Steven Spielberg has purged his Cast of Characters for this film of their family names. I have therefore assigned willy-nilly family names of my own invention to those characters in the film that aren’t given family names in the Cast of Characters that appears at the end of the film. I am sorry for any confusion that this may engender; but I know of no other way of working around the film’s omissions.
On September 5, in Munich, West Germany, with only six days left in the games of the 1972 Summer Olympics, a squadron of eight Palestinian terrorists, members of the fedayeen, a branch of the PLO, recruited from refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, stole their way into Olympic Village, murdered two Israeli athletes and took nine other Israeli athletes hostage. They demanded the release from Israeli jails of 234 Palestinians and safe transport for themselves, along with their hostages, to Cairo, Egypt. The next morning, however, a shootout at the airport between the Palestinians and West German police left all the Israeli hostages and five of their kidnappers dead. The lame, conflicted, self-serving West German response helped convince Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to enter the fray and pick up the slack in order to bring those who plotted the event to justice. To this day, many question whether those who were assassinated participated in any way in the Munich massacre.
Steven Spielberg’s Munich arrives with a familiar warning: “Inspired by true events,” the screen informs us. In other words, what the film is poised to present us is not an account of the true events but a fantasy at least partly inspired by what actually occurred. This orienting comment helps the viewer grasp, and grapple with, the film’s motives and aims.
However, a good many reviewers have failed to take the clue that the comment provides and, as a result, have incorrectly faulted the film, which focuses on a Mossad operation to hunt down the parties responsible and kill them, by shooting them, if necessary, and by blowing them up whenever possible, to cause a sufficient media splash so that the deaths accumulate into a deterrent against the murder of Jews, helping to strengthen the safety of Israeli citizens. (The Mossad is comparable to our Central Intelligence Agency.) The clandestine troop of five Israeli assassins, critics of the film erroneously contend, fails to measure up to the reality of the situation in a number of ways, one of which is that, over lavish meals they themselves prepare, the men anguish over their killing mission, its morality, its prospects for achieving the desired goals. Only one member of the team, Steve Passer, is the gung-ho Zionist we would imagine them all to have been in reality. His philosophy is simple: Jewish blood is the only blood that matters. (Cutely and a bit offensively, Spielberg has made him blond and blue-eyed, to suggest that Passer is a facsimile of a Jewish Nazi.) Robert Asker, the group’s bomb-maker, a toymaker by trade, may be the most anguished as he increasingly feels that what they are doing violates Jewish standards of decency. The leader of the team, Avner Bosch, is even prone to asking each target before he is dispatched whether he knows why what is about to be done is about to be done. Needless to say, at such a point in time the target tends to be rendered speechless, and thus the moral ambiguity of the outcome is further compounded, contributing to an increasingly gnawing sense in Bosch’s conscience that he may not be doing the right thing. Some reviewers find all this hysterically unrealistic, but, in truth, it is their response that is closer to being hysterical and unfounded.
Inspired by true events. What part of this suggests that Spielberg has any interest in copying reality? It is true that the film begins with a compelling intermixing of reconstructions and archival materials relating to the Munich massacre.* But the character of American-born Golda Meir, played with a warm sparkle in her eye by Lynn Cohen, introduces Spielberg’s principal method thereafter. Israel’s prime minister is shown anguishing aloud before she reaches her decision to compromise Israel’s humane values by pursuing justice at the expense of Palestinian killers. The scene isn’t “unrealistic”; it is “non-realistic”—which is something else entirely. Indeed, Spielberg increasingly creates for his film a fabulous atmosphere that renders all the angst and soul-searching very nearly expressionistic. What he has done, which he has every right as artist to do, is to project backward in time, onto Meir and Bosch and Bosch’s group, his own anguished questioning of the helpfulness of the Israeli response to “Black September,” the Munich massacre. This is his chosen means of expression in this film, and I would be, perhaps, less dumbfounded than I am that so many have missed understanding this were it not for the way that he has cast the lead. Avner Bosch is played by Australian actor Eric Bana (real name: Eric Banadinovich), the outline of whose somewhat shaggy hair, and whose overall shleppiness, help in recalling the appearance of—you guessed it!—a young Steven Spielberg. Shall I go on? Avner’s wife at one point chides her spouse for being “a sentimentalist”! (Now just who is cinema’s Sentimentalist-in-Chief?—post-Griffith, I mean.) Leveling the charge of “unrealistic” against this film, therefore, is blaming it for not being what Spielberg never intended it to be and for failing to recognize what it in fact is: the artist’s projection onto characters of his own thoughts, feelings and concerns—a strategy to which the words “Directed by Steven Spielberg” duly entitles him.
Passer exists in the group, then, as the devil’s advocate—a touchstone for the less rigid, more contorted feelings of the others. Bosch ends up paranoid once the mission is aborted; in part, the mission falls apart because Asker blows himself up by accident. This is both the weirdest incident in the film and one of the most telling. (I presume it derives from George Jonas’s book, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, which Tony Kushner adapted after Eric Roth’s attempt to do so didn’t quite work out.) Spielberg is not known for irony, but we get irony compounding irony in this instance. The first leg is a piece of dramatic irony—we see what the other surviving members of Bosch’s team cannot guess occurred: Asker arranging to blow up them, his cohorts, so distraught has he become, and so disenchanted with the mission. The second leg of irony is that Bosch, who worries that so many others are out to kill him, assumes that Asker’s death is a suicide. The implication is clear: while legitimately concerned with threats from without, Israel also needs to worry about threats from within, such as departure from core humanistic Jewish values may engender. Meir says that every nation must eventually compromise its values, and, of course, she is right. But the question remains: At what point does this compromise become a betrayal of values?
Spielberg is wondering aloud, as his peculiarly soft version of Meir might, how much good will be done for Israel by its retaliations for the Munich massacre. Writing in the Baltimore Sun, reviewer Michael Sragow refers to Aaron J. Klein’s “tough-minded new book,” Striking Back:
To this day, Israeli intelligence experts agree that the Mossad actions quelled Palestinian terror groups’ “ability to function in Europe” and quashed “the idea of mega-attacks against Israeli targets abroad.” But “Palestinians were also motivated by pragmatism. As time went on, the PLO realized that attacks outside Israel were doing their cause more harm than good.” Klein doesn’t reduce the Mossad’s actions in Europe to simple vengeance; he assesses it as part of a state strategy of prevention and deterrence.
Well, I think I have already made clear the fact that Spielberg also sees the covert Israeli operation as “a state strategy of prevention and deterrence” and not as “simple vengeance.” Nor is he questioning the immediate efficacy of the operation. Rather, he is questioning what he construes to be its long-term consequences. Moreover, he is reflecting on his own nation as well as on Israel; has George W. Bush’s Iraqi war really made the U.S. more secure? Has it indeed not had the opposite effect? Spielberg’s closing shot of the Trade Center’s twin towers may be cheesy, suggesting parallels between two Black Septembers, but it makes unmistakable the range of his concerns.
Munich has drawn considerable fire, especially in fanatical right wing circles in Israel, for the suggestion that there is a moral equivalency between Israeli and Palestinian life and death, that is to say, between the murders of athletes in Munich and the murders of Palestinians that Israeli intelligence has identified as plotting and perpetrating Israeli deaths, whether in Munich or elsewhere. This is a preposterous charge to level against Spielberg, since the paramount issue that he weighs throughout the film is precisely the security of Israelis and Israel. There is a segment of the Israeli population that resists all attempts to “humanize” Palestinians and instead wishes to “demonize” them. One certainly can appreciate the source of such a feeling, given Palestinian terrorism perpetrated ruthlessly against innocent Israeli citizens. But applying censure to Spielberg’s film on the score of its bias against reciprocal violence fails to consider that Spielberg’s principal argument against the Palestinian deaths is the consequent potential for harm to Israeli lives and Israel. Perhaps the fact that one doesn’t expect any sort of argument at all from Spielberg is what has led some to fail to grasp the argument of Munich—although one is obliged to add that many of those who have thus condemned the film on the basis of this issue had not even seen the film when they leveled their condemnation.
It is certainly the case, though, that Spielberg has shown each death, whether Israeli or Palestinian, to be horrible. Well, isn’t it horrible to be killed? If someone breaks into your home and comes at you to murder you and your spouse in bed, and he or she succeeds in murdering your spouse, and you blast the intruder to kingdom come before he or she can also kill you, using the handgun you keep in the drawer of your night table alongside your bed, isn’t the death of that intruder horrific without implying—certainly without implying—a “moral equivalency” between his or her life and that of your spouse, between his or her death and that of your spouse? Indeed, one killing is more graphically and horrifically rendered than any other in the film precisely to deny the viewer any comfort in comparing Palestinian life and death to Israeli life and death. This is the killing, by the Israelis, of a ravishing young woman who is not Palestinian—and who is, unless I am misremembering, the one female character to fall to an assailant’s bullets or bomb. Jeanette Od is Dutch; an assassin-for-hire, she seduces one of the Israelis into bed and dispatches him. Among the most gruesome killings anywhere in cinema, it accomplishes two tasks. Since it is purely an act of vengeance on the part of the Israelis, it stands in sharp contrast to the other killings by Israelis, showing better that those are not primarily, if at all, acts of vengeance. Also, since Od is the most despicable character in the film (someone who kills purely for cash, without nationalistic or political cause), and since hers is the most horrible violent death that one can imagine, Spielberg is able, through it, to sever any associative tie between the horribleness of someone’s death and the moral value of that person’s previous life. It helps us to understand, therefore, that the Palestinians killed in the film are not entitled to the same moral consideration as the slain Israeli athletes. Because he has not sufficiently grasped the implications of what he has done in films in the past, Spielberg has, unintentionally and unaware, quite often backed into making statements, or leaving impressions, at variance with what he himself believes. But here he has taken pains not to do that.
I read something that describes Munich as a “lifeless thriller.” Those who find it so—I found much of the film highly suspenseful and nearly completely engrossing—may be responding to the fact that we are not encouraged by Spielberg to anticipate each Palestinian death with something akin to excitement. On this occasion, Spielberg doesn’t titillate. However, this is a good thing, not a shortcoming. One of the most morally rephrensible films ever made is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), which launched a Hollywood strategy of whetting the viewer’s appetite for each subsequent act of violence or mayhem. That same year, Alfred Hitchcock made a different kind of film in Frenzy, in which a serial killer dispatches a number of female victims, and each death is horrible. Indeed, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is perhaps American cinema’s outstanding instance of where no glamor whatsoever is attached to a psychotic killer, whose material and mental life are exposed as miserable, desolate and lonely in the extreme. In Munich, Spielberg has gone the Hitchcock route. Since The Godfather has had decisive influence over the pathological course that Hollywood has taken over the past thirty years, Spielberg’s film amounts to a condemnation of that course. For those who wish to get excited over Palestinian deaths, Munich will inevitably seem a little lacking in “juice.” It isn’t full of cruel, artificial excitement like Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). It may even constitute an act of atonement for Jaws.
Munich adheres to a theme: Israel’s necessary survival. Astute film critic David Walsh, while admiring Spielberg’s film greatly, does not quite grasp this theme—or, perhaps, fails to appreciate how it resonates with Jews and other friends of Israel. On the World Socialist Website Walsh writes:
. . . the establishment of the Zionist state meant the expulsion of some 800,000 Palestinians. In 1946, Jews owned less than 12 percent of the land in the area that became Israeli territory; that figure rose to 77 percent after the 1948-49 war.
Palestinians fled their land in large measure out of fear of Zionist violence. In the notorious massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948, Menachem Begin’s Irgun group massacred 250 men, women and children. This widely publicized event was part of a deliberate effort to terrorize the Arabs and empty Palestine of its population. Over a two-year period from 1947 to 1949, the Zionists destroyed and depopulated more than 400 Arab villages, systematically replacing them with Jewish communities. By 1972, then, masses of Palestinians had been living miserably in refugee camps distributed throughout the region for more than two decades. They had only recently taken up arms against their condition.
The great trouble with chicken-egg readings of history, such as Walsh’s, is that they tend to be incomplete, taking as their point of departure some point in time that conveniently supports the position that the reader of history who has selected this departure point wishes to convey and promote. There is, in fact, always another egg existing prior to the posited “original” chicken, and likely another chicken existing prior to that egg, and another egg, and so forth back in time. Like Palestinian history, Jewish history had been plagued by massacres and forced scatterings—diasporas. Moreover, European Jewry had just suffered the Holocaust—the loss of six million of its members. The outpouring of sympathy for Jews that disclosure of this massive event elicited predictably dissipated almost as quickly as it appeared. As borders of numerous countries closed themselves to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and most survivors understandably did not wish to tempt the fates against them yet once more by returning to their European homes, their ancient homeland loomed as a gathering alternative—an opportunity for a people to forge a modern state of their own in historically familiar territory. A character in Munich movingly expresses the heart of the history supporting the Israeli actions that the film depicts in this way: “We had to take [our homeland] because no one would ever give it to us. Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on earth at last.”
It is beside the current point how Arabs exploited the dislocation of Palestinians, forging an anti-Jewish unity where regional fractiousness among Arab and other Muslim states and groups had previously existed. Some Arabs welcomed in Palestinians only, later, to eject them. Palestinians became the pawns of Arabs and others and of their own self-serving, demagogic leadership. It is impossible to miss their pathetic history or to otherwise fail to note that they, not the Israelis, have proven to be, over time, their greatest obstacle to peace. All this, however noteworthy for study, is beyond the scope of a consideration of Spielberg’s film. But, it seems to me, some acknowledgement must be paid to the fact that Israel has always had to contend with a world that is ever poised to dismiss, discount and even obliterate Jewish people. A good many “anti-Zionists” have adopted this pose in order to conceal from others, and in some cases themselves, their hatred of Jews, their willingness to allow Jews to perish. Religious fundamentalism of any kind, including Jewish fundamentalism, strikes me as misguided at best, abhorrent at worst. But where Israel is concerned, to invoke a cliché, the proof is in the rice pudding. The modern state of Israel and the European Jewish humanism that the Nazis had attempted to wipe off the face of the Earth have not shown themselves to be mutually exclusive and mutually detrimental. Israel is a thriving democracy; and while the U.S. Jewish community sometimes appears monolithic and insensitive to the plight of Palestinians, Israel includes Jews who do grasp some sort of alliance of Jewish and Palestinian interests and destinies, and Israeli courts do make rulings in support of Palestinian interests. Of course, some Israeli governments are more hospitable than others to these interests, but the ones that are less so tend to ride into office on the backs of ferocious waves of Palestinian terrorism. The enemy most difficult to deal with is one that truly opposes a nation’s—a people’s—right to exist. In its attempt to answer the Holocaust by ensuring the security of Israelis, Israel has continually found itself between a rock and a hard place. It seems to me that most everyone has missed the point of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declarations that Israel should cease to exist and that the Holocaust never occurred. Ahmadinejad grasps, whether consciously or intuitively I cannot say, that the Holocaust required the existence of Israel and, therefore, if it is not to exist, that can only mean that the Holocaust never happened. Without the Holocaust, there never would have been a modern state of Israel with which Middle Eastern Muslims have had to contend. But the Holocaust did happen, and Munich impresses this fact upon us far more compellingly than the sentimental antics of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) are capable of doing.
Spielberg has always had difficulty matching form to meaning. With Munich he had a particular challenge. How does he keep the film from becoming boringly repetitious when the repetitiousness of what the Israeli operation is out and about doing is part of the film’s point and thematic purpose? Spielberg needed to include sufficient repetitiousness to convey the idea of it without so extending it that the film becomes unbearable. Perhaps the repetitious action goes on a bit too long, but, all in all, it seems to me, Spielberg has skillfully met the challenge.
As always with Spielberg, there are dreadful lapses in judgment and taste. Populated by sweaty closeups, one such passage depicts lovemaking between Avner and his wife as his mind uncontrollably flashes on images of the Munich massacre and his own subsequent ordeal as a terrorist hunter throughout Europe. The idea is simple: the most intimate aspects of this man’s life have been invaded by the ordeal—if you wish to call it this, his post-traumatic stress disorder. But the form that Spielberg has fashioned in this instance fails to convey the idea; rather, it conveys the fact that he is conveying the idea—which is not the same thing at all. Indeed, Spielberg is never at his best when involving sexual intercourse. Od, the Dutch paid assassin, tries first to seduce Avner, with the intent to murder him; when, because he is married, he declines her offer, she moves on to one of his older, less attractive associates, whose anticipated bliss morphs into his own death. How bourgeois of Spielberg to imply that Avner, had he succumbed to adultery, might have deserved being dispatched. This is a typical example of Spielberg’s allowing his unconscious mind to misguide him.
With only a single exception, the acting in this film is excellent, with two of the performances rising to the level of brilliance. The odd soul out is future 007 Daniel Craig, whose blunt appearance as Passer seems to have seeped in from some more uncouth piece of work—perhaps Jaws or Schindler’s List. But Bana’s Avner Bosch is convincingly tormented—and convincingly capable in both the kitchen and in the field. Filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz is nearly as convincing in the even more tormented role of toymaker/bomb maker Robert Asker, and Ciarán Hinds, as the ever worrying Carl Gabbo, who ends up dead in the Dutch assassin’s hotel bed, is the best acted member of the assassination team. Marie-Josée Croze, who won best actress at Cannes for her role of the drug-addicted Nathalie in Denys Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions (2003), is ravishingly beautiful and voluptuous as the healthier, more robust Jeanette Od. (Only a blind soul might prefer Angelina Jolie’s Jane Smith.) Geoffrey Rush is adept as Ephraim, the assassination team’s higher-up. The two most wonderful performances, though, come from Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Almaric as “Papa” and his son, Louis, who provide Avner with the locations of those on the Israeli hit list. Disillusioned by national politics, former Resistance fighter “Papa” bemoans de Gaulle’s postwar ascension, feeling that someone better than that should have replaced the Nazis. This is the finest performance of Lonsdale’s long career, and it is the best one that Spielberg has ever drawn from anyone. Yet very nearly keeping pace with Lonsdale is Almaric as his testy son and underling-associate. Almaric has never been other than first-rate (Danièle Dubroux’s Diary of a Seducer, 1995; Olivier Assayas’s Late August, Early September, 1998); and Louis may represent his most concentrated and mature work. It is probably the second-best performance that Spielberg has drawn from anyone.
But perhaps the most authentic “star” of Munich is Michael Kahn, whose accomplished editing, along with Spielberg’s unaccustomed variety of shots, accounts for the film’s breathless excitement. Only if one hopes to feel gleeful over Palestinian deaths will he or she be disappointed in Munich’s entertainment quotient. Several times, I thought my heart would burst.
* Incidentally, Spielberg, assisted by his cutter, Michael Kahn, proves himself as expert at doing this sort of thing as George Clooney proves himself klutzy, with Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). Whereas Clooney inserts into his fiction a documentary bit here and there, Spielberg creates a taut mosaic of fictional and documentary elements. It is akin to the difference between a writer who introduces a single quotation in a sentence and another writer who interweaves more than one piece of quoted material, and perhaps even from different sources, in the same sentence.