Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zichler, Ayelet Zorer, Geoffrey Rush. With Gila Almagore, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric.
On September 5, 1972, during the Olympic Games in Munich, eight members of the Palestinian paramilitary Black September Organization (BSO) took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. Black September demanded the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prison in exchange for the athletes' lives and freedom. Despite numerous attempts at rescue and negotiations, all eleven Israeli prisoners and five of their Palestinian captors were killed.
Munich is not the story of the 1972 Munich Massacre (for that, I recommend the excellent documentary One Day in September). And to say that it is a speculative account of Israel's revenge on the members of the BSO - while accurate - would be short-sighted. Munich is about vengeance and the cyclical role it plays in the development of nations - in fact, it is based on George Jonas's book Vengeance. The BSO took the Israeli athletes hostage because of the Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Israel reacted with the events portrayed in Munich, which brought another round of retaliation from the Palestinians. Acts of terrorism beget acts of terrorism. So it is. So it has always been.
Directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner (who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993 for Angels in America) and Eric Roth (who co-scripted The Insider with Michael Mann), Munich is at once a docudrama "Inspired by Real Events" and the story of the sacrifices a man is willing to make for his country, as well as those his country asks him to make. Avner (Eric Bana) is chosen by the Israeli government to lead a team of four other Mossad agents in their task of executing the eleven Palestinians responsible for planning the attack at the Munich Games. Avner has a wife who will give birth to his daughter before the film is over. He is a former bodyguard of Prime Minister Golda Meir. He carries out his mission because he believes in Israel and he is both haunted and driven by memories of the BSO's massacre of his countrymen.
But Munich is hardly a treatise on the heroism of the filmmakers' fellow Jews in the face of the evil Palestinian enemy, nor is it a virulent message in favor of peace in the Middle East. If anything, the film acknowledges that the war between the Arabs and Jews has been going on since the days of the Old Testament and that peace may never be attainable. Everyone in the film has taken a position to side with either Israel or Palestine, but the film itself remains neutral and simply lets the story be told.
Spielberg's exceptional skills as a storyteller prevent the politically-charged nature of Munich from suffocating under its own sense of importance. The Mossad agents are clearly the protagonists of the film, but they aren't necessarily portrayed as heroes. And though everything about the film is based in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflict of the film itself stems from its characters.
Kushner's and Roth's screenplay almost miraculously walks the finest line between dialogue and polemics. This is never more evident than in a scene between Avner and Ali (Omar Metwally), a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Ali does not know that Avner is an Israeli when they meet. They get into a debate over Palestine's odds of succeeding in its campaign for the land of Israel, but stripped of the national identities, they are simply two men talking passionately about the beliefs for which either would give his life.
As is to be expected from a Spielberg film, the performances in Munich are roundly flawless, but Eric Bana's achievement is extraordinary. The film revolves around Avner's constant internal struggle with the morality of his mission and Bana brings every nuance of his pain and passion to life with unaffected naturalness. Through Bana, we see the anguish of a man who is defined by his passions, even as he slowly comes to the realization that he is a cog in the machinery of Middle Eastern politics. The men he has killed have been replaced, as he himself will be. Munich's final shot is of the pre-9/11 New York skyline. Vengeance is a cycle.
© John Reents, 23 December 2005