Thrilling, complex and troubling, Munich is one of the great films of Steven Spielberg's maturity.
In recent years this most optimistic of filmmakers – after all, he has made two movies about benevolent aliens – has gravitated to darker themes, hitting a high-water mark with Schindler's List, his aching elegy to lost European Jewry.
Munich concerns besieged Jews as well. But lurking deep inside its white-knuckle action is an unspoken but inescapable conundrum: What if the persecuted become persecutors?
The film opens with a detailed re-creation of the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Eleven Israeli Olympians are taken hostage by members of Black September, a group demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Within hours all of the hostages and most of the terrorists are dead.
Spielberg signals early on that he's casting a big net by showing the reactions of both Israelis and Palestinians who are glued to the TV coverage. Then he takes us to the office of Israeli leader Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) as she contemplates a response.
"Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," she tells her advisers, then authorizes retaliatory strikes wherever in the world Black September operates.
For one of her former bodyguards, the young Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana), this will mean months of separation from his pregnant wife as he and a small team of killers relocate to Europe with a list of Arabs marked for elimination.
Officially the hit squad doesn't exist. Its members have to buy weapons and information on the black market. They are on their own, save for a deposit box full of cash in a Swiss bank.
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's screenplay consists of a series of assassinations, staged by Spielberg with a level of tension worthy of Hitchcock. The team members locate their victims, study their habits, decide on a time, place, and method of death, then put their plan into motion.
Their first kill is simple – an Arab living in Rome who has translated The Arabian Nights into Italian. The man is giving a public reading. Easy enough to follow him home and shoot him.
There's a close call with the second target, a Parisian intellectual. Planting a bomb in his telephone is no problem. But the man's young daughter unexpectedly answers the call.
Not that it matters in the long run. As they crisscross Europe, collecting information and planning mayhem, Avner and his men must deal with collateral damage. Little by little this covert life of mayhem takes its toll. For one of Avner's team (Daniel Craig) it only solidifies his hatred of Arabs. "Kill them all" is his motto.
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As the carnage mounts, the team's young bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz) has trouble coping with the blood on his hands. And the bespectacled clean-up specialist (Ciarán Hinds) wonders aloud whether the men they're killing even had anything to do with Munich. For all he knows, the team could be carrying out an in-house purge to make way for new, more radical Palestinian leaders.
And while Avner's team is tracking down Arab victims, enemy assassins track them. The same people who sell the Israelis information about Palestinians may be selling Palestinians information about the Israelis.
The hunters become the hunted, paranoia trumps patriotism, and the descent into moral quagmire is complete.
Munich is least successful when Spielberg and Kushner set up debates between characters over the validity of the Palestinian and Israeli causes.
Ultimately the film becomes a cautionary tale about a man – or nation – hamstrung by fear and guilt. It's more a movie of ideas than of characters, but it has the ideal leading man in Bana. Most of his dialogue is about the business at hand, but over time you can see the ravages of isolation and violence etch their way into his features. Once full of youthful virility, by film's end Bana's Avner is practically skeletal.
Munich is so powerful – and dangerous – because it insists on seeing past good and evil, them and us. It's filled with tour-de-force action sequences, yet in the end the excitement is muted. The thrill of the kill has become a dull knot of anguish.
Avner asks his handler (Geoffrey Rush): Why are we killing these people when the men who replace them are even worse?
The chilling reply: Why cut your fingernails when they're going to grow back?
Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- November 3: Casino Royale (2006) Rated PG-13
- November 10: Road to Perdition (2002) Rated R
- November 17: Layer Cake (2004) Rated R
- November 24: Munich (2005) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- November 5: Quantum of Solace (2008) Rated PG-13
- November 12: Sylvia (2003) Rated R
- November 19: Infamous (2006) Rated R
- November 26: Defiance (2008) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.