Munich Review

Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated political thriller is a fictionalised account of Israel’s retaliation for the 1972 Munich massacre in which eleven of the country’s athletes were killed by terrorists. Eric Bana and Daniel Craig play members of the Mossad-sponsored assassination team dispatched to avenge them. Geoffrey Rush co-stars. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

Munich’s long, sad story begins of course at the 1972 Munich Olympics, with the murder of eleven Israeli athletes by members of the pro-Palestinian Black September movement. The terrorist act is intended to draw the world’s attention to the Palestinian cause. It does that but it also steels the resolve of the Israeli government. The word comes down from the top: there must be reprisals. A death list is drawn up of eleven Arabs believed to be involved with Black September and a team is assembled to carry out the assassinations.

Chosen as team leader is Avner (Eric Bana), a former soldier and bodyguard to the prime minister. He’s working a dull desk job and expecting his first child when he’s recruited to head up the five-man team. The mission will take him away from his family, possibly for years, but as a patriotic Israeli, Avner feels he’s duty-bound to accept it. Working under him will be four specialists in different fields: Steve (Daniel Craig), driving; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), bomb making; Carl (Ciarán Hinds), clean-up; Hans (Hanns Zischler), documents. None of these five men has ever been involved with an assassination before.

The mission gets underway. The team is licensed to work only in Western Europe – no Arab countries, no Eastern bloc countries. Because the Israeli government cannot be officially involved, the men are effectively made into mercenaries, directed and financed through a safe deposit box in Geneva. With Mossad keeping its distance, the team must seek help from other sources to locate their targets. Avner is referred to a dubious intelligence network headed by a former French Resistance member (Michael Lonsdale). His motivation seems to be a general resentment towards the world.

The assassinations don’t all go as planned. Some go horribly wrong. Although Avner and his people take care to avoid harming innocents, they’re under orders to use bombs as much as possible to make a point and the reality of explosives is that collateral damage is inevitable. Equally uncomfortable for them is their growing suspicion that some of the targets may not have anything to do with Black September or the Munich massacre and may just be outspoken Palestinians.

In Munich, murder is portrayed as a brutish, decidedly unglamorous business, a nasty job carried out by lonely men in cheap suits. The way the hits go down is sometimes shocking, for the audience as well as the assassination team. Steven Spielberg wants us to feel like we’ve seen people murdered in front of us, just like in Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, he wanted us to witness the Normandy landings and the Holocaust.

The sordid act of taking a life puts all the characters’ talk of revenge in perspective. An “off the books” mission that the team carry out in Amsterdam is arguably the most justifiable of all the deaths they cause (the victim is the only person they know for sure murdered someone), yet the circumstances of the kill leave the nastiest aftertaste.

Spielberg’s film examines many aspects of killing – the reasons for it, the mechanics of it, the futility of it, the effect it has on the killer. The effects on the team are disillusionment, depression and soul sickness. As the rage after the Munich massacre wears off, the doubts creep in and the realisation of what they’re doing takes its toll. Spielberg uses Avner’s hit squad as a metaphor for the nation that sent them and also possibly for their Palestinian enemies. Although both sides justify their atrocities, neither side gains anything from it. The Israeli reprisals lead to Palestinian reprisals and so on.

A character comments that as peoples, Israelis and Palestinians are quite compatible. At one point, Avner’s men are forced to share a safe house with a Palestinian cell, who believe their bunkmates are members of ETA. Avner and the cell’s leader debate Palestine and, despite their obvious differences in opinion, Avner realises they have much in common and so do their causes.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Munich is scrupulously even-handed. Each side’s argument is presented and both arguments basically come down to one word: home. The Palestinians have lost theirs to the Israelis and they want to destroy the nation that’s taken it. The Israelis have fought hard for theirs, they fear losing it to the hostile Arab nations that surround them and they’re not disposed to sympathise with an internal Arab minority who also want them wiped off the map, no matter what their reasons. Ironically, Spielberg’s fairness to both sides has drawn criticism from supporters of both sides, from those who would have preferred him to make propaganda for their cause. It’s to his great credit that he hasn’t. This is a deeply intelligent treatment of the subject and it will provide food for thought for viewers whose minds are not completely closed on the subject.

It’s also a fine movie, the work of a great director. As ever, Spielberg’s technique is to absorb us so deeply in the story that we don’t notice his technique. With the effortlessness of a master, he juggles drama, suspense, horror and unexpected comedy while never compromising the mournful soul of the film. The script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth does a commendable job of cramming an awful lot of information into the story without leaving it overstuffed – as a movie history lesson, it rivals Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Typically for a Spielberg picture, Munich is technically brilliant. It does a superb job of recreating the early 1970s, breaking ground in its verisimilitude. Period movies are often claustrophobic due to the expense of building sets and dressing locations but Spielberg shoots vast street scenes and cityscapes and his camera gives the impression of having the freedom to go anywhere. It’s difficult to tell how much is down to budget and clever art direction and how much is judicious use of CGI. The last shot certainly uses CGI, to chilling effect.

The five actors playing the assassination team are excellent. Eric Bana gives easily his best performance since he went to Hollywood and Daniel Craig is also fiercely impressive – this makes you keen to see what he’ll do with James Bond, especially with Paul Haggis working on the script. There’s memorable work too from Geoffrey Rush as a Mossad handler, Michael Lonsdale as the French intelligence broker and Mathieu Amalric as his son. There’s not a bad performance in the film.

Munich is two and three quarter hours long but paced so well that length isn’t an issue. In fact, if the film has a flaw, it’s that it moves with such velocity that you don’t get much of a sense of time passing. Years go by in what feels to us like weeks. To Avner and his team, those years away from their families with murder on their minds must have felt like decades.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Feb 14, 2006

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