Sunday, May 12, 2013

Munich: Spielberg's Critique of post 9/11 America Disguised as a Spy Thriller

Steven Spielberg's Munich is a blend of quiet, thoughtful moments punctuated by intense action sequences.  Munich's a haunting film with a brave message about history, war, and politics.  

Munich opens with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games.  Palestinian terrorists saw the potential for using the Olympics as a means to draw the world's attention to the plight of their people.  In response, according to the George Jonas book Vengeance, the Israeli government assembled a secret team to track down and kill all those responsible for the killings.   Politics aside, Munich is one of the best espionage films ever to depict the heady international situation of the 1970s.  Recently, (after the bombings in Boston), I've heard the word Munich turned into a verb as in, "time to go all Munich on these guys."  If you're in the mood for harsh reprisals, you will enjoy the revenge scenes.  If you're concerned about meeting violence with violence, Munich will make you consider alternatives.  Like any good historical film, it made me want to learn more about the era, namely, the labyrinth of 20th century politics.

Avner (Eric Bana) is an Israeli commando leader assigned to lead the team of assassins. The film suggests he was handpicked by Prime Minister Golda Meir.  In a meeting of the Israeli cabinet she concedes every civilization must compromise with its values in order to survive.  While the film never answers the questions posed by Ms. Meir, it does show the personal consequences of doing so.  Bana is well cast as the team leader - exuding compassion and righteous strength.  His team includes a forger, explosives expert, strong man, and clean up artist.  The team calls to mind The Seven Samurai and  the The Dirty Dozen.  In their mission to kill the terrorists they find themselves caught in an unholy web of collateral damage and paranoia.  Gradually, members began to question the motives behind their mission.

Perhaps the political turbulence associated with Munich overshadowed the film's close ties with the spy genre.  Some of Spielberg's darkest, and most exciting sequences appear in Munich.  The recreation of the actual Munich debacle are handled with a gritty realism.  But the dialogue scenes written by Tony Kushner are just as intense.  In another sequence they plant a bomb in the phone of a suspected terrorist, but must call it off when the man's daughter arrives.  Another exciting scene is raid on terrorist compound anticipates Zero Dark Thirty.  As an espionage thriller, Munich ranks among the best (and further proof Spielberg could make an awesome James Bond film).

The moral clarity question is simple: Should violence be met with more violence?  When civilizations are facing an existential threat - how far should they go?  Throughout its entire existence, Israel has faced hostility and has gone to extreme measures to protect their country.  Meanwhile, the United States after the 9/11 attacks engaged in long-term wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Did America's more aggressive foreign policy create more potential enemies than ever before?  

Munich is not saying responding with force is wrong.  It's a plea to at least consider the consequences. The final scene, a confrontation between Avner and his handler with the World Trade Center prominent in the background, reminds us actions have consequences. Decisions made by individuals do influence the course of history.

Since 9/11, Spielberg has engaged more directly with history and politics.  Munich is his boldest and most under appreciated film because it challenged the ethos of post-9/11 America in an unflinching and heroic matter. 



  1. An evenhanded evaluation of a controversial film. The skills of the director are never in doubt, just the emphasis of the story.

  2. Fine look at this, Eric. Wonderful contribution to the blogathon. Many thanks.