Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Eric Bana, Mathieu Amalric, Ciaran Hinds
The final shot of Munich, in terms of detracted value, one of the very worst shots of Steven Spielberg’s career. I’m trying to forgive him, because better directors than him were shaken by 9/11 in ways that destabilized their own movies. For example, there’s that deeply weird sequence at the end of Gangs of New York where Scorsese puts the graves of Priest Vallon and Bill Cutting in the foreground as New York changes in the distance behind them, ending with that shot of an almost contemporary New York with the Twin Towers extremely visible. Munich ends in a similar way. Avner (Bana) and Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) are at an impasse, for the first time having one of their quarrels in the Western Hemisphere. Ephraim wants Avner to come back to Israel, to Mossad. Avner wants Ephraim to come back to his Brooklyn home and have dinner with his family. Ephraim can no more eat in Avner’s home than Avner can go back to killing for Mossad, and so at the end of the movie they walk in opposite directions, the camera following Avner as he stalks away with the Twin Towers in the background. The camera rises to meet them. Music, “Directed by Steven Spielberg,” “Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth.” It’s a potent ending, I think, better than the ending of Gangs of New York, but it’s repetitive at best. Anyone who sat in a theater for better than two and a half hours in 2005 couldn’t have needed the shot of those buildings to have understood the relevance of this story of people losing their souls in pursuit of revenge. This is not the kind of movie that people who would not be able to make that connection on their own would be likely to go see anyway. More than that, the film sells itself out in a single shot. Some of the best elements of the picture are the characters themselves, individuals with enough specificity in their backgrounds or personalities to give us moments we can really sink our teeth into. But in that last moment, the film is telling us it has something else in mind, had something else in mind for the entire runtime. It was not enough for the movie to be about Israel or Palestine, Mossad or the PLO, the cat and mouse game of tracking down Black September operatives who may or may not have really been involved in the kidnapping and murder of those eleven Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. (That this movie fictionalizes a lot of the details, let alone the key elements, of this story into dust only makes this more vexing. As a story which was working on its own ideas, ones that it comes up with using the frame of historical events, it’s very interesting. As a story which seems pretty real but has a real life meaning to be told at the end, we’re starting to get into the territory of history’s most famous Jew.) Goshdarn it, it was actually about us too. It was a lesson. It had a moral. For more than two and a half hours, a film for adults ends with this weird message that could only have been for children.
It’s not a good ending by any stretch of the imagination, but like a distance runner out to a giant lead, the rest of the movie has more than enough to overcome a mediocre finish. The structure of the film is what has led to the movie’s reputation as a kind of “evenhanded” story, although the certainty in its final act makes that descriptor something of a non sequitur. What the film does a much better job at is evincing the rush of vengeance, the terrible way that realization sets in, and then finally the loss of one’s own humanity to fear, doubt, shame. The first murder that Avner takes part in is done with another team member, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); they stalk a poet-translator back to his apartment building and then shoot him through his groceries. Zwaiter (Makram Khoury) tries to get Avner to put his gun down, and Avner, who is not by training an assassin, lets Zwaiter touch his firearm. Ultimately the two of them unload on him anyway, and the way the blood pools and falls is similar in look if not in process to a shot of a one-armed Jew in Schindler’s List murdered by the Nazis, while his blood melts the snow beneath it. Zwaiter is killed after he gives a short talk outside a bookshop about the ways that narrative and survival intertwine. In the moment, one reads this as a statement about Palestine and its terrorist supporters, although one could just as easily consider Israel telling its own story in order to live in a region where they are perpetually under attack. Either way, Zwaiter does not much look or sound like a man who has been helping to mastermind one of the ugliest political crimes of the 20th Century, and while appearances are not everything—a lesson that not everyone on Avner’s team learns in time—the way this scene plays out with a soft-spoken, chubby old fellow stop the first and easiest kill well short of satisfaction.
More kills follow. Bombs are increasingly unreliable, and the pageantry of the vengeance, such as it is, goes far beyond the purview of a few agents with limited training. One bomb almost kills Avner as well as a honeymooning couple. Three targets are taken out by Avner’s team in concert with dozens of Israeli soldiers brought in for the operation. These are relatively exciting scenes on their own, but they come with their own sense of anticlimax as part of a movie. In each of these first-half operations, something else grabs our attention instead of what happens to the person with ties to Black September who was targeted. The blood and groceries, the daughter who is very nearly incinerated instead of her father, the newlyweds who we never see again (and in the case of the young woman, we may reasonably assume she’s been blinded). It’s the bystanders who are threatened by men who are still humane enough to worry about bystanders who leave an impression on us. For the agents, it’s the effort and cost and manpower to knock out men who are basically small potatoes.
The realization that they’re not really accomplishing anything is what makes the turn in this film, and although it takes a while to get there, I found the anticipation of that moment was essential to the The obsession with accomplishing a task, especially one that everyone in the group agrees is a basically righteous one, begins to fade. Avner’s quietly fanatical approach to the killings—let us do the job ourselves, we don’t need the military’s help, we’ll get the next man—begins to yield more and more to missing his family. He’s left his wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer), in the late stages of her pregnancy; he managed to get back to see her and their newborn, but has not returned since. In one scene he calls her, and his daughter murmurs into the phone, a murmuring that forms into a “dada.” If it weren’t for the translucent presence of Steven Spielberg behind me, nervously tapping me on the shoulder during that shot of the Twin Towers and hissing “Do you get it?!” at the end, this would be the film’s least subtle moment. It is singlehandedly effective because of Bana, who looks like someone has just put something very sharp through his gut very quickly. The story is clear in Bana’s face, the way his mouth lengthens and his entire face squeezes around his eyes. There’s too much in this movie about Avner’s absent father, and I think that the angle of “I’m turning into my father” borders on pointless in this story. It’s much more effective to watch this guy who has spent the entire life of his daughter killing C-grade PLO or Black September figures realize how worthless that is compared to hearing her babble.
Robert, a toymaker in civilian life whose original work for Israel was in defusing bombs, is driven to senselessness because all he does is make them now. Hans (Hanns Zischler) has gotten morbid and sullen. The agents go extracurricular after the murder of one of their own, find the contract killer (Marie-Josée Croze) who offed him, and then leave the body out for anyone to see. When one of them tries to close her robe, with the blood dripping down her body into her nether regions, Hans opens it up again; then, over an enormous table of food that Avner has stress-made and which no one appears to be eating, Hans expresses his regret at having left her that way. Steve (Daniel Craig), who was always the most violent man in the group, has started uttering phrases about only caring about “Jewish blood.” Meanwhile, the hunters are becoming hunted; the kind of photographs they have of their targets leaving cars or in crowds are now being circulated of them doing just the same. Their French informant Louis (Amalric) and his papa (Michael Lonsdale) are increasingly untrustworthy, opaque, and costly, even though they seem basically sympathetic to the Israelis. Even when they don’t appear like a safe harbor, the information they can give is increasingly irrelevant if the goal is to take out people involved in Munich. There’s a small row over the lack of quality in the targets Louis can provide; Avner is dissatisfied with the veering away from the original mission, but in the end he takes the name anyway.
What makes Munich stand out as a revenge story is who’s doing it, and for whom. Avner and Steve and Carl have not personally been wronged by Black September or Ali Hassan Salameh. The families of the murdered have been wronged, and in a larger sense Israel has been wronged. The most personally motivated killing in the film is the retributive murder of that contract killer, which happens late in the movie after we’ve already seen a sizable number of bodies. Most of the time, vengeance is along those highly personal lines, as it is in otherwise totally different movies like The Wrath of Khan or John Tucker Must Die. It’s not unusual to find a revenge story in which the system is, in some way, under assault from an individual who is working out vengeance against individuals. This is Promising Young Woman or either Cape Fear. But movies in which the political is personal like this one are rare indeed, especially because when states do violence like this it’s usually in service of, y’know, war. (Avner raises a wonderful question as to why Mossad is not bankrolling missions which bring targets in, as they did with Eichmann; this happens years after his first kill.) Munich has an eye on a 21st Century issue in the way it’s concerned about nations attacking subnational political groups, but it’s most effective when it’s considering that 20th Century origin for it. What does it do to someone to kill people face to face, cheek by jowl, who the killers only recognize as names and photographs? What does it do to someone to kill people who they cannot even recognize as wrongdoers? What does it do to the mind or the heart when a man is only the arm of the state?
Killing these Black September operatives for Israel is exciting for Avner and his group at first, but it gets significantly less exciting when they realize that just because they kill someone that doesn’t mean he stays dead. Someone replaces him, and that someone tends to be even more dangerous than the man they killed. The Israeli government hooks Avner by bringing in Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) among other luminaries, by appealing to his zeal for national service and his country’s welfare. What no one like Ephraim ever tells him—and perhaps it’s because they assumed he knew, or more likely because they didn’t care—is that doing this job would, if Avner survived it, wear him down past the point of personhood. The men on Avner’s team who die early are, as far as that goes, relatively lucky. It’s over for them. Avner will be taking apart his television and telephone looking for bugs forever. He will never know the peace of a night’s sleep uninterrupted by the fear that someone could bomb his home and take out his wife and child along with him. After the Munich Massacre happens, Avner can still jackhammer away with relative bliss at his wife, only jokingly concerned about the seven-month-old fetus. After killing people loosely associated with it, the execution of the Israeli hostages on the tarmac is interspersed with scenes of him sharing that intimacy with his wife again, although if you’re thinking about someone else during sex it’s not typically a good sign. It was eminently predictable that revenge would ruin the men taking it, because that story has been told ten thousand times. Munich is new because it tells the story of men ruined by taking revenge which had absolutely nothing to do with them, and who were manipulated into doing it anyway for purposes they could never have benefited from.