Munich (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A film of uncommon depth, intelligence, and sensitivity, Munich defies easy labeling. Watching the movie is like reading a top-notch espionage thriller by Le Carre or Deighton. Yet, at the same time, this is a visual experience. The moral and ethical elements, layered atop a story that is ripe with suspense, put to shame Hollywood's typical ventures into this genre. Munich is an eye-opener - a motion picture that asks difficult questions, presents well-developed characters, and keeps us white-knuckled throughout. It is the best film of 2005.

I was five years old at the time of the 1972 Olympics, so my recall of events is shaky. But I remember my parents being engrossed by the television coverage, and I understood at the time that something terrible was happening. Some of that coverage - news clips featuring Jim McKay, Peter Jennings, and others - is used during a fifteen-minute prologue in Munich. This film is not about the Black September terrorist action that shattered the stillness of the Munich Olympic village, but about Israel's response to that act. Spielberg sets the stage by opening with a mixture of dramatic re-creations and archival news footage. By the time we meet the main character, Avner (Eric Bana), the die has been cast.

Avner is the leader of a five-man team of covert, ex-Mossad operatives who have been given unofficial status by the government of Israel so they can track down and assassinate the 11 Palestinians responsible for planning and executing the attack. Their lone contact is their handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who provides them with information about how they can obtain money to fund their operation. Avner accepts the job despite having a seven-month pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer) waiting for him in Jerusalem. For Avner, nothing is more important than patriotism - at least when the ordeal begins.

The group consists of Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African hothead who is eager - almost too eager - to shed blood; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), an unnaturally cool and collected "cleaner"; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker-turned-bombmaker; and Hans (Hanns Zischler), an expert forger. After making contact with an information collector named Louis (Mathiew Amalrac), Avner begins learning the locations of his targets. His mission takes him around the globe - from Paris to Düsseldorf to Beirut to Athens to London to New York City - as his pursuit of his goal becomes single-minded. Tragic near-misses, an erosion of conscience, and the realization that the hunters may have become the hunted turn Avner's assignment into a nightmare. And the most dangerous target - who may be allied with the CIA - remains elusive.

Munich, which is based on George Jonas' book Vengeance, claims to have been "inspired" by true events, which places it into the category of fiction. Key events occurred, but all of the character interaction is made up. Despite the historical nature of the story, the synergy with today's events is impossible to miss. Every word that is spoken about terrorism is as relevant today as it was in the early 1970s.

The best espionage thrillers are gritty, claustrophobic pieces, filled to the brim with lies, betrayals, and paranoia. Those qualities are evident here. What begins as an act of patriotic fervor ends in a quagmire of moral ambiguity. Avner doesn't know what to believe any more, and he has lost the capacity to differentiate right from wrong, necessary from gratuitous. What's one more death, even if the person's name isn't on the list? The currency of his world is information, but its reliability is often determined after it's too late. And trust is a luxury Avner cannot afford. The deeper one gets into the espionage game, the more difficult it becomes to differentiate reality from a fabric of deceit woven by enemies - if those enemies truly exist.

Munich illustrates how Avner's moral compass is knocked askew. In the beginning, he doesn't question the righteousness of his actions. But when it comes to make the first kill, he hesitates, and it falls to one of his confederates to fire the shot. As killing becomes easier, Avner questions its morality before ceasing to care. It becomes a routine: learn where the next target is, devise a plan, then execute it. On one occasion - perhaps the most tense and masterful scene in the film - a little girl answers an explosives-packed phone that is intended as a lethal trap for her father. On another occasion, Avner ends up within the blast radius of one of his bombs.

With each assassination, there is a Black September reprisal: a bomb in a bus station, a shooting spree, etc. There's nothing new about the cycle of terrorism, but all it means to Avner and his team is that they have opened a "dialogue" with their opponents. For Prime Minister Golda Meir, the doctrine is inescapable: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values… Forget peace now. We have to show them we're strong." Does Israel have the moral high ground? And, if so, for how long? At one point, one of Avner's team comments, "[We] do what the terrorists do." In the trenches of this kind of war, are there good guys and bad guys, or has everyone slipped into the murky gray of the middle ground?

Spielberg asks, but cannot answer, a key question: Is a war against terrorism winnable? We would like to think the answer is "yes." It would help us sleep better at night. But Munich points out a sobering truth: for every terrorist killed, there is another - possibly a worse one - waiting to take his place. Capturing or killing Osama bin Laden would be a great propaganda victory, but would it mean anything? In the end, Avner and his team must face this question. Can the killing end with 11 men when each is replaced before his body has been interred?

Spielberg takes pains to present both sides of the issue. To proffer the Palestinian perspective, he provides a rational terrorist who engages in an intellectual debate with Avner about how the Palestinians have resorted to the only methods left to them, how they are willing to wait generations to achieve their aims, and how the concept of "home" - no matter how unappealing the actual land - is precious beyond all others. Black September, unlike other recognizable terrorist groups like the IRA, is the only organization without a land to call its own.

With a performance that never misses a beat, Eric Bana gives us a man who loses his way, morally and spiritually. When he acts purely for revenge, Avner becomes what the Mossad intended, but he never envisioned. As Steve, future James Bond Daniel Craig shows a caged, homicidal fury. Ciaran Hinds (seen most recently as Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome) depicts Carl as a dignified, repressed man whose passion is bubbling beneath the surface. Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler round out the primary team of actors with sincere, low-key performances. The chameleon-like Geoffrey Rush shows up as Avner's handler. Veteran French actors Michael Lonsdale and Mathiew Amalric play the father-and-son source of much of Avner's information.

With Munich, Spielberg has emphasized his position as one of the world's most compelling filmmakers. (Some might, I suppose, consider Munich to be a penance for War of the Worlds.) The film works on numerous levels and, like Saving Private Ryan, it becomes the rare genre film that escapes its expected boundaries and is transformed into something new and powerful. This is a serious, adult motion picture. The ending is not as bleak as it could be, but it will send audiences away in a reflective mood, pondering not only the events of the film, but how close Spielberg's fictionalized world of the early '70s is to our real world in the 2000s.

Munich (United States, 2005)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Ranked #98 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:42
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1