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Splatter Effect

 

Munich

Steven Spielberg, USA, 2005

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: March 6, 2006

By Laurence Station

The final shot of Steven Spielberg’s Munich is set in 1973, and shows the recently opened twin towers of the World Trade Center dominating the Manhattan skyline. Clearly, this image was not chosen by accident. Munich is ostensibly about Israel’s covert and ruthless response to the September 1972 killing of eleven Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympic Games by Black September terrorists. Through Mossad, agents are dispatched to hunt down and murder individuals linked with Black September (or simply connected to terrorism against the Jewish state, period). Obviously, Israel has never formally acknowledged financing these targeted assassination hit squads, but their existence has been well known for decades (the film is partially based on journalist George Jonas’ divisive 1984 work Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team). By closing the film with an image of the gleaming symbols of 9/11, however, it’s obvious that Spielberg and his collaborators have a decidedly post-20th-century message on their minds. But this sort of 20/20 hindsight linkage regarding the rise of modern terrorism (i.e., innocent civilians are now fair game) oversimplifies a far more complex set of circumstances.

The danger with retrofitting a historical event with modern political realities is the obfuscation of the cause-and-effect reaction that occurred during the time the film documents. Black September did not create Osama bin Laden any more than Jewish resistance in Palestine to Ancient Roman rule influenced the hit-and-run tactics of German warriors against Roman legions in Northern Europe. There is no terrorist blueprint. From state-sponsored terrorism to comparatively humble factions of resistance, it is very difficult -- if not downright impossible -- to pigeonhole a terrorist (an obviously pejorative designation that can easily be flipped to “freedom fighter” or, well, unpleasant as it may be for some, American Revolutionary).

Worse, if Munich’s message that combating violence with violence only begets more violence is an indictment of the Bush administration’s aggressive (and incredibly far-flung) response to the 9/11 attacks, it’s chosen the wrong historical incident to use as its sounding board. Israel’s answer to the massacre of its athletes at Munich was clandestine and specific, whereas the U.S. retort has been obvious and all-encompassing. Again: Two different nations, two very different geo-political situations.

By choosing to connect the dots between the nascent modern terrorist tactics of the early '70s and post-9/11 antiterrorism policy, the makers of Munich have dwarfed a handsomely crafted, taut period thriller in the vein of The Day of the Jackal and Three Days of the Condor. (Consider how many words have already been spent in this review on everything but the movie itself.)

In a nutshell: Eric Bana plays Avner, leader of a small group dispatched to Europe to eliminate a list of Black September-affiliated targets. Bana’s team consists of icy killer Steve (Daniel Craig), post-hit cleanup man Carl (Ciarán Hinds), creative bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and forger/occasional grenade-tosser Hans (Hanns Zischler). Spielberg and co-screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth do a nice job humanizing these characters, revealing their doubts, desires and concerns. Each hit requires special challenges that must be meticulously considered and dealt with. Naturally, as the team moves about various European locales, it draws attention to itself and, unsurprisingly, the hunters soon become the hunted.

Munich also takes great pains to put a human face on not just the targets of the Mossad-financed hit team but also the Black September agents who carried out the Olympic assault. There’s no doubt Spielberg intends to force audiences to question the “eye for an eye” rationale as seemingly ordinary, and even outwardly likable, individuals are shot, battered and blown to bits in retribution for their pro-Palestinian sympathies and affiliations. No character questions the motivations of the team more than Bana’s Avner, who accepts the assignment despite the fact that his wife is seven months pregnant and knows he’ll be away for a protracted span of time. Is Avner merely a “dutiful solider” following orders, or is he a passionate Jew determined to defend the blood and land of his people? Well, he’s all of these. But as the film goes on and Avner learns he’s being targeted -- which by extension means his wife and newborn daughter might be jeopardy -- his moral compass waffles quite a bit. As a dissection of the stress and psychological damage such dirty work inflicts on an individual, Munich is an unqualified triumph.

Violence is the most basic form of politics, and Munich understands this. But the added baggage of the current state of the world amounts to nothing more than overkill. It’s interesting to consider what sort of film Munich might have been if Spielberg had made it in 1986, well before American shores had been stained so dramatically by the bloody mark of those trafficking in the lowest common denominator of political expression.

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