Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush
Writer’s Note: This first paragraph talks about the final scene of the film. I do not discuss anything that will ruin the ending for you but you have been warned.
It is a gray day. Avner (Eric Bana) meets with his former employer from the Israeli government in a park in Brooklyn, New York. He has nearly lost his mind to paranoia, always wondering when someone will end the hunt and finally find him. During his unofficial employment with the Mossad, Avner headed a team of five men whose mission was to track down the members of Palestinian terrorist group, Black September. This group was behind the tragedy at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany, where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered after being held hostage. It has become abundantly clear that he can and likely will suffer the same fate as the men on his hit list and he needs reassurance that he can at the very least trust the people of his homeland, the people that trusted this mission to him in the first place. His former liaison, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), dismisses his concerns, allowing Avner a moment to breathe. Ephraim then declines Avner’s invitation to break bread and two large buildings in the background of the frame catch your eye while Avner stands still and puzzled. These two buildings are the twin towers destroyed on September 11, 2001 in what has been described as one of the most devastating terrorist attacks ever to take place on American soil. This moment, I apologize, comes at the very end of Steven Spielberg’s MUNICH and stretches the issue of justification past the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, finding Spielberg asking his audience if there is ever any true resolution to any ongoing violent conflict between nations or between peoples.
Spielberg’s film interpretation is not specifically about the Munich killings but more so about what came afterwards, while always paying mind to what came before and led up to the event. In telling this story, he is walking a fine line trying not to offend while remaining authentic. I don’t doubt Spielberg’s genuine interest in remaining objective here. In fact, it was imperative he do so to successfully force his audience to question the usage of violence as a means to resolve conflict. Had he shown the Jewish retaliators as nothing more than a beaten people unquestionably right in their quest for revenge, than he would have created nothing more than a sympathy inducing manipulation. Of course there is something of a sympathetic element for these assassins who see themselves as soldiers, but that’s inevitable as their people were undeniably wronged in Munich at the hands of murderers. Only these five men are not your typical soldiers. They’re toy-makers, antiques dealers, expecting fathers. They are regular men with one common dedication among them, Israel. Their convictions can only take them so far as when it comes time to actually pull the trigger or detonate the bomb, the awareness that they are about to take someone’s life becomes a painful curse they hadn’t realized their beliefs might not be able to carry them through. The lack of experience as well as the naïve approach become visible as Avner corners the first name on the list. He fumbles as he pulls his gun from his pants and almost lowers it while the condemned begs for his life. Is this really going to help change the future for the better? No. However, the alternative is to take the Munich injustice sitting down.
MUNICH is not just a moral conflict story about the nature of right and wrong despite watching heroes become detached from the brutality of their lives. It is also an energetic thriller. Spielberg has delivered so many solid, enjoyable popcorn movies in the past and here he brings his knowledge and applies it to the tragic underbelly of humanity. The unofficial Mossad kill team are natural underdogs because of their small, humble lives and not because they’re Jewish. They travel from one European city to the next, gathering information on the locations of the names on their list and carrying out their duty to kill these men. Spielberg brings so much humanity to these hunts. Innocent bystanders’ lives are often threatened or ended and even the men they are meant to kill have families and fragility. The heroes also make small, potentially disastrous errors on their missions. This all leads to the paranoia and confusion over whether they’re making these mistakes or are outsiders setting them up to make them. In some, the paranoia leads to guilt while in others, the guilt leads to insanity. And as if the viewer weren’t in enough despair already, Spielberg doesn’t show the Munich massacre at the beginning of the film to charge the audience behind the Israelis. Instead he reveals the developing details at different intervals throughout the film to remind the viewer how this particular mission began. And as we are wrapped up in the intrigue and morality of this mission, these violent flashbacks serve also as reminders to the team of a reality they had long left behind out of necessity.
Of course the Israel/Palestine conflict did not begin with the Munich Olympics killings. And Spielberg does not tell the story of the mindset behind the men who carried out that mission. If he did though, I would imagine there would be just as much torment in the minds of those killers as the killers who are this film’s heroes. MUNICH does not pass judgment on nations but on mankind, asking us to find the better way. As the Israel/Palestine conflict is not over, nor the numerous other needlessly violent world conflicts, and though MUNICH takes a rather violent approach to advocate peace, it still makes a powerful and intelligent argument for immediate change.