For reasons I’m not sure I can articulate, I was reluctant to see Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, Munich (IMDB). I know that I’ve been let down by many of Spielberg’s “historical” films (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and, in a different way, The Color Purple). But Munich has challenged me in ways that I did not expect. I’m still not quite sure what I think about the film, so if you’ve seen Munich I’d appreciate knowing what you think.
Munich opens with the 1972 kidnapping and murder of eleven athletes and coaches from the Israeli Olympic team by a group of Palestinians. Much of this material has already been portrayed in the 1999 documentary, One Day in September, but like the documentary, Spielberg focuses on ABC’s live coverage of the crisis, culminating in ABC broadcaster Jim McKay’s bleak comment, “They’re all gone.” This sequence sets up the recruitment of Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent and former bodyguard for prime minister Golda Meir, to a clandestine assassination squad. Meir’s chilling observation that the assassination of the Israeli athletes “changes everything” clearly echoes post-9/11 rhetoric, as David Walsh points out, and throughout Munich, we encounter echoes between the past and present.
Avner is tapped to lead a squad of four others, including most prominently, the cold-blooded Steve (Daniel Craig) and the reluctant “worried,” Carl (Ciarán Hinds), allowing Spielberg to explore a relatively broad range of responses to the morality of revenge. Eventually, Avner enlists the help of the mysterious Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who provides the squad with information about the location of their targets, as well as safe houses where they can stay while plotting each assassination. And this is one aspect of the film I’m still trying to interpret. While Louis and “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), the even more secretive source of information, suggest some sort of larger conspiracy, that conspiracy is never fully articulated. Are they representatives of the CIA? Mossad? Or are they merely profiting from this desire for revenge?
This question is complicated when Avner’s squad is sheltered in the same safe house as a group of Palestinian bodyguards, presumably by mistake (the Israeli team pretends to be European left-wing terrorists in order to avoid conflict). Avner ultimately discusses the history of the conflict with one of the Palestinians, Ali (Omar Metwally), raising anothre important question that was unresolved for me at the end of the film.
Clearly, any history of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East will be informed by the chronological starting point of the narrative. By beginning the story with Munich, Spielberg’s film places less emphasis on what might have provoked the events in Munich. Still, Spielberg’s version of this history does challenge prior narratives of this history. Munich also portrays all of the murders as tragic–including the deaths of the Israeli Olympic team, which are conveyed in one of the more troubling flashbacks I’ve seen in some time.
Again, I’m still not quite sure how to respond to this film. The echoes with the present are clearly important. As Stephanie Zacharek points out, the film’s final shot, which takes place in 1973 after Avner has resettled in Brooklyn, shows the World Trade Center deep in the background. But the film’s moral and political positions are somewhat ambiguous. Whether, as Zacharek suggests, that’s due to the competing visions of screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth or due to Spielberg’s own ambivalence is another question.
Again, I’m curious to hear what others thought about Munich. I’m still sorting through my reading of the film, but I am glad to see filmmakrs such as Speilberg tackle such a complicated topic in what appears to be a very serious way.