Munich is all about “Munich.” Not the place, and not even the event forever associated with the place. That is, it’s not about the taking and killing of Israeli hostages by the pro-Palestinian group Black September at the 1972 Olympic Games. It is, instead, about the profound and shifting meaning the city’s name took on after that dire moment, the shorthand it became for survivors, historians, and avengers, those who tried to make sense of such violence by mourning, writing, or exacting retribution for it.
The illegibility of that violence makes the first minutes of Steven Spielberg’s film harrowing and enthralling. The assailants arrive at the fence surrounding the Olympic Village seemingly daunted by the height, when a crew of American athletes happens by, returning late following a night out. The athletes help the terrorists climb over. So innocent, so unknowing — the fact that these track-suited naifs are Americans can only remind you of how much the world has changed in 30 years. And yet, it’s much the same.
During Black September’s assault, the camera bangs from frightened victims’ faces to bloody wall splatters to horrified tv viewers. For the ordeal is on tv: Jim McKay narrates as best he can, getting facts wrong, watching the ski-masked terrorist cock his head while standing on the balcony. The experience is so instantly overmediated and sensational, no one knows what to do: Should the German police or military handle the response? Should the Israeli government have a say?
When the ordeal ends in disaster at the airport, the Israelis decide to strike back, using recently conceived “counterterrorist” tactics. Seeing no alternative (the Palestinians “want to destroy us”), the Israelis understand in particular the risks they take with regard to world opinion: as victims, they warrant good will and protectiveness. As assassins, they become the problem. Spielberg’s film tracks (and fictionalizes) the assassinations that followed, carried out by a team simultaneously assembled and disavowed by Golda Meir’s (Lynn Cohen) government. In the face of such calculated horrors, sustained and excruciatingly public, she asserts, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
Compromising with values is the key dilemma for Avner (Eric Bana), the former Mossad agent and Meier’s sometime bodyguard whom she assigns to lead the team of assassins. As soon as the mission is named, however, the state must disavow it and the men who conduct it. And so Avner, acting in the name of what is right and righteous, must leave behind his pregnant wife (who serves mainly as the image of “home,” ripe, lovely, trusting), his mother (who believes in the end and doesn’t want to know means), and, essentially, his life. The fact that Avner’s famous military father is dead, and so his domestic front is represented as a trio of women — wife, mother, and Meier — makes his work seem gallantly grounded in a particular concept of nation-preservation rather than incessant aggression.
At the same time, his primary Israeli contact is Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), dedicated to revenge as a way to declare national and personal selfhood. And it this imperative that Avner comes to question as he travels across Europe with his motley team (they cannot go into Arab countries, for then the Israeli state sanction would be overt). Early scenes show the core group — eager Steve (Daniel Craig), toymaker-turned-bombmaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), antique shop owner and forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), and avuncular military vet Carl (Ciarán Hinds) — bonding in heartfelt, friendly discussion and bread-breaking. It’s a typical move in Spielberg’s films, to grant the men emotional stakes in one another (see also, Jaws) before they embark on their traumatic labors, resulting in the ruination of their bonds and idealism.
Beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski, the film is laced through with suspenseful Spielberian set pieces, including the child-in-danger number (a target’s daughter answers the phone rigged with a bomb), the revelation-of-costs number (in a hotel when a bomb explodes, Avner sees the resulting fear in a screaming newlywed couple, beyond the target’s bloody remnants), and the father-figure number, in which an ideologically neutral and frankly menacing French contact called only “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale) supplies the group with target locations but also sells information to highest bidders.
When Papa observes, “The world has been rough with you, with your tribe,” Avner doesn’t quite see the repetition of the pattern, or the impossibility of protecting his family by violence, that assertions of fealty and deathless love mean little in the face of living with threat forever. Later, when Papa arranges for the team to hide out in the same safe house as a Palestinian group, Avner and Ali (Omar Metwally) discuss the differences in their missions: “You don’t know what it’s like, you have a home to go back to,” insists the nationless Ali. Avner agrees but also worries: “Home is everything.” It can be lost, always.
Home, tribe, family — these seem the values by which Avner measures the worth of his duty. And yet, the film contends, the efforts to define home by endless cycles of aggression can never succeed. One of Avner’s most devastating lessons arrives in the form of a fairly stock-seeming femme fatale (the danger is so plainly telegraphed that you begin to doubt Avner’s judgment — this is an international killer?). When Jeanette (Marie-Josée Croze) proves to be a mercenary, willing to sell her services to the men who come to kill her (“Maybe you want to hire me,” she breathes, “You know how good I am”), Avner is appalled. But as alarming as Jeanette’s professionalism might seem, he sees in her as well a mirror for his own dedication. The moral distinctions between money and identity are crumbling. As Robert notes, “All this blood comes back to us.”
Spielberg has told Time magazine that he hopes Munich will “change the world.” He knows this won’t happen, but he invests in the gesture at least. As much as Munich reduces its thriller aspects, it does complicate terrorism, showing it as a system of continual, cruel, dissatisfaction. That the film relies reverts to showy conventions suggests limits of imagination, not good intentions.
Still, and to its credit, the film leaves Avner at a loss, unable to make sense of what he’s done. His icy, masculine resolve gives way to guilt and angst. Unfortunately, this leads in turn to a tragic, Coppolian set piece, a scene in which Avner has sex with his wife intercut with a harrowing flashback of the murders of the Israelis about to be shot at the airport: their abject faces completely unanswered by the revenge he’s been wreaking, or worse, his climaxing over his wife’s body.
More effective are the few minutes depicting Avner’s increasing paranoia that the Israelis must kill him to keep their part in the murders secret. Unnerved by every car he sees on the street, he meets with Ephraim against a monumentally meaningful backdrop: the Twin Towers. Ephraim assures him, “You killed them for Munich… for the future… for peace.” None of these terms means what it once did.