Grim and Deadly Tale of Revenge

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” --Friedrich Nietzsche

It was a dark day in history when a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September caused the death of 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer during the 1972 Olympics games held in Munich, Germany. Even darker days followed when the Israeli response was to send a covert death squad to terminate 11 people who had a hand in the planning of the Munich tragedy. Steven Spielberg’s Munich details this story, which is one of murder, despair, paranoia and the selling of one’s soul for the supposed greater good. It’s his bleakest film yet, and contains no easy answers, but plenty of sad questions.

Following the massacre at Munich, the Israeli government commissions Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) to lead a team of experts into Europe to assassinate a group of Palestinian targets. Avner struggles at the thought of leaving his pregnant wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer), but is dedicated to his people and accepts. Funded by his contact Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), Avner buys the information necessary to locate his targets, then promptly executes them. Things get complicated when worse replacements fill the shoes of the dead, more terrorism erupts, his team is targeted, and Avner begins to question if he is any better than those he is killing. Is peace really the end that justifies these means?

Munich is Spielberg’s latest attempt to match the intensity and transcedence of his two best films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (which all the advertising references). While it does have the tension necessary to elevate it above the celluloid it’s shot on, it lacks the heart and chemistry of those two previous films, which prevents it from being as great as it could have been.

Eric Bana (Hulk) is a good actor, but he seems to be holding back here. His portrayal of Avner is at the center of this film--it’s Avner’s story. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be close to him as a character, and easier to stand back and just watch instead of becoming intimately involved. The same could be said of the rest of Avner’s team--all good actors, but there is a cap on the chemistry they are supposed to have, which leaves the viewer detached and merely observatory.

What does work very well is the story, which is compelling and tragic. These men are supposed to be committing heroic acts for the homeland, but all the death seems only to serve the cankering of their souls. At one point bomb-maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) laments, “I’m a Jew, I’m supposed to be righteous!” It’s one of the great questions the movie presents: can you really defeat terrorism by becoming terrorists?

Another excellent aspect of Munich (and one Spielberg is in a lot of trouble for) is the balance of politics it presents. The Palestinians are not portrayed as one-dimensional animals, but as real people with just as much at stake as the Israelis. In one scene, Avner meets his target on a balcony and they make friendly chat just before Avner gives the signal (somewhat reluctantly), to blow the guy to smithereens. In another, Avner converses with a Palestinian militant (who doesn’t know Avner is Jewish), and they have a real dialogue about the holy war they are both involved in. While I am totally appalled with their methods, this film has brought me to a better understanding of Israeli and Palestinian motives. This is pretty remarkable coming from Spielberg, who obviously put the integrity of his script before his religious convictions.

Like Shindler’s and Ryan, Munich is a brutal film. Murder is a messy business, and we see lots of blood and gore up close. What’s even more disturbing is the link Spielberg creates between sex and death. This happens several times, and is punctuated near the end of the film, when Spielberg cross-cuts between Avner’s violent lovemaking and a flashback of Munich’s bullet-ridden conclusion. It’s an unpleasant connection, but solidifies the “orgy of violence” that went on and continues to do so.

Unlike the two aforementioned classics, there is no measure of hope or satisfaction at the end of this film, only pessimism. What has all this death achieved? History says not much, and so does Munich. It’s a savage, gloomy tale that while flawed, teaches that violence begets violence and little else.