I felt sort of ashamed of myself after watching Munich. Here is a thriller, a damned good one, a movie constructed with the greatest filmmaking skill that is built on events that shouldn’t be thrilling or exciting. I’m challenged to think about what I’ve seen based on the real-life events depicted in the film. But should I be thrilled? That’s a challenge I’m trying to work out.
Munich opens with a scary recreation of the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich by Palestinian terrorists whose entry into the compound looks as easy as walking in your front door. Spielberg and his faithful editor Michael Kahn then stage a dizzying montage of television coverage both to illustrate the confusion of the events and to illustrate the limitation of television at the moment. He shows us the famous footage of the ski-masked terrorist leaning out the window, but then shows him from behind; from inside the room giving us a vantage point that television at the time could not. We see shots inside the news control rooms and then the families of the hostages. The scene ends with ABC announcer Jim McCay’s famous words “They’re all gone” that still give you chills.
But those events are only the beginning, the rest Munich is about the hunt for the men under those ski masks, not to bring them to justice, but to find and eliminate them. Inside the walls of power in Israel, Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Collins) gives approval to a plan (penned “Operation: Wrath of God”) but reasons that “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” This is the world that Israel now lives in, a world in which they must show strength by hunting down these men and killing them. It is a questionable ethic that hangs over the rest of the film.
The plan involves a group of five men led by one of Meir’s bodyguards, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) to travel all over Europe with a list of names of people that were supposedly involved and kill them. The ethics of such a mission hang over everything that happens for the rest of the film. Avner’s contact is a shady Frenchman who gives them names one at a time. But who are these people? Are they terrorists? Are they enemies of Israel? Are they random targets? Why are they not allowed to kill Ali Hassan Salameh, the architect of the massacre?
These are question that they are not allowed to ask. Revenge is a dirty business and the men are asked to carry out these executions without question. What is unsettling about the film is that every murder committed comes tagged with a question mark. Who did they just kill? Who ordered them killed? What was the purpose of killing this person?
Munich is a brilliant rumination on the nature of revenge packaged in a thriller that could have come from the pen of John le Carré. Spielberg stages action scenes with thrilling precision that make you sort of ashamed that you’re being entertained by them. He wants you to stare into the face of revenge and question the motives behind Gold Meir and the Israeli government. Is he criticizing their actions? He says no, but based on the film I can’t see it any other way.
The movie ends with a shot of the World Trade Center and leaves us to wonder about our own actions in the wake of 9/11. Think about how Meir’s statement: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Think about how they statement might have sounded to you on September 12th. You may argue the point, but it’s something to think about. What is the movie asking us? When is revenge a good thing? Are we seeking revenge? Or are we simply protecting our interests.