Monday, December 12, 2011
Munich is a film of exceptional moral ambiguity and inquiry from a director often known for his tendency to tie his films' morals up in neat little bows at the end. Steven Spielberg resists, for the most part, that temptation here, and the result is one of his best films and certainly one of the best of his more self-consciously "serious" films. The film concerns the aftermath of the 1972 terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich. Spielberg's film is based on a book by George Jonas, about the Israeli government's secret response to this act of terrorism. A group of operatives are gathered and sent off with the names of 11 Arab men who had planned and been involved with the Black September terrorism in various ways. Led by a young and inexperienced low-level Mossad operative named Avner (Eric Bana), this secret group moves around Europe targeting and killing these terrorists.
It is a film about revenge and the cyclic nature of violence, but it is also a compelling, taut, and tightly constructed thriller, a visceral espionage movie in which each kill is meticulously tracked from the planning stage through to the often troubled and frenzied execution of the plan. Spielberg is a master director of action, and part of the reason that Munich is so successful is that there isn't a schizophrenic disconnect between Spielberg the Hollywood crowd-pleaser and Spielberg the "serious" moralist, as there is in so many of Spielberg's other late films. Instead, the action is the content here, and Spielberg uses the crisply executed action scenes to build the moral foundation of the film. It's a seamless and organic process that makes Munich work on multiple levels, as a straightforward historical thriller and as a moral consideration of guilt, revenge, and political assassination.
One of the best scenes in this respect is the sequence where Avner and his team plot to kill one of their targets using a bomb in a telephone. They plant the bomb, then wait outside the man's apartment one morning, watching his wife and child leave, then call from a pay phone, waiting for the target to pick up so they can set off the explosive. The plan goes wrong because a moving truck pulls in front of the bombers' car, blocking their view of the apartment, so that they don't see when the car carrying the target's daughter pulls up again so she can go back inside to fetch something she forgot. The Israelis go forward with their plan, calling the apartment, one of them poised with the detonator, but when it's the little girl that picks up, not the father they intend to kill, they realize their mistake. Spielberg deliberately draws out the tension here, cutting back and forth from inside the apartment, where the girl strolls around trying to find what she'd left behind, to outside where the commandos prepare to carry out their kill. It's harrowing: each number dialed on the pay phone outside gets its own shot, interspersed with images of the girl, and after she picks up, as two of the commandos scramble to warn off the man with the detonator, it's not at all obvious whether they'll be in time or not. It's an especially potent use of Spielberg's instincts for Hollywood-style suspense: the moving truck that blocks the commandos' view is certainly a Hollywood contrivance, and the emphasis on the cute little girl who may soon be blown up is also deliberate heartstring-tugging, as is the earlier moment where one of the commandos, in the apartment posing as a journalist, sees her play the piano and smile at him.
Spielberg's use of such devices isn't just empty manipulation, though. Scenes like this one — and the later scene where a honeymooning couple are injured in the overly powerful blast that kills another target — drive home just how delicate such missions of vengeance are, just how easily the ethos of eye-for-an-eye can lead one astray. It's not only the possibility of unintended collateral damage: this mission of murder begins to weigh on most of the commandos, with the possible exception of Steve (Daniel Craig), who says that "only Jewish blood matters" and as a result doesn't feel any remorse at extinguishing the lives of those who threaten his people. Steve's Zionism and nationalism give him an unshakable faith in the rightness of this mission that makes him eerily parallel those on the other side who are also so convinced in the essential rightness of their cause, who also believe that murder is justifiable in pursuit of their objectives. Not incidentally, many of the Arab terrorists depicted in the film also see their mission as one of revenge for Jewish attacks on their people.
Indeed, Spielberg's parallels between the Arab terrorists and the Israeli commandos hunting and killing them excited much outrage from Jewish and Israeli groups, upset by the film's conflation of terrorism with counter-terrorism. But that's missing the point. Spielberg's film is about not forgetting the value of a human life, and most importantly it's about not falling for the delusion that violence can beget peace. Several times in the film, the characters count up the record of Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli reprisals, as though keeping a tally on some morbid scorecard. The more men they kill, the more they question their actions, as they see that even while they're in Europe killing terrorists, others immediately take the place of those they kill, and high-profile attacks are still carried out, killing Israelis and other Westerners all over the world. Seeing no tangible result of their actions, no benefit, they begin to wonder if all the bloodshed is worth it, or if they're simply sacrificing the moral high ground, the goodness and decency that allows them to live with themselves.
In one key scene, the Israeli commandos are unexpectedly surprised at a safehouse by a team of PLO soldiers, because the double-dealing French spy Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who set up the location, had, accidentally or on purpose, double-booked it. The subsequent standoff and fragile peace between the two groups (with the Israelis pretending to belong to various European terrorist cells) is another of those Hollywood contrivances that Spielberg turns into a productive opportunity for moral inquiry. (Though the scene where Steve and a PLO operative stage a symbolic battle between East and West on a radio dial is a rare goofy, heavy-handed misstep.) Avner has a late-night conversation with his opposite number, Ali (Omar Metwally), in which Ali expresses his sincere belief that soon Israel will fall, and that the whole world will have to go along with the creation of a Palestinian state. Avner looks at him uncomprehendingly, unable to grasp that this man actually believes that this will happen, actually thinks that terrorist attacks and bombings will somehow convince the world of the rightness of the Palestinian cause. Ali thinks that violence will wake people up, will make them see what's going on, but Avner is starting to understand something very different: that violence only causes more violence and entrenches people even deeper into their established ideologies, making them less, not more, open to compromise or change. What this conversation also yields is a reminder that the Palestinians really do want a home, that whatever else this fight might be about, the primary stakes are the right to a feeling of rootedness and belonging. Avner can't deny Ali the right to want that feeling, for himself and his descendents, and the conversation ends, typically, with nothing resolved, with the two sides remaining separated from one another by a seemingly irreconcilable conflict in ideas and desires.
At times, Spielberg is almost aggressively even-handed. Early on, when the news mistakenly reports at first that all the Munich terrorists were killed but all the Israeli hostages survived, Spielberg shows relieved Jewish families and sobbing Arab families. When the news changes and the reporters have to correct themselves and announce that the hostages have also been killed, then everyone on both sides is crying, mourning their dead. The effect is not, I don't think, to equate terrorists and their victims, but to suggest that there are families and human connections on both sides, even for those who perpetrate terrorist acts. This is a recurring theme in the film, the importance of family and home, because the justification for all the violence and war and terrorism and reprisal on both sides is always that everyone involved is fighting for their families, for the right to a homeland. Avner's wife and daughter appear at several key points in the film, as reminders of his humanity and his home, but terrorists like Ali are also fighting for what they believe they need to do for their families. It's telling, too, that at the end of the film Avner's Mossad contact refuses to "break bread" with him; governments and their political agendas are largely disconnected from such domestic concerns, though they also perpetrate their acts in the names of their citizens and their families. That's why the family-focused Louis and his father (Michael Lonsdale), who run a global espionage, information-dealing network, refuse to deal with governments, with their abstract motivations and distance from the passions that drive individual fighters.
What's great about Munich is that, atypically for Spielberg, all of these moral questions and entanglements are dealt with but there's no definitive resolution for the contradictions and doubts that dog the Israeli commandos during their mission. The film simply confronts, head on, the cycle of violence that marks the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one scene, which epitomizes the film, Avner comes face to face with one of his targets, having a pleasant chat on adjoining balconies at a hotel, while in the background a passionate couple kiss and grope one another on a third balcony. Avner is just waiting for this man to go to bed so he can give the signal to blow him up, and he knows that the man is a terrorist responsible for many horrendous acts, but for a few moments he's confronted with both the humanity of his target and the potential innocents who could get caught up in this attempt at retribution. Spielberg even layers Avner together with the target and the innocent couple within a single shot, so that the link between Avner's signal and the murderous consequences will be absolutely clear. Vengeance, the film suggests, is never a simple thing, but rather part of a network of causes and effects that tie together family, politics, religion, history, and more, making questions of right and wrong far more complicated than mere binary values. Never before has Spielberg seemed so acutely aware of such complexities, and never before has he so powerfully portrayed them onscreen.