Munich feels like a James Bond film, and I think that’s only partially due to Daniel Craig’s role in the film. The story is full of assassinations, bombs, guns, some sex (even a femme fatale!), sneaking around, lies and a bunch of other spy-genre things, but this film uses that excess to say something about the futility of war. The central character is Avner (Eric Bana), a pretty normal guy who’s recruit to lead a small group of men in the effort to assassinate 11 Palestinians allegedly behind the attack. In addition to elements of a spy film, this story is really also about what it means to go off to war and how some men never return.
The first half of the story goes remarkably well. Avner and his guys get a target, and they take out that target. They express some remorse for their actions, because what they’re doing is so horrific that they have to question it if we as the audience are to have any sympathy for them. At the beginning of the story, Avner is ready to do whatever it takes to make up for the losses done to his country in the Munich terrorist tack at the Olympic games. As his mission moves on, however, he starts to become less sure of what he’s doing. This doesn’t seem to be purely from guilt so much as a growing paranoia that he is being hunted, like the men he hunts.
Avner gets information about the whereabouts of his targets from a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Almalric). Louis is very upfront about having no rooting interest in this conflict, saying he’ll turn on anyone for the right price. At first they seem to have a solid understanding of each other and their respective roles in the goings on of the film, but Louis’ treatment of this conflict as, essentially, a game begins to undercut the importance of Avner’s mission. Both that and a belief that Louis will sell him out starts Avner down a spiral of doubt, fear and uncontrollable anger.
The leaders Avner and his men take out are quickly replaced, and it seems like nothing will ever change. Avner is very vocal about this concern to his higher ups, but they shake it off. He is surrounded by people who seem so sure in what they’re doing, and it becomes clear that the bloodshed isn’t about to stop, on both sides.
Throughout the film we see glimpses into the infamous 1972 Munich terrorist attack in which the Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed 11 Israeli Olympic athletes. These flashbacks serve as a constant reminder to both Avner and the audience of why he’s on this mission. We’re supposed to root for Avner, but we see him and his men brutally kill multiple people, actually a lot of people. They are gunned down in the street, bombed out in their own home and one is even shot in her robe. These battles have departed from the fields of war and have been taken to the streets. It’s not hard to get an audience to identify with a soldier in a war film because we know he is in a situation in which it’s kill or be killed and both he and the enemy have entered into this sort of agreement wherein they both know the rules.
In Munich, however, Avner and his group really test the limits we’ll go to in terms of a rooting interest. There are enough people in Avner’s life (from his mom to his wife to the government) telling him that he’s doing the right thing, and it starts to feel like he’s been misled from the start. We have some sympathy for him because everyone seems to be trying to force their own values onto him. This mainly goes for the people who pay him, and really, if Avner didn’t show some kind of doubt, he would be a tough protagonist to get along with.
Despite all the characters telling him he’s doing the right thing, Louis is enough to make Avner doubt everything. Again, it’s more out of a fear for his own life and that of his family that Avner begins to breakdown. He’s been told that this whole fight is for his “home,” and now he fears more for his home than he ever did before.
From an outside perspective, all this violence feels senseless and pointless. Maybe this is just because we know how the next 30-40 years have gone, and the conflict is still ongoing. It’s also important, I think, that Avner’s violence is just as horrific as the violence against the 11 Israeli Olympians. Since that attack is cut into different sections, sprinkled throughout the film, we get to see the violence in relation to the violence committed by Avner and his men. It feels like two groups of people trading deadly blows more than one side committing a one-sided atrocity against another. They’re both in the trenches together.
The story ends with Avner living in Brooklyn with his wife and infant daughter. He’s left alone after a conversation with his one-time director who asked him to come back to the home he’s deserted. Avner is stuck in perpetual self-doubt, not knowing if he’s done more than almost anyone for his country or if he’s done nothing.
The whole film is filmed with a cool color temperature and desaturated colors. It’s grimy like a lot of recent Spielberg films, but the cinematography is also much more beautiful than something like War of the Worlds. The whole world depicted in the film feels natural and lived in, helping underscore that this conflict is tethered down in history and deeply-rooted. The violence occurs in buildings that have housed generations of people, and the violence affects some of the innocent, not just the people who allegedly deserve said violence.
In one scene, Avner’s men bomb a hotel room, and the blast is a little too strong, harming a young newlywed couple next-door to the bomb. This moment is clearly meant to show how this fight will catch innocent people in the line of fire, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like this violence killed more than just a few innocent people. In this film, the main characters all take steps to avoid harming the innocent. In one effectively dramatic scene, for example, Avner is about to set off a phone bomb in a man’s home, but his daughter answers the phone, and he has to race to call it off.
It’s a well-done scene, and despite it being a little too neat (the girl leaves and they successfully bomb the guy anyway), it represents a warning to our heroes, so they know the damage they’re capable of causing. The film feels like Spielberg really wanted to make sure we were rooting for Avner, so that’s why their hits are watered down a little bit. Avner needs to be likable, so we see him stress how important it is to not kill anyone who’s outside the fight, and we also see him act as a protective father for his family. He’s supposed to be a true hero, but the situation is what drags him down into the mud. I still left the movie with the feeling that he was heroic… to a degree, because he seemed like a good guy, and the movie makes sure we see how tortured he is. But he’s done some messed up stuff, and it’s all been very violent. I really think Avner or the character he’s based on was much more in the murky gray between good and evil than even this film demonstrates.
I’m not sure where this stands among Spielberg’s films, but it both feels like an important film as well as an entertaining film. It somehow straddles the line between something like Schindler’s List/Amistad and something like Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report. Typing it out right now, it doesn’t feel like Saving Private Ryan would be in the same category as Minority Report but they were both immensely entertaining films, even if one of them made you feel a little nauseous. I guess another way of putting it is that those first two films were a bit of a grind to get through, like someone holding your head into the mud, making you really look at the ground. The latter two films still involved you sitting in the mud (mostly SPR) but you got to play with the mud. In other words, because I still don’t know if I’m saying this right or if I even believe myself, you felt like you were actively participating in the latter two films whereas with the first two films you were fastened to a seat like Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
This film makes you feel like an active participant. You’re on the ground with these characters, and it’s just the historical significance of the story coupled with Avner’s increasingly disturbing actions that make you feel like you were really watching Schindler’s List all along.