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.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back, been missing your writings up here.
Munich works quite well, but I did hate the action scenes in their Mann-esque look. They tried too much to be cool at any cost, ruining the overall drama. Even those Twin Towers struggle to fit on the screen. I mean, the script and the message was already clear, was that last shot really necessary to the economy of the script?

Dan O. said...

This is a good thriller that features some very tense moments but its also Bana's performance as well that just totally makes this film better with every scene he has. However, I do think that this flick doesn't really do much else other than just be a thriller and by the end, I felt like Spielberg once again, kept it going on for way too long. Good review.

Peter Lenihan said...

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.

Yeah, and I think it's important that they are saying these lines within the context of a Steven Spielberg thriller--very few directors have been as concerned with home, with its conception and the necessity of building these spaces, and so to have him equate the Arab terrorists mission with his own (that is, building communal and domestic spaces) is a pretty profound admission I think. It's not a particularly great or intelligent statement in and of itself, but the fact that the speaker is Spielberg really elevates it, at least in my mind.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Gekko, it's good to be back. I thought the action scenes were actually great and appreciated how crisply executed they were. Very Mann-like indeed. I liked that it was a serious film and engaged with serious ideas but also functioned as an action-packed thriller rather than simply stuffing the film with speeches and heavy-handed philosophy. Good point about the last shot, though.

Dan, Bana was definitely great in this. He communicated so much with just his facial expressions; by the end of the film he really does look haunted, his eyes locked into a thousand-yard stare. The ending was maybe a little prolonged, but it suffered from that problem far less than most other late Spielberg films. Compared to the last-act bloat and missteps of films like Saving Private Ryan or Minority Report, Munich feels positively trim. I will say I wasn't crazy about the cutting of the sex scene towards the end with flashbacks to the Munich hostage situation's climax.

Peter, I think you're really onto something there. Family and home are such important touchstones for Spielberg - they're at the core of his work - and it's really interesting to see these themes applied in such unexpected ways in this film. It's great to see him really universalize these key personal concerns in this way.

Joel Bocko said...

First of all, great to have you back! I didn't think Munich worked, but I liked it. I'm a sucker for any film set in the 60s/70s revolutionary/political milieu but ironically I find they often don't really work as narratives - too much to digest, perhaps. I haven't seen it since it came out, but Munich seemed too long, too loosely structured to me at the time. But I enjoyed it and would love to watch it again.

The orgasm/violence scene though was just embarrassing. Leave that stuff to DePalma, Steve, he does it much better.

Ed Howard said...

The orgasm/violence scene though was just embarrassing.

Agreed, I meant to bring that up in the review. It's pretty damn bad.

The rest is great though, definitely a top-tier Spielberg despite the occasional missteps.

Anonymous said...

I was stunned by the sex scene when I saw the film. Couldn't believe that Spielberg would descend to that sort of bad taste stunt. It soured the rest of the film for me, and I'd put it near the top of any list of "what the hell were they thinking" moments in film history.

Shubhajit said...

Superb review!

Munich, I feel, often gets relegated as second-rung Spielberg thanks to the kind of blockbusters his filmography has been populated with over the years. People equate Spielberg either with such SFX bonanzas as Jurassic Park or with Schindler's List. The same happened with another Spielberg movie that I like, viz. Minority Report.

I completely agree with you on that Munich remains a solid, taut and immensely engaging thriller, which, unlike most of his movies, didn't bypass the psychological aspects of the storyline. No easy answers have been provided, which in itself makes it quite special vis-a-vis most of his movies - including the so-called serious ones.

Ed Howard said...

It doesn't ruin the film for me, James, but it's definitely a stunningly off-key scene.

Shubhajit, sounds like we totally agree on this one (and Minority Report, which I also love). It's a great, exciting movie and its moral ambiguity, so rare in Spielberg's filmography, elevates it even more.

MP said...

I am not a fan of Spielberg's later films. But, like aforementioned I thought MUNICH had this Mann-like feeling and a sober cinematography that was apecific of Pakula's films in the 1970's. Probably, like Spielberg did with SCHINDLER'S LIST with the Black and white of the 1940's.
What bothered me much in MUNICH is the palpable hypocrisy of the Israeli side "partisanerie" from Spielberg even if he was very cautious to be objective I had some sort of malaise when I first saw it.
However, I think the narrative works and this is one of Spielberg's better in years.

Adam Zanzie said...

This is a wonderful review, Ed. I attempted my own write-up on Munich for our Spielberg Blogathon last year, but it was too convoluted and confused so I took it back to the cutting room floor. Thing is, this film is one of those masterpieces that's so difficult to write about--ironic, considering that Spielberg should be an easy filmmaker to write about in most cases. But there are so many dimensions to the Tony Kushner screenplay here, and to Spielberg's visualization of it, that it's very difficult to put the profound experience of the movie itself into words. You've done a superb justice to it here, though.

Great comments about that scene where Avner is on the balcony and is chatting with his target while the couple is in the background. One of the things I find so fascinating about Munich is that the Palestinians aren't villains in the least. Like Avner and his team, they're patriots who only want access to freedom. But that will not stop them from getting into dogfights with each other, nor will it prevent wandering innocents (i.e. the amorous couple) from getting taken down with them. It's heartbreaking.

There's an often-missed moment I love in the quiet scene that comes after Avner's team murders the Dutch female assassin. It's that moment when Hans (the Hanns Zischler character) is sulking at the dinner table because he feels bad about screaming at Avner and Steve to "LEAVE it!" when they try to close up her housecoat after she's dead. One of the common criticisms of Munich (which Todd McCarthy raised in a negative review) is that we don't get to know much about Avner's teammates. But those critics ignore these vital little moments. Carl's line about Israel's anti-death penalty policies. Robert's fear of losing his sense of righteousness. Hans' guilt about the manner in which the Dutch assassin was slaughtered. Steve's paranoia when he and Avner fail miserably in their attempt to kill Salamei. There are so many rich character moments like these in the film.

As for the sex scene at the end, here's a thought-provoking defense of it by Matt Zoller Seitz, who writes:

On the contrary, I think the sex scene is the heart of the movie, the point where it (pardon the language) takes its clothes off and shows you what it really is. Avner truly loves his wife, truly loves having sex with his wife (an unironic expression of heterosexual domestic ardor, one that almost has a hearty peasant quality; only Spielberg would dare be so cornball, and so true to the feelings of men who married well). When he fucks his wife he feels safe. That this sacred moment would be invaded by images of Munich is at once appalling, sad, funny and true to the experience of anyone who has suffered violence or watched powerlessly as it was inflicted on someone else.

How many millions of people have had sex after 9/11 in order to escape the memory of that horror, images the entire world saw and suffered through, only to have the images come flooding back into their heads, poisoning the very act whose tenderness was supposed to afford them refuge? Juxtaposed against Avner’s congress with his wife, his soulmate, those images of brutality are like needles jabbing into his brain.

To quote Pauline Kael’s review of “Casualties of War,” it’s the ultimate violation. The final shot that reveals the Twin Towers is a secret decoder ring, the shot that tells us what we were really watching for two hours and forty minutes, and what we think about when we try not to think about 9/11.

Joel Bocko said...

I don't think the idea is necessarily misconceived (hence the nod to DePalma) just that the execution didn't work at all. To take an idea which skirts the comical to begin with and then play up the melodrama with the music and the movement is to take it over the edge into embarrassment, I think. That was my reaction at the time anyway.

Ed Howard said...

Michael, good comparison to those 70s thrillers; I think you're right that Spielberg is consciously evoking that tradition. I don't think it's true that he's too much on the Israeli side here, but I suspect it's impossible to make a movie about this conflict that doesn't offend one side or the other to some degree - or more likely, both sides at once, which is pretty much what's happened here. He's been accused of being too sympathetic to both the Israelis and the Palestinians in this film. Me, I think that's probably a good sign that something more complex is going on here.

Adam, I knew you'd be checking in. And I'm glad you singled out that moment with the Dutch assassin. It's a great scene, and a very subtle one, dealing with her status as a "honey trap," the way she uses her sexuality to kill men, and even right before she dies she starts shrugging off her robe as though hoping that she can seduce them into letting her go, as though the sight of her naked body will stay their vengeance. By leaving the robe open, they are kind of punishing her for her sexuality, letting her death pose stand as a symbol of the reason why she was killed. But the Israeli commando who demanded that they do that feels regret afterwards, in part because he realizes that he was treating her death too abstractly, thinking of it like sending a message, using her corpse as a symbol. Which is of course what terrorists do. And is also part of the Israelis' brief for this mission, to inspire fear in the terrorists themselves, sending a message with each showy, public death.

DavidEhrenstein said...

An interesting but ultimately unsatisfying film, though Tony Kushner brings something new to the table (they're doing Lincoln together now)

Ultimately a different sort of film is required to deal with the palestinian situation. And I doubt Spielberg is prepared to make it.

Ed Howard said...

Ultimately a different sort of film is required to deal with the palestinian situation. And I doubt Spielberg is prepared to make it.

This is probably true; a really great and probing film about this conflict would have to be made by someone much more politically inquisitive and journalistically inclined. Assayas could make a fantastic film on the subject, I'm sure. Still, Spielberg did a very good job of adapting his own style to a much more morally ambiguous, unsettling story than what he usually offers.