(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
With the cold, chilling precision (and cynicism) of a David Fincher movie — not to mention a degree of explicit sexuality and 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 world post-9/11.
It’s hard to think of another movie that makes us think about modern terrorism in all the ways that we need to be thinking about it. It’s also the first of Spielberg’s career to actually feel like one of those classic political thrillers from the 1970s, the kind that his contemporaries were making during that era when he was busy redefining the modern blockbuster.
War Of The Worlds was a more sober, emotionally weighted summer tentpole that used a sci-fi alien invasion to analogize the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
With Munich, Spielberg analogizes our response to those 9/11 attacks through a true story: Israel’s response to the terrorist murders of their Olympians at the 1972 Munich Games.
Israel’s revenge for that mass murder may be what we see unfold on screen in Munich (with abrupt, graphic brutality), but it’s the United States’ 21st Century War On Terror that’s on Spielberg’s mind. And on 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.
Jonas’ main source for his book was Yuval Aviv (nicknamed Avner, played by Eric Bana here), the leader of an off-the-books team that was sent out by the Mossad, Israel’s CIA. This covert squad infiltrated Europe where most of the terrorists had remained, either in safe havens or under aliases.
More is likely invented here than the typical dramatization because, to this day, there is no official account or documentation of Israel’s undertaking to assassinate every member of Black September (the PLO terrorist group that committed the Munich murders) and those who helped them. Jonas worked independently to verify Aviv’s accounts, but the government never cooperated.
Spielberg doesn’t dissect logistics or strategies. Instead, he examines politically-polarized philosophies and their effect on the soldiers who must carry them out.
As with the book, Spielberg takes us through every clandestine operation in detail, one by one in John le Carré style, as the team carries them out. As as he stages these gripping sequences, Spielberg doesn’t dissect logistics or strategies. Instead, he examines politically-polarized philosophies and their effect on the soldiers who must carry them out.
This is all framed by the Olympic massacre itself, first as the film’s introduction but then also in recurring, chronological segments throughout the course of the narrative.
By doing so, the purpose of these harrowing Mossad missions is always kept right in front of us; this is important because, as the years have passed following 9/11, it became clear that the memory of those attacks gave way to political and media “narratives”, one that caused us to lose sight of why we were fighting the terror war to begin with.
Structurally, the Munich flashbacks serve as markers and reminders. Why is that necessary? Because just as we may find ourselves feeling too disturbed by the actions of Avner’s team, and possibly even asking ourselves “Why?”, Spielberg flashes back to another phase of Black September’s inhumane attack to remind us exactly why.
Whether it be the Olympic flashbacks or Mossad’s stealth reprisals, Spielberg stages and assembles the least sensationalized action scenes that you’ll ever see. Sure, Schindler’s List wasn’t crassly reductive, but it wasn’t steeped in genre either.
Stylistically, from smooth, disciplined tracking shots to fast pans and quick zooms, Munich is very much fashioned in the form and spirit of 1970s espionage thrillers. The approach is, in many respects, completely against type for Spielberg. There’s very little of his signature cinematic language here (although he still can’t pass up a good rearview mirror reflection).
Oddly enough, Munich is more Kubrickian than even A.I., and yet Spielberg is in total command of this 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 is often the case. Music is 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 the dramatization, Spielberg gives these scenes an effective veracity.
In Munich, Spielberg isn’t looking to entertain; he wants to provoke, both thoughts and emotions. With sudden, bloody, point-blank bloody executions, Munich can be 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, no matter what it’s avenging. 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 psychologies they reap.
Unlike what he does with his five “noble” American historical dramas (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge Of Spies, The Post), Spielberg actually curbs lengthy, self-conscious philosophical debates and speechifying monologues.
The closest he comes to giving into that kind of on-the-nose messaging is an early scene with Israeli PM Golda Meir. In it, she’s working out her reasoning to order And morally sanction) the covert, illegal Mossad strikes. But even there, 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 has discussions and debates but they are organic and candid, not forced, and never delivered 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 (who co-wrote 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 when justified — any answer you dare to offer would likely be biased and reductionist. Spielberg doesn’t allow that. His film stays humble in the face of these problematic moral grays.
What he’s keen enough to get across, however, is that in life (but perhaps especially in vengeance) the results of our actions are often not what we intended.
As we see the psychological toll these missions take on Avner, we can’t help but think of the toll created by by the U.S. approach to 9/11, the one wrought on U.S. soldiers in the two-decade-long war on terror. There’s also been a toll on our collective national psyche.
Yet instead of countering with the kind of liberal platitudes you might expect, Spielberg allows truths to be expressed..like this one (among many) that we, as a nation, have grappled with:
“You think the terrorists report back to home base? They don’t.”
This not only resonates in regard to terrorists; it’s also true with mass shooters, whose acts of carnages are often also suicide missions. We struggle to come up with clear, practical ways to stop terrorism, or mass murders, because it’s more complicated than passing a few laws.
It’s more complicated because these kinds of killers will stop at nothing, including their own deaths. Passing a law here or there may appease us in the moment, but killers who don’t respect lives won’t ever respect laws. All a radical extremist needs to act is an ideology.
To watch Munich is to comprehend this and what we’ve had to face. And even as terrorism has faded into the past, with new fears replacing it, we’ll undoubtedly have to face them again, if not in our time then likely the next.
Munich will be an important movie to return to in those times. It compels whoever watches it to set aside politically correct talking points and biased narratives.
To watch Munich is to wake the hell up.
And yet even with such a frank and necessary wake up call, Spielberg remains skeptical of vengeance — as he should be. And not just skeptical; he’s weary of it.
In that weariness, Spielberg doesn’t condemn vengeance; I’d wager he even sympathizes with it. Nevertheless, he is left with (as we are) these very important questions about vengeance and retaliation, the kind of retaliation that’s required against this kind of enemy.
The questions left are seemingly impossible to answer: At what cost? Where does it end? And most importantly – is there another way? That elusive answer is the most needed one.
As we consider the efforts taken by three administrations of different philosophical paradigms (first Bush, then Obama, and now Trump), chaos and genocide has largely continued with impunity.
Given that, we have to ask, “Where has it all gotten us?” It’s the question that Spielberg asks — not with words, but in the film’s final haunting image.
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 (in 2005) is that, in addition to the violence, it also featured blatant nudity and adult sexuality, which I know you addressed in A.I.. But here, it wasn’t in the context of fantastical sci-fi. It always stood out to me in Munich because I can’t recall Spielberg ever being as excessive with that type of frank sexuality, the kind that his contemporaries often have been.
And my response.
- ME: Right, it’s definitely his most explicit in that sense. I believe the sexuality between Avner and his wife (which occurs at both the beginning and end of the film) is there to draw the stark contrast between Avner creating and taking life. Both acts are taken on very intimate levels, so both acts become key contrasts in the psychological study of this man, and how the taking of a life psychologically corrupts the creation of one. In one of the killings, there’s also explicit full frontal nudity; bullet holes and blood stream down the body. If nothing else, I think Spielberg went there (in ways he hadn’t before) not only to emphasize the graphic nature of these targeted assassinations, but also the intimate nature. It’s a visually arresting way to say that there’s not a “clean” response to the terror we face. There’s nothing clean about it politically, most certainly, but it also scars the psychologically and spiritually of the men and women we ask to respond.
(For more about the making of Munich, click here to see a fascinating video essay about the film’s sound design.)
- When Avner’s team joins 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. He would eventually become Israel’s Prime Minister.
- This marked the fifth time that Spielberg released two films in one calendar year, with one in the summer (War Of The Worlds) and the other (this) in December. The other four were:
- The time span between the start of production for Munich and the actual release of the film into theaters was less than six months. That’s not just fast for a major motion picture; it’s all but unheard of. The release was not actually planned for 2005, and so it came as a last minute surprise entry into that year’s Oscar race.
- Given the speed of production, the film’s crews called the shoot 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 connections to the Jams Bond franchise: one actual 007 (Daniel Craig) and two Bond villains (Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric).
- The film begins and ends with subtle references to breaking bread, a poignant spiritual symbol.