Munich (2005): Best of the Decade

Though a largely fictionalized account of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and its aftermath, and underplaying the Israeli part, "Munich" is an entertaining and occasionally provocative espionage thriller that works on several levels. Despite the fact that the film is set in 1970s, it's relevant and timely today. While unfolding as a suspense-actioner, it's also effective as a morality tale about terrorism and counter-terrorism. And if the focus is on group dynamics of a bunch of assassins, the film doesn't neglect the harrowing journeys of self-discovery.

All of which is by way of saying that "Munich" is Spielberg's most satisfying film in seven years, since the WWII war drama "Saving Private Ryan." Like Clint Eastwood's 1992 "Unforgiven," which presented an anatomy of violence, "Munich" is a provocative dissection of the very concept of retribution. In genre, theme, and style, "Unforgiven" and "Munich" are totally different, yet both films analyze a serious moral concern by using a popular genre: Western in the former, and action-thriller in the latter.

Spielberg has previously explored historically resonant moments in such epic films as "Empire of the Sun," "Schindler's List," and "Saving Private Ryan." In "Munich," he raises vital questions about the state of the world in 2005 and beyond, casting a critical eye on the history of modern terrorism and its effects on every element of the world, from the most micro unit, the individual terrorist, to the most macro, the world's geopolitics.

With its huge canvas (the story is set in a dozen countries) and huge ensemble, the largest number of parts in any Spielberg movie, "Munich" boasts a superlative cast, headed by Eric Bana in a career-making performance, as the team's leader. Impressive supporting turns are also given by an international cast that includes Aussie Geoffrey Rush (restrained, for a change), Brit Daniel Craig (the new James Bond), and French Mathiew Kassovitz, among others.

Following "Syriana," "Munich" is the second film this season to deal with Big Issues, yet, unlike Gaghan's film, which is schematic and soulless since all the characters serve as plot points (by design) in an impersonal, barely comprehensible scheme, Spielberg's movie is more satisfying, paying attention to the tale's personal and collective levels. Some of the film's events have been covered in the documentary "One Day in September," but Spielberg is the first to explore the aftermath of the Munich tragedy in such graphic and human detail.

In September 1972, an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before millions of TV viewers, thus ushering a new world of violence. It occurred during the second week of the Summer Olympics in Munich, where ironically the games had been dubbed "The Olympics of Peace and Joy." Suddenly, without warning, an extremist Palestinian group known as Black September invaded the Olympic Village, killing two members of the Israeli Olympic team and capturing nine as hostages. The tense standoff and massacre that ensued played out with unparalleled immediacy on TV. The tragic event ended 24 hours later, when anchorman Jim McKay uttered the words, "They're all gone," words that still haunt us 33 years later.

While the Munich terror was seen around the world, the event's intensely secret aftermath has remained largely unknown. "Munich" deals with the highly charged mission of retribution that followed the massacre. Known to Israeli Intelligence as "Operation Wrath of God," the covert hit squad is one of the boldest, most aggressive assassination plots in modern history. With taut and vivid narrative, "Munich" takes the audience into a hidden moment that resonates with the same emotions in our lives today as it did back then.

At the center of the story is Avner, a young Israeli patriot and intelligence officer. Still mourning the Munich massacre and infuriated by its savagery, Avner is approached by a mysterious man named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who presents him an unusual way to serve his country. Ephraim asks Avner to leave behind his pregnant wife, relinquish his identity, and go completely underground on a mission to hunt down and kill the Palestinians accused of masterminding the murders.

Despite his youth and inexperience, Avner becomes the leader of a team of four very diverse yet highly skilled recruits. They are: Steve (Daniel Craig), the brash and tough South-African-born get-away driver; Hans (Hanns Zischler), the German Jew with a flair for forging documents; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the Belgian toy maker-turned explosive-expert; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the quiet, methodical man whose job is to "clean up" after the others.

From Geneva to Frankfurt, Rome, Paris, Cyprus, London, Beirut, and Tel-Aviv, Avner and his team circle the globe under a cloak of extreme secrecy. Ephraim has opened a lucrative bank account for Avner in Geneva, to be used for the expenses involved, major among which are the high fees paid for clues of the whereabouts of the Palestinians. "Munich" presents in cynical yet realistic way the importance of cash in this particular transactionand in global terrorism in general. Some of the film's most captivating scenes describe the meetings, negotiations, and demands for higher and higher fees by a shadowy team of a French father and son. Tacking down each man on a closely guarded list of targets, the squad carries out intricately plotted assassinations. Working outside the paradigm of international (or any) law, and adrift without home or family, the group's only connection to humanity becomes one another.

But even that starts to fray as the men begin to argue among themselves about unsettling questions that not only refuse to go away, but get more and more urgent as the plot unfolds. The questions involve practical and moral dimensions of the issues of vengeance and retribution, such as who exactly are they killing can such violence be justified and most important of all, will their mission stops terror and promote peace in the Middle East

The saga gets increasingly more emotionally involving and disturbing as Avner begins to lose some of his men and raises doubts about the mission himself. The mission tears at the souls of Avner and his team, and it becomes clear that the longer they remain on the hunt, the more they are in danger of becoming the hunted themselves.

Spielberg's narrative strategy is to humanize all the characters. Having many characters in a multi-layered story that spans a couple of years and numerous countries, it's remarkable that even the smallest character is as interesting as the central ones. Writers Tony Kushner (in his debut as scripter) and Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") have given each member a distinct personality and unique journey of self-revelation. They must have learned the lessons of such war actioners as "Black Hawk Down" and "The Thin Red Line," in which there were no individual characters, and most of the soldiers looked alike physically.

In "Munich," each of the five men looks, sounds, and acts differently. Each member has a chip on his shoulder and is given intriguing personal background that helps explain his motivation to engage in such life-risking and morally gray operation.

Avner Kauffman, the unlikely group leader, is the youngest and only native Israeli. Intensely devoted to his country, Avner has never had to kill before, and we observe with fear and fascination the making and unmaking of a professional assassin. Eric Bana, who had the misfortune of appearing in Ang Lee's flop "The Hulk," renders a solid performance that anchors the film. Handsome and athletically fit, Bana reveals warmth and strength and even a trickle of fear behind the eyes, which humanizes his character.

Steve, the South-African recruit, is the toughest, bravest, and most unwavering. On the surface, he seems strong and in control of his destiny. Like the other guys, Steve believes in this job because he believes in Israel. A gung-ho, Steve just dives in headfirst and deals with the consequences later, but as the movie goes on, he begins to suffer too, due to the terrible acts committed and shock at his own emotional turmoil.

Robert, the Belgian member, is a talented toy maker equally skilled at building deadly explosive devices. Robert is the most reluctant member of the assassination squad, even though he's committed to the cause of Israel and believes he should fight for his land and his beliefs. The pensive Hans, a transplanted German Jew, poses as a quiet antique dealer but is really a Mossad agent with a rare gift for forging documents. Raised in both languages, Hans holds the strange notion of being linked to Israel and Germany. An activist for the first time, Hans grab the chance to show his loyalty to Israel through service to the Mossad.

Rounding out the team is the meticulously organized and cautious Carl, who belongs to a different generation than the others. Carl is the one member who wants specific details and impossible assurances that the targets are clean, that there's no collateral damage, and that nobody innocent gets hurt. Carl believes that there is a "right" way to do even the most awful of jobs.

Spielberg shows the Munich assault through flashbacks that are inserted into the narrative in crucial moments via Eric's dreams and nightmares. "Munich" begins with snippets of imagery of the assault, and then periodically returns to the traumatic event. Near the end, Spielberg makes the strange choice of intercutting the 1972 flashback with a paranoid Avner trying to make love to his wife, and climaxing at the same time that the cold-blooded murders occur.

Drawing on his distinctive vision and commendable technical expertise, Spielberg has directed "Munich" with a more immediate approach than the usual. Reportedly, he didn't use storyboards, instead working in a more spontaneous manner, intuiting the looks and needs of each scene as it unfolded.

Visually, the film is fresh if also uneven, a result of being rushed into production and release. With the assisatnce of Spielberg's regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky, aach of the assassinations is shot in a different style, based on the notion that, as the team experiences each, their views about their action change, the group dynamics shift, and their feelings about themselves and each other transform. With more and more stress, anxiety, and pressure, each mission has it own personal character and its own impact on the team players.

"Munich" tries to portray a painfully tragic chapter of Israeland the world's–collective history. Still controversial and heavily debated, "Operation Wrath of God" ultimately killed at least 13 men without prosecution or trial. It's a tribute to the film's goals that the more we learn about the harrowing events, the more they haunt us since they raise important questions for which there are no easy answers.


Though neither the Israeli government nor the Mossad, Israel's Secret Intelligence Agency, had ever officially acknowledged the existence of such hit squads, a number of books and documentaries utilizing inside sources have since provided details of how the team carried out its goals. Reportedly, two Israeli Generals have publicly confirmed that the targeted assassination squads did exit: General Aharon Yariv in 1993 BBC documentary, and General Zvi Zamir in a 2001 interview on "60 Minutes"

Munich as Provocative Thriller

The above 2000-word review doesn't permit me to dwell on every aspect of the film, and how it fits into the international espionage genre and into our current troubled times. Please see Comment for a comparison between "Munich" and "The Day of the Jackal," Zinnemann's 1973 thriller about the plot to assassin Charles De Gaul, and the influence of Coppola's 1974 conspiracy masterpiece, "The Conversation," on "Munich"'s concerns and characterization.