Steven Spielberg’s Munich is the right movie at the right time. It tells the story of the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich by the radical Palestinian group Black September and the Israeli reprisal that followed. This, as it turns out, is the perfect vehicle to examine Arab/Israeli grievances. Moreover, the moral compromise and futility of answering violence with violence should be read, in 2006, as a polemic against the war on terror.
The film begins with the terrifying image of Arabs bursting into the Israeli dorm in the middle of the night, shooting one of the athletes in the face, and riddling him with bullets that spatter the wall with his blood. The world watches on live TV as the other athletes are held hostage, and eventually killed. A surviving hostage-taker tells the cameras, "The world has now heard us, that did not listen before."
Avner (Eric Bana, an Australian) is a member of Mossad, but has so far been called upon only to be a bodyguard. He has a pregnant wife and, as he says, "The world’s most boring job." Because, as she says, he is "neat and durable," Avner is recruited by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead a hit squad. They will track down eleven Palestinians in Europe, who supposedly had something to do with Munich, and kill them one by one. The key word is "supposedly".
Avner’s little team is made up of four other men, each as inexperienced as he is. One is a furniture buyer; one is a toy maker-turned-bomb-maker. They are told by their controller (Geoffrey Rush) that they can use guns, but "bombs are better at terrorizing terrorists" (the irony is lost on him).
The team sets out with a clear conscience, a definite enemy, and an unshakeable sense of good and evil. Avner says, "I’m not comfortable with confusion." "I knew guys like you in the war," one of the team tells him. "You can do any terrible thing, as long as you do it running. The only thing you’re terrified of is stillness. But sooner or later, you’ll be overtaken by the voices."
In the lulls before violence, Avner has two accidental conversations with men he will later have to kill. One of these is with a young member of the PLO, Ali (Omar Metwalli), who explicitly states the Palestinian case: that they want a home, that the roots of the struggle go back 100 years beyond Munich, that they have been oppressed by the Jews and ignored by the world, that they will keep having children and wait as long as it takes. Despite himself, Avner sees the parallels: here is another man who thinks he is a soldier in a war, fighting for his home. The voices create a drag on Avner’s soul that eventually brings him to a standstill, and complete moral confusion.
Munich is a superior film, exciting, emotional, thoughtful, and in airing the Arab case, kind of brave. That I have misgivings about the movie’s director doesn’t diminish the film, but it’s worth asking: how can the same man make Saving Private Ryan and Munich, two films with utterly incompatible worldviews? Munich is a movie made in haste – it took only three months – that benefits from the focus. But I wonder, in making movies that fast, is Spielberg the one running?
Munich is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.