International tragedies, like personal ones, seem to require a suitable passage of time before we care to relive them. Just look at wars, especially ugly, misguided ones, such as Vietnam. Films seem to do well with small, ill-fated engagements, like Black Hawk Down; the more obscure, the more at ease we feel as viewers.
Steven Spielberg gave a soul to WW II, in Saving Private Ryan, breaking ranks with the countless good-guy, bad- guy war films. In Munich his characters, both Israeli and Palestinian, are allowed to show themselves as people, entrapped by the politics of enmity between Jew and Arab.
If you are looking for heroes–either way–you will be disappointed. If you care to see the cost and consequences to people when plans are set in motion by governments, with no clear resolution– as is more to the truth– you will admire this film.
The setting is the 1972 Olympics in Germany and the astonishing capture and killing of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The events are real as well as the ensuing hunt for those responsible by five Jews, chosen by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.
But don’t run away just yet. Although the story swirls around the intrigue of these five unlikely assassins blessed by the character of Golda Meir herself, there is no satisfaction in their successes. It is not a film about Jewish revenge and Arab victimization. The victims, just like the doomed athletes, have wives and children and no one is presented as distinctly bad or deserving of their fates. All are caught up in the new international business of terrorism. If only they knew how history would show this to be an endless, tortuous cycle of combat.
Spielberg appears to be careful in keeping to the story without melodrama or even opinion. The events and consequences speak for themselves. The story slides smoothly forward and instead of leading the viewer to moments of unrestricted violence and catharsis, he keeps the tension constant.
None of the actors is a mega-star–something that seems to contribute to the credibility of this film. All are accomplished in their craft, especially the understated leader, Avner (Eric Bana), Steve, the bomber (Daniel Craig) and the elder Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Perhaps the most familiar name to the American moviegoers is Geoffrey Rush who plays the soulless head of the Mossad.
Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush
Thankfully, America is largely absent, except for the early clips of TV coverage by ABC, the premier sports channel of that time. Palestinians and Jews, in their own countries, gathered around their TVs with subtitled, live commentaries of Jim McKay, thrust into the role of a news journalist.
This beginning of the film portrays a surrealistic image of the events, like watching the JFK funeral. Americans have little idea, even to this day, how closely other cultures watch us.
The waters grow muddier for the five Israelis after each assassination. In one scene, the only CIA presence, three agents thwart the plans of the Jews just as they are about to shoot one of their prey. Those must have been the good old days when the CIA was an actual player in the games of espionage. It seems as if today, they are back in the minors, old vets hoping to make the Big Leagues again.
Characters without much time on screen seem to quickly and poetically announce themselves to the viewer, as three dimensional, such as one of the planners of the attack, Mahmoud Hamshari (Igal Naor), whose daughter, is spared at the last moment from a bomb planted in his telephone.
For Avner, an unassuming family man, turned assassin, the question becomes can he ever return to his life as a father and husband. Facing this dilemma, soldiers conscripted in the name of duty, eventually see actions as no longer right or wrong but simply as a necessary response. In the process, a part of the soul is darkened, for life.
Spielberg’s story steadily maintains the value of life amidst the killing. Munich may have been set in 1972, but the message continues to this day.