Produced and distributed by DreamWorks and Universal Pictures
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Eric Roth and Tony Kushner
Munich is Steven Spielberg’s account of Israel’s retaliation against the Palestinians who masterminded the kidnapping and murder of 11 of their athletes during the 1972 Olympics. He has brought all the enormous resources of his craft to deal with his subject. His passion, commitment, and hopes are evident in every frame. He wants nothing less than to make his story a litmus test to reevaluate Israel’s role in the world. As such, Munich should be a thoroughly provocative film, but it only partially succeeds. Despite some brilliant sequences, it’s often muddled, mawkish, and embarrassing, marred as it is by Spielberg’s besetting virtue: decency. Spielberg has mounted excellent and frequently thoughtful entertainments, but only occasionally has he displayed the ruthlessness required to create genuine art. Even Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are seriously flawed by his inveterate need to be nice and be liked. These are good instincts, certainly, but they often handicap artistic ambition.
In Munich, Spielberg gives us a highly fictionalized treatment of the Mossad’s alleged assassination mission based on a widely questioned source, Canadian journalist George Jonas’s book Vengeance. Of course, Israel has never acknowledged the mission, so there is no way to test for veracity, but even were we to accept Jonas’s account, the film still would not ring true. Confusing sentimental humanism with realism, Spielberg has not been able to portray the Israeli assassins as believably as Jonas does. Nor, for that matter, does he do any better with their Palestinian prey.
We are to believe the Mossad would choose from their ranks five ordinary, decent citizens to carry out this murderous assignment. These are men who have no commando training and little experience in field operations: Hans (Hanns Zischler), a 60-ish antique dealer who dabbles in forgery; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a 50-ish crime-scene clean-up man; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a skittish toy maker who enjoys igniting small explosives; and Avner (Eric Bana), a desk-bound intelligence analyst who cooks gourmet meals. The only remotely plausible squad member is Steve, played by Daniel Craig, perhaps not incidentally the next James Bond. He is a hotheaded Aryan-blond South African Jew appointed getaway driver. He spends much of the film vrooming about recklessly and sloppily while complaining bitterly because he is not allowed to shoot people. Instead of trained killers, the Israelis come across as troubled moral philosophers, endlessly arguing about the justice of their mission as they zigzag back and forth across Europe, killing their targeted prey. They wonder if their religion permits them to celebrate after taking out a target. After a noisy discussion, four of the five casuistically conclude that they may, as long as they do not rejoice in their enemies’ destruction. Aryan-looking Steve demurs, however, declaring the only blood he’s concerned with is Jewish blood. Jurassic Park had a higher plausibility quotient.
Spielberg’s emotional investment in his film’s presentation of Jews has led him to depict the operatives as scrupulously moral. But he seems not to believe in their tender consciences himself and tries to paper over the implausibility with some warm-hearted humor. When the team comes together for the first time in Rome, they wonder aloud at their selection. They want to know especially why Avner was chosen to lead them. The answer comes as they enjoy the feast Avner has prepared for them: He has been appointed commander because “he knows how to make a brisket.” After the Mossad’s brass stop laughing, they should sue for defamation of their formidably sinister reputation.
Spielberg just cannot help himself. Even the targeted Palestinians appear to be well-meaning fellows. They include a scholarly translator; a cultivated intellectual; and a pleasant, gregarious businessman. The scholar is the first to be killed, a gentle man in his late 60’s who enjoys giving talks on his recent translation of Scheherazade into Italian. When Avner and another member of the squad catch up with him in his apartment lobby and point their guns at his stomach, they cannot shoot at first. Avner’s gun hand trembles as he demands, “Do you know why we’re here?” The old man looks at him with a pleading smile, holding a bag of groceries and wine under one arm while he reaches out with the other to pat Avner’s gun hand placatingly. It is a startling gesture, and yet instantly convincing—a form of desperate supplication made by a man who finds himself suddenly helpless before his enemy. Finally, Avner pulls the trigger. The Palestinian falls in a heap and, from under his body, milk, wine, and blood spread across the tiled floor. It is a hideously beautiful scene and would make its terrifying point if only we could believe in Avner’s faltering hesitation. But how can we? Assassins, even on their maiden missions, are made of sterner stuff.
In Paris, the team rigs a bomb that almost kills the young daughter of the doting Palestinian intellectual. In Athens, Avner finds himself disconcertingly sharing a smoke with a businessman as they converse on adjoining hotel balconies. After resignedly complaining about road trips away from his family, this gentleman turns in only to be blown up by the bomb that Robert has placed beneath his bed. And this time, there is collateral damage as well. Honeymooners in the next room over come running into the hallway, the husband bleeding profusely and the wife blinded.
To compound their lack of professionalism, Avner’s team begins to wonder whether their victims are even guilty. Perhaps he and his team are following orders that have no moral warrant. Could the irony be darker? At the end of the film, Avner confronts his Mossad control and angrily demands to know what proof there was to connect the men he killed to the Munich atrocity. The answer is not reassuring. Here again, plausibility is strained. Wouldn’t he have thought of this earlier? An intelligence analyst would assume such an assignment would, at best, involve indemonstrable conjecture and, at worst, casual expedience.
On the realistic level, then, the film fails. Its symbolism is another matter, however. It has power enough to disturb. Spielberg has threaded his narrative with a skein of imagery and reference that puts the ideals of family and state starkly at odds with each other. This lingers subversively in the mind. It begins with the many scenes of Avner cooking for his squad, an archetypal occupation of home and family sustaining a cold-blooded operation. Echoing these moments are several scenes in which Avner meets a French intelligence source in front of a Paris store window featuring kitchen appliances and cookware. As they converse furtively in the gray-green wintry night outside, the store’s high-end kitchen display gleams in a soft, warm, golden light inside. Continuing the theme of oppositions, his French contact turns out to be an “ideologically promiscuous” freelance agent devoted to family above all else. Avner visits this man’s home and discovers a sprawling multigenerational family compound filled with beautiful wives and innumerable children. This familial redoubt is presided over by a venerable paterfamilias (Michael Lonsdale), the founder and brains of the outfit. He served in the Resistance and has since foresworn all nation-states as irredeemably ignoble and treacherous. He fought Hitler only to see Stalin rise in his place. He is contemptuous of Gaullism and, even more so, of Pax Americana. All governments are made up of pigs; only family counts. When Avner shares a meal with this extended Roman Catholic household, the old man’s son, suspecting he’s Jewish, taunts him to say grace. Not wanting to divulge his Israeli identity, Avner begins to bless himself, only to be stopped by the father. The old man has divined the truth about Avner—not just that he’s a Jew, but that he’s a man committed to family. For the latter, he likes and honors him. Preposterous as it is, this episode carries much of Spielberg’s thematic logic and chimes with concerns expressed in his earlier movies: the importance of family and the longing for solidarity between Christians and Jews.
Spielberg’s family theme becomes most explicit when Avner moves his wife from Israel to Brooklyn. By this time, the Palestinians are on to his operation and have been answering his team’s murders with attacks of their own against Israelis. As one of his team lugubriously puts it, “They’re talking to us. We’re in dialogue.” Avner fears his wife and child may be next. Taking a brief respite from his mission, he goes to meet her. While they are together, she wonders how he will fare away from Israel, their home. He assures her that she is his only real home. She laughs at his romantic notion, but Avner’s intensity belies her facile judgment.
In another significant scene, the film dramatizes how loyalty to the state erodes the sense of home in the Israeli assassins. During one of their sloppier operations, Avner’s men manage inadvertently to kill a KGB agent. In retaliation, the Russians retain a seductive Dutch Mata Hari. After she kills the foolishly susceptible Carl, Avner and the rest of the squad track her to Holland. Cornered in her houseboat, she slips off her silk wrap and offers herself to them, talking about herself as a piece of refined equipment. She could work for them as well, she calmly points out, adding it would be a shame to waste such talent. She obviously means both her extravagantly voluptuous body and her murderous skill. But they coldly shoot into her unveiled breasts and then watch her slowly die, contemptuously leaving her exposed body behind. The emphatic nudity of this scene is, I believe, new for Spielberg, and perhaps it is warranted. Certainly, it is a graphic demonstration of how state-driven violence perverts normal human inclinations. She has turned herself into a commodity available to the highest bidder, and this, in turn, has led Avner and his men to assault in her person the first and ultimate source of home and family solace.
This and the other murders finally take their toll on Avner. He becomes a self-exile living in Brooklyn, fearing that either the Palestinians or the Mossad are planning to assassinate him. Then the film closes with a miscalculated and thoroughly outré montage, cutting back and forth between Avner making love to his wife and scenes of the terrorists executing the Israeli athletes, the latter improbably playing in his mind. This dime-book Freudian fusion of sex and violence is unworthy of Spielberg, although one can understand his larger intent. Avner had thought that, whatever else happened, he and his wife would always constitute home for each other. He now finds the intimacy of that home grotesquely occupied by violence and vengeance. Earlier, Avner’s mother had commended his Mossad mission without knowing exactly what he was doing. Knowing her son, however, she sought to quell any misgivings he might have had. She recalls her escape from Europe in the 1940’s. “We took the land because we had to. Everyone [of my family] in Europe died,” she observes stonily, waving her hand and letting out a hiss of disgusted resignation from between her grimly compressed lips. She goes on to declare forcefully, “I lived because I came here, a place to be a Jew among Jews, subject to no one.” Her courage and determination are impressive and moving, but Spielberg suggests her rationale—invoked by several other Israelis in the film—poisoned the Jewish state from its beginning. The decision to take the land because no one was going “to give it to us,” as another character says, seems justified in light of what happened to Jews in Europe. But the consequences of pushing another people off the land was a horror that has begotten ever more horrors.
And this is where the film ends: with the horror of the state overtaking and perverting the idea of home, its intimacy and its sanctity. This, the film implies, is what all states do when they issue themselves the license of urgent national defense. Spielberg offers no answers; he merely invites us to take a closer look. His film has its shortcomings, but it hardly deserves the howls of execration it has received from supporters of Israel and Palestine alike. Spielberg has tried to keep the moral promise of the Promised Land, and that is more than can be said of his detractors.