here. But instead of magnifying the dramatic stakes with music, Spielberg often eliminates music completely or, at most, keeps it minimalist. The same moderation is used in the Olympic killings; by refraining from an underscore and intercutting archival news footage with his re-enactments – not as mere flash cutaways but used at length, to flesh out the narrative – Spielberg gives these scenes an effective, necessary veracity.
Spielberg is not looking to entertain but to provoke, both thoughts and emotions (the sudden point-blank bloody executions certainly do that; at times Munich is unnervingly violent). It’s also telling that Munich is entirely devoid of sentimentality, arguably another first for Spielberg. Vengeance should not be triumphant or applauded, even if wholly justified. Spielberg’s instinct to pull back (with the music especially) enables us to go beyond “watching a movie” and begin to experience the raw verisimilitude of these endeavors, and wrestle with the scarred psychology they reap.
Unlike in his four “noble” American historical dramas (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge Of Spies), Spielberg also curbs lengthy and overly self-conscious philosophical debates, or monologue speechifying. The closest it comes is an early scene with Israeli PM Golda Meir as she works out her reasoning to sanction the covert illegal Mossad strikes. But even here, her temperament (expressed with authoritative humility by Lynn Cohen) is sober and conflicted, not noble (and again, Spielberg keeps it free of Williams’ underscore).
The Mossad team also discusses and debates but it’s organic and candid, not forced, and never done on proxy soapboxes, but then that’s the level of intelligence and honesty you’re going to get when your screenwriter is Tony award-winning playwright Tony Kushner (co-writing with Eric Roth, The Insider).
The result: Spielberg’s not shoving a message down our throats. That may be, in part, because he doesn’t know himself what the answers are. When you’re seriously contemplating what vengeance does to those who enact it – even the just – any answer dared offer would likely be biased and reductionist. Spielberg stays humble in the full force of these problematic moral grays. What he’s keen enough to get across, however, is the insight that, in life (but perhaps especially in vengeance), the results of our actions often aren’t what we intend.
As we see the psychological toll these missions take on Avner, we can’t help but think of the toll our current approach has taken (to horribly mixed results) on U.S. soldiers in the ongoing war on terror, and even our collective national psyche. Yet instead of countering with the liberal platitudes you might expect, Spielberg allows truths like this one to be expressed, one (among many) that we as a nation are currently grappling with:
“You think the terrorists report back to home base? They don’t.”
In the wake of the mass shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, this resonates. We want to avoid confronting this truth by quickly spinning narratives of “homegrown” shooters, ones who act independently, and are not taking orders or following strategies from abroad. We strain to apply other, more comfortable motives that require less of us in response.
But here’s the hard truth. Radical Islamic extremists who rise to the call of global jihad need not a strategy or marching orders to act. They have an ideology. That’s all they need.
To watch Munich is to comprehend what we’re facing. This is what we have to confront in our time. Set aside all of the politically correct talking points and biased narratives. Watch Munich, and wake the hell up.
Yet even with such a frank and necessary wake up call, Spielberg remains rightfully skeptical of vengeance. He’s weary of it. He doesn’t condemn it either, and even sympathizes despite his weariness. Yet he (along with us) is left with these very important questions about vengeance, about retaliation – the kind of retaliation that’s required against this kind of enemy – that are seemingly impossible to answer: At what cost? Where does it end? And most importantly – is there another way?
That elusive answer is our most needed one, because as we consider the efforts we’ve taken under two administrations of entirely different philosophical paradigms, and as chaos and genocides still reign with impunity, we have to ask, as Spielberg does – not with a single word but with the film’s final haunting image – “Where has it all gotten us?”
A Post Script.
My friend Charles Elmore made a point to me after reading this review that I thought was worth quoting and responding to here:
- CHARLES: What stood out to me about this film at the time is that, in addition to the violence, it also featured blatant nudity and adult sexuality, which I know you mentioned about re: A.I. but here it wasn’t fantastical/sci-fi motivated. It always stood out as I can’t recall Spielberg ever being as excessive with that type of coverage as his contemporaries.
And my response.
- ME: Right, it’s definitely his most explicit in that sense. The sexuality between Avner and his wife, which occurs at both the beginning and end of the film, is there, I believe, to draw the stark contrast between Avner creating and taking life, both on very intimate levels. It’s definitely all about the psychological study of this man.
There’s also explicit full frontal nudity in one of the killings, with bullet holes and blood streaming down the body. If nothing else, I think Spielberg went there (in ways he hadn’t before) to emphasize the graphic – and intimate – nature of these targeted assassinations. It’s a visually arresting way to say that there’s not a “clean” response to the terror we face, or for the men and women we ask to do something about it.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- When Avner’s team joins up with Israeli commandos in Beirut, one of the commandoes introduces himself as Ehud Barak. Barak was a member of the most elite force in the Israeli army before becoming a politician and, eventually, Prime Minister.
- This marked the fifth time that Spielberg released two films in one calendar year, the first in the summer (War Of The Worlds) and the second, this, in December. The other four years were:
- The time span between the start of production and the actual release into movie theaters was less than six months, all but unheard of for a major motion picture. The release was not planned for 2005, and it came as a surprise entry into that year’s Oscar race.
- The film crews called the shooting of the movie a “race against the clock”, with Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cutting the film together while it was being shot.
- Munich was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Kahn also received a nomination for his on-set marathon editing. (The film went 0-for-5 on Oscar night. It’s other two losses were Best Screenplay and Best Original Score.)
- The film has three 007 connections. One James Bond (Daniel Craig) and two Bond villains (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric).
- The film begins and ends with subtle references to breaking bread.