During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed by members of the Palestinian organization Black September. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir secretly authorized the Mossad (Israel's national intelligence organization) to hunt down and kill the individuals responsible for the massacre.
“These are indisputable facts,” says Steven Spielberg, speaking in an introduction filmed for the home video release of his 2005 feature Munich. It's a curiously defensive introduction, as Spielberg spends four minutes insisting that he is genuinely a supporter of Israel, that he feels comfortable with the source material used for the film, that he feels confident in the research done by his team, that dramatic license was necessarily taken in certain areas and that the movie is not intended to be seen as a documentary or any sort of definitive statement on a long-lasting conflict. It seems strange for a director to have to offer so many disclaimers, but Munich was a film that inspired a great deal of heated debate over the course of its theatrical run (and that was in 2005 – one can only wonder how the kneejerk outrage machine of the modern internet might react to it).
Those who insist on filtering Munich through rigid political ideology will inevitably dislike the movie, because it doesn't support simple, black-and-white readings of a complex situation. There were many who felt that it was anti-Israel, claiming it seemed more concerned with the morality of Israel's reaction to the Munich massacre than the morality of the massacre itself. There were many who felt that it was anti-Palestine, as the bulk of the story is presented from an exclusively Israeli perspective and the Palestinian side of the conflict doesn't really get significant screen time. The truth is that the movie is bigger than a political conflict between two countries, using the massacre and its aftermath to weigh the necessity of counter-terrorism against the moral cost of nationally sanctioned vengeance.
The man at the center of Munich is Avner Kaufman, the Mossad agent tasked with leading the mission to locate and assassinate the Black September members responsible for the massacre. Avner knows the mission will be challenging on both a practical and personal level: it's going to take a great deal of time and effort just to find the targets, and the international travel required for the mission will keep Avner separated from his wife (Ayelet Zurer, Angels & Demons) and newborn daughter for quite some time. Still, he recognizes the importance of his assignment and accepts the job without hesitation.
Avner's team is comprised of a series of highly-skilled specialists from around the globe: a Belgian explosives expert (Mathieu Kassovitz, Jakob the Liar), a South African driver (Daniel Craig, Casino Royale), a Danish documents forgers (Hans Zischler, Ripley's Game) and an Israeli “cleaner” (Ciaran Hinds, There Will Be Blood). Their handler is Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech), who ensures that the team members are taken care of but have no official ties to Israel's government. The team receives much of its information from Louis (Mathieu Amalric, Venus in Fur), the son of a well-connected French mercenary (Michael Lonsdale, Moonraker).
A large portion of the film plays as a grim, methodically-paced, globe-hopping thriller built around a series of tense, violent assassinations. Despite the fact that these men are very good at what they do, most of the killings lack the sort of ruthless efficiency they're aiming for. The first shooting Avner participates in is an awkward, messy affair that forces him to confront the reality that he's taking a human life. An attempted bombing – one of the film's most nerve-wracking sequences – comes perilously close to bringing about some horrific collateral damage. Time and time again, Spielberg emphasizes the ugliness of the task Avner has been handed. Whether the film actually condemns the killings is for the viewer to decide, but Spielberg clearly wants us to feel the full weight of everything Avner does.
Naturally, the killings the Mossad team carries out inspire a series of counter-attacks, piling violence on top of violence on top of violence. “We're in a dialogue now,” one of the men says. Additionally, it becomes increasingly clear that all of the death is taking a serious toll on Avner's soul. Bana's work as Avner may well be the strongest performance of his career, as he subtly but powerfully captures a man suffocating under the weight of his own conscience. Deep down, he knows that he is committing acts of vengeance, regardless of whether or not they are also acts of justice.
The first half of the '00s was an extraordinarily fertile creative period in Spielberg's career, and Munich is arguably the crown jewel of that period. He brings razor-tight tension to the assassination sequences, and creates an atmosphere of global paranoia so convincing that it feels as if the walls of the entire world are closing in on Avner. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography effectively applies different filters and visual techniques from location to location (and does so in a manner that feels far less obvious than Steven Soderbergh's similarly color-coded work on Traffic), and John Williams turns in some of his best work of the 21st century with a score that fully captures the film's nervous tension and heartfelt empathy. The score's main theme is titled “A Prayer for Peace,” which aptly summarizes the movie's deepest intentions.
Spielberg concludes the movie with two of the most provocative and dramatically potent scenes he's ever directed. The first begins as a love scene between Avner and his wife, but quickly begins to insert graphic flashbacks of the Munich massacre. Every part of Avner's life – even the beautiful, intimate parts that should be a respite from everything else – has been overtaken by the things he has seen and done. The second is a conversation between Avner and Ephraim. I will not reveal what they say to each other, but will say that their final words – particularly when paired with the devastating, emotionally-loaded image Spielberg closes with – resonate as a eloquent, heartbroken cry of anguish. On a personal and national level, the price of vengeance is unbearably steep.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 164 minutes
Release Year: 2005