THE WORLD WAS WATCHING IN 1972 AS 11 ISRAELI ATHLETES WERE MURDERED AT THE MUNICH OLYMPICS. THIS IS THE STORY OF WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
It was in a Time Magazine article shortly after the release of Munich that its director, Steven Spielberg, expressed a hope that the film would bring Palestinians and Israelis together. Perhaps 30 years of greatness brings one delusions of grandeur. This movie will not end any conflicts in the Middle East, but Spielberg does manage to find a balance. Fanatical supporters of one side in that conflict will be very disappointed.
This is the story of what happened after Munich. It was during the Olympic Games in that city in 1972 that the Palestinian terrorist group Black September attacked the Israeli quarters and took eleven athletes hostage. All of them were killed during a bungled rescue attempt. Once again, Jewish blood had been spilled on German ground and then-Prime Minister Golda Meir decided to show the world that taking Jewish lives will cost you dearly. Mossad, the Israeli security service, was authorized to put together a death squad, an elite team that would track down those Palestinians who were responsible for the Munich massacre and kill them, taking the members of the team to places all over the world.
We don’t know for sure how much of all this is true, but it’s safe to say that the book and the film probably come very close to the truth (whether or not the men who were killed had much to do with Munich is an entirely different matter). The filmmakers create a team that’s pretty endearing to follow – they don’t look or behave like murderers and they are kind of learning the rules of the game as they go along. The story becomes quite a journey for Avner Kaufmann (Eric Bana), the leader of the team, a family man who comes to realize just how painful it can be to serve your government.
Finding a middle ground
It is obvious that Spielberg sympathizes with Palestinians who are essentially homeless, who have no country, and with Israelis who have survived the Holocaust and are generally hated in the Middle East. It is obvious that Spielberg doesn’t believe in the concept of an eye for an eye. He believes that kind of thinking makes the whole world blind, but he doesn’t ignore the realities of the conflict. He has found a middle ground – and that’s something worth admiring. Much of the film’s tension originates from the fact that it isn’t easy to kill people and organize bombings; the attempts at that made by the Israeli team are realistically and harrowingly portrayed.
This is at times quite a grisly film; the Palestinian attack at Munich is bloody, absurd and awful and so are the murders committed by Avner and his people. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gives the film a cold look and John Williams’s discreet score is a perfect accompaniment; everyone involved seems to want to show us a world no sane person would like to take part of.
The cast is uniformly fine; Bana convincingly shows how his character allows paranoia to ruin his life and it’s fun seeing Daniel Craig, the future James Bond, as an agent with few qualms about killing those who threaten the Jews. Geoffrey Rush is also great as the Mossad handler who can’t understand what Avner is going through.
The ending of the film is open. We don’t know what will happen to Avner, who has made his way to New York, and we see no end to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As the end credits begin to roll we see the World Trade Center in the background. The future bears no promise of peace. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Munich 2005-U.S. 164 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, Steven Spielberg, Colin Wilson. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Tony Kushner, Eric Roth. Book: George Jonas (“Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team”). Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Music: John Williams. Cast: Eric Bana (Avner Kaufmann), Daniel Craig (Steve), Ciarán Hinds (Carl), Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer… Geoffrey Rush, Michael Lonsdale.
Trivia: Ben Kingsley was allegedly considered for the part Rush came to play. The book also inspired a TV movie, Sword of Gideon (1986).
Last word: “From the day I became morally and politically conscious of the importance of the state of Israel and its necessity to exist, I have believed that not just Israel, but the rest of the world, needs Israel to exist. But there is a constituency that nothing you can say or do will ever satisfy. The prism through which they see things is so profound and deeply rooted and so much a part of their own belief system that if you challenge that, you challenge everything they believe in. They say the film is too critical of Israel. The film has been shown to Palestinians who think it is too pro-Israel and doesn’t give the them enough room to air their grievances.” (Spielberg, RogerEbert.com)