“There is no peace at the end of this no matter what you believe.”
“We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it. If I lose that, that’s everything. That’s my soul.”
“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
The last movie of Steven Spielberg’s unofficial trilogy that features thematic commentary on a post-9/11 world is, almost indisputably, his most controversial. Even for a billionaire director, who solidified with the oddball outing of “The Terminal” that he could get any project financed and made, this film took guts to make. If “The Terminal” was a lighter commentary on changes around the world and at airports and then “War of the Worlds” was a metaphoric mirror of a changed world featuring aliens terrorizing innocent people while destroying cities, “Munich” delves into specific episodes of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict which Spielberg uses as a historical backdrop for the terrible attack in New York City on September 11th, 2001.
“Munich” is based on the true events at the 1972 summer Olympics where the Palestine terror group, Black September, murders 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team. The disturbing attack is shown at the beginning of the film both in dramatization and real life news footage that Spielberg uses. A young Peter Jennings makes an appearance in that old news footage. We eventually see news reporter, Jim McKay who was on air for 14 hours straight covering this massacre solemnly note, “They’re all gone.”
In chilling fashion, Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) at the time (in a secret meeting) declares, “Forget peace for now” and “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” A hit squad is formed off the books. Enter Eric Bana as Avner who was a former bodyguard for Meir. He is to resign his post officially as Mossad (the Israeli version of the CIA) and lead this assassination team. His partners will include Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) as a bomb maker, Carl (Ciaran Hinds) as the destroyer of evidence after an action, Steve (a pre-007 Daniel Craig) as a trigger man, and Hans (Hanns Zischler) who is a master at forgery with documents. Avner’s handler is the shadowy Ephraim (the great Geoffrey Rush). The mission is to assassinate 11 Palestinian leaders throughout Europe as a retaliation for the Munich attack.
The hits would be carried out occasionally with bullets but often with bombs as that would be a more effective way of generating publicity for the killings. The secret team kills Wael Zwaiter, a poet, in Rome. They detonate a bomb in Paris in the home of Mahmoud Hamshari and carry out more killings.
Eventually, the questions begin to prick at the men’s consciences. Is there actually any evidence that these Palestinian leaders were involved in the planning and execution of the Munich attack? Answers would not be forthcoming.
Spielberg has directed “Schindler’s List”, “Amistad”, “Saving Private Ryan” and other intense films however “Munich” is his darkest movie. It is a descent into the soul destroying rage of retaliatory violence and the endless cycle of vengeful, tic-for-tac, attacks. Spielberg is one of the most prominent Jewish people in the world and here he is with the courage and audacity to challenge the actions carried out as the foreign policy of Israel. By also showing the relentless assault on innocent Israeli Olympic athletes, he blasts the Palestinian side as if firing a desperate cinematic flair into the air for an end to all this violence.
When the guilt and shame of the assassinations becomes overwhelming to Robert, he pleads to Avner that they are Jews and supposed to be righteous. “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it. If I lose that, that’s everything. That’s my soul.” Robert dies in an explosion after carrying out a string of killings with the team and one attempted bombing that almost blows up a young daughter of a Palestinian leader, a scene that Spielberg masterfully works into the vein of Hitchcockian suspense.
The disillusionment comes on strong in Avner. Between killings, he would sometimes sneak back home to visit his wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) and newborn child. After his mission, he joins his family living in Brooklyn but is scarred by PTSD and paranoia. In an appropriately disturbing scene, Avner makes love to Daphna in their bed as Spielberg flashes back and forth showing the explicit deaths of the Israeli Olympics team at the Munich Airport while showing Avner on top of his wife. The thrusting becomes more violent showing a man who has been completely consumed by his bloodlust for revenge. The actions that Avner participated in on behalf of his country had now come into the most sacred space between a husband and wife. His sins had wrecked his conscience and, by extension, were now aggressively asserting themselves into the lives of the people he loves.
With a screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth based on a book by George Jonas, “Munich” is yet another Spielberg masterpiece. A riveting and unsettling movie that is effectively made and whose horrifying themes still resonate strongly. The final shot of “Munich” may be the most haunting shot in all of Spielberg’s filmography. As Avner meets in New York City (Brooklyn) with Ephraim again asking him for proof that the Palestinian leaders they killed were involved in the Munich massacre, he is rebuffed and as he walks away from the meeting, we see the twin towers of the World Trade Center across the bay in the distance.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Schindler’s List (Review here)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Saving Private Ryan (Review here)
Jurassic Park (Review here)
Minority Report (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Review here)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Review here)
Catch Me If You Can (Review here)
Empire of the Sun (Review here)
Amistad (Review here)
The Color Purple (Review here)
Duel (Review here)
War of the Worlds (Review here)
The Terminal (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)
Hook (Review here)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
Always (Review here)
1941 (Review here)