When a nation is attacked, it faces challenging decisions on how to proceed. Response and non-response both have their own consequences, and each raises issues with morality. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at Munich: as one of the few films during the early 2000s to tackle the subject of terrorism directly, it’s one of Spielberg’s most difficult and provocative films. It’s no Schindler’s List, but Munich poses questions that are sure to linger on your mind after the credits roll.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
The film takes its title from the horrific “Munich massacre” that took place during the 1972 Summer Olympics in West Germany, in which members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took athletes from the Israeli Olympic team hostage, and over the course of a day-long, ugly confrontation, killed 11 of them, along with a police officer. This prompted the Israeli government to launch the top-secret operation “Wrath of God,” which authorized intelligence to covertly track down and kill members of Black September in order to deter further violence.
This operation was described in part in the 1984 book Vengeance by George Jonas, for which his source, Yuval Aviv, chronicled his part in Wrath of God as a Mossad officer leading a team to carry out a string of assassinations. The text has had its share of critics questioning the story’s validity, but it has never been completely discredited. The book first inspired the 1986 Canadian television film Sword of Gideon directed by Michael Anderson, and then the 2005 film Munich by Steven Spielberg. Coming in hot during the war on terror, it was not without controversy.
Spielberg’s film begins by re-enacting the appalling events of the 1972 Olympics, and then proceeds to portray the aftermath and the Israeli response. Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) authorizes a secret retaliation campaign of targeted assassination, for which Mossad agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is chosen to lead. Teaming up with four others and aided by a French source, Avner’s team then prepares for and ultimately assassinates several Palestinians targeted by Israel intelligence, but he begins to question the mission’s justification along the way.
Having helmed Schindler’s List earlier in his career, Munich resonates as a spiritual successor to that film. Set during the 1970s, Munich very much concerns the ongoing struggles of Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, and a viewer could strongly benefit from a preliminary viewing of Schindler’s List. Having just undergone one of the worst racially motivated genocidal massacres in human history not even 30 years prior, the film examines how the Munich massacre in 1972 impacted Israeli efforts to defend their people, and the parallels this has to the war on terror.
Similar to 9/11, the events of the 1972 Olympics shocks and appalls people across the world. Israel wastes no time in taking action, and when Avner is chosen to lead the top-secret retaliation campaign, he his humbled, but he is also determined to carry out justice. In one scene when preparing an explosive device, Carl (Ciarán Hinds) agonizes over small details, to which Avner advises you don’t always have to be thinking, or to “scrutinize.” Similar to many Americans in the wake of the attacks, Avner has the mentality that’s “it’s a crisis, it’s a war.”
In a later scene, Carl observes that Avner is like a soldier who thinks he can outrun his fears and doubts, that the only thing that scares him is stillness. This also can be compared to American response to terrorism, as haste and fear of inaction is what has led to so many mistakes. As the film progresses, however, Avner and his team begin to realize the scale of the operation’s consequences, and whether it’s truly effective in deterring violence. Spielberg’s intent here is not a condemnation of Israel or response in general, but to provide an empathetic examination of it.
And it’s a fascinating and compelling examination at that. Not all viewers tend to come away from the film with the same reaction, though, as Munich stirred controversy and saw a somewhat divided response among critics upon release. However, I would contend that an accurate understanding of the film should give a viewer an appropriately layered deconstruction of the costs and benefits that come with counterviolence, while also acknowledging its occasional necessity. And it’s through the use of the many tools of cinema that Spielberg achieves this goal.
Spielberg chose to cast Bana after discovering him in 2003’s Hulk, seeing in him a figure capable of enough vulnerability and humanity to sympathize Wrath of God’s lead assassin. It was an inspired choice, and it’s easily the best performance of his career. The assassination team features a colorful and fascinating blend of personalities and performers, with Ciarán Hinds representing the more meticulous and thoughtful end of the spectrum, and Daniel Craig’s Steve representing the more bullish and reckless side. Geoffrey rush shines as the team’s handler.
The film offers an array thought-provoking dialogue as Tony Kushner and Eric Roth’s excellent script ponders the merits of violent response. One scene starkly contrasts the business of assassination with the personal when Carl tells Avner “mazel Tov” to congratulate him on his new baby, and soon after adds “mazel tov” again to deliver the news that a recent target has succumbed to his wounds. In another scene, as Avner admires a store window kitchen display, his source says “you can have a kitchen like that someday. It costs dearly, but home always does.”
Working again with refined cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg experiments with visuals in ways that he had not yet explored in his career. The pair make strong use of glass and reflections in the film, using them as a portal for Avner’s periodic revisiting of the Munich massacre. Later, they are also used to express his guilt and PTSD resulting from his mission, as in a scene where he makes love to his wife, he is simultaneously reliving the events of Munich and his mission, demonstrating the ongoing effects of violence, no matter how necessary.
The film culminates in the sobering final scene where Avner meets with his handler one last time in New York in an attempt to help him clear his conscience. Geoffrey Rush’s Ephraim asserts several rationalizations, but none of these leave Avner satisfied, and as they go their separate ways, the shot widens to reveal the World Trade Center looming over the skyline. This haunting final image drives the parallels to the early 2000s home in powerful fashion. Munich is a careful and astute evaluation of violent response, and it remains one of the best films on the subject.
Next week, we’ll be returning to Indiana Jones one last time to review The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray; you can also stream it through Amazon Prime and Paramount +, or you can rent it from digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.