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5.0 out of 5 starsSpielberg's "Munich" is more dialectical than rhetorical or cinematic
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 10, 2006
One of the greatest ironies of international politics in the wake of World War II is that you can make an argument that the most fascist nation on the face of the planet is the state of Israel. This will strike most people as an oxymoronic claim because they will associate fascism with Nazi Germany, which means the Holocaust and the attempted extermination of every Jew in Europe. But as a political ideology that existed outside Hitler's Third Reich such as Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, and Peron's Argentina, fascism had a specific dynamic that viewed life as an ongoing "struggle" for "order." Mussolini was always proclaiming a struggle for wheat or whatnot, and we all know about his ability to get the trains to run on time. This dynamic stands in remarked contrast to the Whig-Liberal dynamic of "liberty" and "property," but if you recall the Cold War then you can appreciate how fascist elements worked there way in American politics as well. In Israel, where everybody considers themself to be soldiers, life is indeed such a struggle more so than any other nation you can name.
The argument that in its struggle to survive the state of Israel has become more like its enemy than it would wish to be in a better world is at the core of Steven Spielberg's "Munich." The massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich is presented as the opening act on the modern age of terrorism, and you do not need the camera's final shot to show the World Trade Center in the distance to know that this drama is still ongoing. Ultimately, the film is not about what happened at Munich but how the Israeli government responded. There is no small degree of symbolism in which some athletes innocently help the Palestinian members of Black September into the Olympic village. Actually footage of the coverage of the hostage drama, including Jim McCay's unforgettable announcement to the world that "they're all gone" is mixed with shots of what the terrorists are doing. But the actual deaths of the terrorists and their hostages comes later in the film, as the main character keeps recalling the events as justification for what he has to do and later for what he has done.
Fulfilling the injunction of an eye for an eye in the Torah, the Israeli government comes up with a list of eleven Palestinians to die for the eleven Israelis murdered in Munich. Avner (Eric Bana), a former bodyguard to Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) is made the leader of a secret and unofficial group that will track down the Palestinians and kill them. His only link to the government is Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who will make sure there is enough money to get the job done. Working with Avner are Hans (Hanns Zischler), who can forge necessary documents, Steve (Daniel Craig), who is always eager to pull the trigger, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), who has gone from making toys to building bombs, and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), who cleans up the evidence and who is the only member of the group to question what they are doing.
We question because like the characters in the film we have to take at face value that these men need to be killed. But the first has translated "The Arabian Nights" into Italian. The second asks the world to note how many Palestinians have been killed by Israelis since Munich. They are not the terrorists, but they do share their ethnicity and perhaps their politics. But what about a man kissing his daughter goodbye makes him a terrorist? Avner gets information about where to find his targets from Louis (Mathieu Amalric), a Frenchman who could be connected to anybody from the C.I.A. to Mossad for all Avner knows. Meanwhile, as Avner and his men cross more names off of their list Black September is escalating its attacks, and there comes a point at which the hunters become the hunted, not that this stops them from pushing on with their missions.
"Munich" is inspired by real events rather than an attempt to document what the Israelis did in response to the Olympic massacre. What I know about the true history is that they succeeded in killing many of their targets, who may or may not have been directly involved in Munich. The screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book "Vengeance" by George Jonas, goes out of its way to make the attendant ironies of this endeavor palatable. While they use the same weapons in an effort to terrorize the terrorists, what separates Avner's group from their targets is their avoidance of collateral damage, which becomes impossible. But the pivotal scene in the film becomes not an assassination attempt but an moment of black comedy when Avner's team is forced by circumstances to share a safe house with a group of PLO members. Avner has a conversation with a man who is clearly himself as a Palestenian, doing what he is doing in the hope for a home. Devoid of specific reference to ethnicity or religion, the words could be said (and have been said) by those on both sides.
I am reminded of Lincoln's words during his Second Inaugural where he observed that both sides had prayed to the same God, because Arabs and Israelis do not believe that they pray to the same God. Each believes God has promised this dispute territory to them and them along, and the difference between these mirror beliefs that makes us think it will never be resolved in anything other than blood and death is that each holds that there God IS God. The judgment of Spielberg and this film is that the path taken by Avren and his men did not make things better. It is pointed out that those who replaced the dead escalated the violence and the Twin Towers remind us where this road has taken us without an end in sight. The great tragedy could well be that there is no end and suggesting that a particular course of action has made things worse is not a retroactive argument for having done nothing. What is happening could well be as foreordained as any Greek tragedy and those who feel "Munich" attacks them are projecting what they know in their souls onto what they see on the screen.