Violence and Muddle: Steven Spielberg's "Munich"

Reviewed by Chris Knipp
What Spielberg tries to do in "Munich" is to make you think about the futility of violence while thrilling you with an action movie focused on a string of international revenge assassinations. That's fundamentally contradictory.
Spielberg is a popular artist of high stature but problematic output. He's all over the map, he proved early his ability to make blockbusters, he tries and fails, he can charm and annoy and bore and move and edify you, and more often than not he tries to do several of these things at once (though of course he doesn't try to bore you, but when he fails in other aims, he does). What Spielberg tries to do in "Munich" is to make you think about the futility of violence while thrilling you with an action movie focused on a string of international revenge assassinations. No doubts about whether this is a feasible plan are going to keep people from flocking to the movie, but it's still fundamentally contradictory.

"Munich" is, one may say, about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It's about Palestinian rage, and Israeli revenge. But the director is an American Jew, and the movie is primarily about the latter theme -- Israeli revenge--and about some of the consequences of a dedication to vengeance. Spielberg treats this violence-revenge-violence-revenge cycle as if it began in the early 1970's when the radical Black September PLO splinter group held hostage a large part of the Israeli Olympic team, leading to their deaths.

This is where the movie begins, with a montage of vivid "recreations" of the Olympic village break-in; the violence; the stunned international, and above all American, media response. That this is highly fictionalized is masked by showing actual TV footage. It's a massacre. Or is it? Actually, most of the captured Israelis died in a melee with German sharpshooters at an airport; but "massacre" is used several times in one scene. In the movie, the "counter-terrorist" (oxymoron? imploding concept?) team kills nine of the eleven they're assigned to eliminate.

After the "massacre" we get the Israeli government meetings, with PM Golda Meir the primary figure. She is the prime mover--setting up the revenge team, headed by Avner (Eric Bana). Bana is the hero. He's a big tall hunk, in fact, previously The Hulk. With a hero father, a dignified mother, and a pregnant wife--and, in time, a troubled moral consciousness. But that comes later, much later, after a lot of killing. Most of the movie, and most of its interest, is in the killing, the hits, the moves from country to country--focusing on Europe, avoiding the Middle East (except for Beirut, where Israel has done damage before and since).

"Munich" is demonstrably a portrait of moral self-questioning, since it culminates in Avner's anguish, sleeplessness, troubled sex, and haggard look. But the movie doesn't provide a history of wrongs done to Palestinians, or any detailed history of events before 1972. The Palestinians have some voice in the movie. A group of the most radical ones--by a strange, staged irony--even spend a night in the same "safe house" with the Israeli assassin team and a debate happens between Avner and an angry, but vividly human Arab. When terrorists die in "Munich," their families are seen weeping. One target has a little girl. But as one viewer remarked to me, the Palestinians get about five minutes to express their point of view. The movie is two hours and forty-four minutes long. The rest of the doubts about the justice of the Israelis' actions are left to be expressed exclusively by the Israelis.

One of the greatest artistic faults is that the dialogue is so often ploddingly expository, the doubts so repetitiously enunciated. Aren't these Israeli covert hit men professionals? Why do they question each other so much?

At the end, the disillusioned Avner learns that the Palestinians on his hit list are Palestinians active against Israel, but not necessarily connected to Munich; and that his team of hit men was only one of several. He was only a pawn in a game. But this is after the fact. The game "Munich"'s audience watches is an assassination story, with character conflicts and opposed viewpoints on the team, successes and failures, and a sometimes clumsy struggle to find out where the men on the list are and get to them.

Because this is primarily from the Jewish, not the Arab, point of view, there is much attention to the fact that the Israelis try to avoid collateral damage, even as in many instances they obviously shoot down innocent victims. Things get very muddled. One can't fault Spielberg for choosing the fascinating French actor Matthieu Amalric and the historic Michel Lonsdale (who is practically a national treasure) to represent the French whom Avner deals with. Another interesting Frenchman, actor/director Matthieu Kassovitz, does good work as the toy maker, Robert, who messes up and has doubts and may be a suicide when he blows himself up. Why Avner relies so heavily on one French family for both material and information isn't made clear in the movie. Louis (Amlaric) says they do not deal with governments; but when Avner pays so much money, he must surely have guessed a government was involved. Why pay $200,000 a head for locations of target Palestinians, always to Louis and "Papa" (Lonsdale)? Aren't there any other sources, perhaps even cheaper ones?

The director may deserve respect for annoying advocates of both the Jewish and the Arab-Palestinian camps. But is that proof of an authentically honest, intelligent, or even intelligible position--or more just the fate of the liberal stance of a muddled seeker who begins with a bias he can't possibly shake off? Spielberg has every reason and every right to question Israeli policy, but he is in no position to question the existence of Israel, or to see the Palestinian dilemma from the inside.

Mohammad Daoud, the leader of Black September who plotted the Munich kidnappings, is still alive and was not consulted by the team that made this movie. The final shot shows the Twin Towers, as if to imply that their destruction resulted from Palestinian rage. But no Palestinians were involved in 9/11, any more than Saddam Hussein was.

Chris Knipp writes from California. Visit for more of his work.

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This story was published on January 9, 2006.