Rated R. Running time: 2 hours, 44 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Live in harmony with one another…Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The director of Schindler’s List might be expected to take the side of Israel when he brings to the screen the story of the Israeli pursuit of the PLO terrorist group known as Black September, the murderers of the 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Then why are so many pro-Israel supporters taking Steven Spielberg to task in Op-ed articles? Because he at times shows that some of the Palestinians have human qualities, and even are given an opportunity at times to call our attention to their plight as refugees from land seized from them? As Munich unreels, we see that the latter is true, but the bulk of the screen time is given over to the action of the Mossad team, charged by Prime Minister Golda Meir with the task of hunting down and killing both the death squad and those who planned the killings. It might be that Steven Spielberg has a larger agenda than cheering for one side or the other.
Screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forest Gump, The Insider) based their script on George Jonas’s book Vengeance, which begins with the team of PLO members scaling the wall around Olympic Village and bursting into the apartment suite occupied by the Israeli athletes and coaches. Two Israelis are killed in the scuffle, and, eleven taken hostage. The captors demand that over 200 PLO imprisoned members be released (plus leaders of a German terrorist group), but the Israeli government refuses even to negotiate, thus leaving it up to the German authorities to deal with the situation. A badly bungled rescue attempt leads to the deaths of all captives and many of the captors.
Prime Minister Golda Meir, meeting with her cabinet, decides that those who planned the Munich massacre must pay. She summons Avner (Eric Bana), a young Mossad agent who had once been one of her body guards, and tells him that if he accepts his assignment, he will be dismissed officially from the Mossad and all contact with the government. He will be away from his wife at a crucial time—she is pregnant—and if he is caught, the government will have nothing to do with him. His team will be supported by sums of money deposited in a European safety deposit box. The only contact with home will be through his Mossad handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). Avner, surprised that one so inexperienced as he has been chosen, agrees.
In his European apartment Avner serves as host and cook for the four men assigned to his team. Avner is the lone Israel-born member. Steve (Daniel Craig), from South Africa, will be the triggerman and getaway driver. Hans (Hanns Zischler), from Germany, will forge the many papers and documents needed to move from country to country. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian, is chosen to be the bomb maker because of his experience in making complicated mechanical toys. Carl (Ciaran Hinds), perhaps the most introspective, and thus destined to become the “conscience,” of the group, is to clean up the assassination sites, meaning removing bullet shells and other evidence from the scene.
The team is to track down the 11 PLO members on their own. Avner discovers that a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric) can find virtually anyone though his anarchic group of information brokers, if one can pay their high price. Thanks to the bottomless purse in his safe deposit box, Avner obtains the whereabouts of the first assassin on his list. The details of this and subsequent killings make this a fascinating thriller, one filled with suspense, especially when the daughter of one target answers the bomb-rigged telephone, so that the caller has to race breathlessly back to the parked car where another team member is about to turn the key in the radio device that will set off the bomb. The team is not only under orders not to kill innocent by-standers, but is conscience driven to preserve the innocent from harm
Although the film is focused upon the Mossad team, their targets are not depicted as faceless demons. We see them as a father, a poet, and in one case Avner, booked into the room next door to his target, even chats with the amiable man over their adjoining balconies just minutes before the bomb under the man’s mattress will blast him away. In one semi-comical scene Avner and his team are booked by Louis into a safe house to which a PLO team has also been sent—whether by accident or by design is left ambiguous, Louis apparently servicing the PLO and the CIA as well as Mossad. Everyone draws and aims their guns at one another, until reason prevails, and the weapons are lowered, and the adversaries enter into conversation. Avner, posing as a German left-winger, talks with Ali (Omar Metwally) out by the decrepit stairway, the Palestinian sharing some of the history of a people dispossessed of their land. “You don’t know what it is not to have a home,” Ali says, telling of his father’s stolen olive trees. “Home is everything.”
Ah, but Avner does know this feeling. He has had to leave his pregnant wife behind, and slowly begins to realize that the several years spent in killing people will force him to give up his dream of returning to his homeland. Several times throughout the film we see him gazing longingly through a store window at a kitchen and its homey appliances, a scene so contrary to the ones of a room filled with the blood and body parts of his enemies. Avner is also taken by a bucolic scene of home, children, and garden when he is taken to the large estate of Louis’s father, known only as Papa (Michael Lonsdale). The man, once a French Resistance hero, now grown rich through the selling of information to virtually anyone with money, has come to hate all governments. Thus, the earlier stipulation that Avner should not pass along anything that he has purchased to the Israeli government. When it became evident that Avner has violated this order, the old man orders that he be brought to him for a confrontation.
As Avner and his team succeed in their assassinations, two things result. First, the PLO mounts counter-strikes, in one case killing over a hundred victims. Soon, they also have discovered the whereabouts of the Mossad team, their attacks starting to take its deadly toll. Especially upsetting is the episode in which Avner and his fellows track down and wreak their vengeance upon a beautiful Dutch assassin who has lured one of their members into her deadly bed. To protect his family, Avner moves his wife and child to an apartment in Brooklyn, NY. The second development is that the team members begin to question the rightness of what they are doing. Avner argues with Ephraim, asking why the PLO members could not have been arrested and tried in courts. How do they even know that all eleven are guilty? And, with the PLO counter-measures escalating the body count, what are they really accomplishing?
This latter is perhaps at the heart of Spielberg’s film. Far from being an attack on Israel—there is a scene in which Avner’s mother speaks to him of their homeland, “We had to take it because no one would ever give it to us. Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on earth at last.” But this is offset by another who clearly sees the moral morass created by both sides insisting on a policy of retaliation and says, “There is no peace at the end of this.” Not since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven has a filmmaker struck out so strongly against vengeance and its dead-end results.
Christians, in regard to the Israelis and Palestinians have been divided in their support. Some have uncritically opted for Israel and its policies, whereas others, sometimes equally uncritical, have allowed their sympathy for the Palestinian cause to mute their outrage at the atrocities committed by the Palestinian extremists. Spielberg’s powerful, and exciting film, which we must remember is “inspired by true events,” and thus must not be regarded as wholly factual, offers not just entertainment, but an opportunity to think about its important issues long after the end credits fade to black.
This review, with a set of discussion questions, is in the Winter 2005 VP.