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The Spielberg Blogathon: “Munich”

August 24, 2014

This is my entry in the Spielberg blogathon, hosted by Kellee  (Outspoken & Freckled), Michael (It Rains… You Get Wet) and Aurora (Citizen Screenings), taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs. Hope you enjoy my post.

Whatever your opinion has been of Steven Spielberg over the years – I count myself as a fan of many, if not all, of the films he’s made – his fans and detractors alike can probably agree he’s a director of emotion and of viscera (where they disagree, of course, is how he applies emotion and viscera in his films). One of the knocks against Spielberg has been that he’s not a filmmaker of ideas (or a filmmaker interested in ideas), and while I like Amistad more than many people do, I have to admit it was a struggle for him (albeit an intriguing one) to make a movie like this dominated by ideas (which is why he tried to throw in stabs of emotion like the “Give us free!” scene). However, Munich, in my opinion, managed to be a film of ideas while also using viscera and emotion to effectively communicate those ideas.

Munich, of course, is where the 1972 Olympics were held, and where 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and later killed by a Palestinian terror group calling itself Black September, and the beginning of Spielberg’s film (credited to Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, adapting the book Vengeance by George Jonas) shows both the kidnapping of the athletes and the coverage the kidnapping and eventual botched rescue attempt received (most of it by ABC, through Peter Jennings – who was hidden in a room where he could see what was happening – and Wide World of Sports anchor Jim McKay). Some time later, Avner (Eric Bana), a German-born Mossad agent who knows Europe, is hand-picked by Israeli Premier Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to lead a small group to track down and kill the members of Black September (the only conditions being they don’t go into Soviet countries for diplomatic reasons, and Arab countries for safety reasons). Except for Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a former Israeli soldier whose job is to clean up after every job, the other members of the group are diaspora Jews; Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African driver and gunman, Hans (Hanns Zischler), a Belgian forger, and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy-maker whose specialty is defusing bombs and who is now being asked to make bombs. With money supplied through a bank in Zurich, Avner and his team go to Europe, and through Andreas (Moritz Bleibtreu), a friend of Avner’s, and Tony (Yvan Attal), a friend of Andreas, they come in contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric), leader of a group who sells information to anyone and any group as long as they aren’t working officially on behalf of a government, and who gives Avner and his group (who pretend to be working on behalf of “rich Americans”) information on how to find their targets.

Avner (Eric Bana) being briefed by Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush).

In basic outline, this is a thriller, and Spielberg does fulfill the requirements of the genre, and in his trademark fashion. Take the second target the group attacks, Mahmoud Hamshari (Igal Naor), a PLO member who is now living in Paris with his wife and daughter. Robert gets into Mahmoud’s apartment by pretending to be a reporter who wants to interview Mahmoud about the Arab hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to get three Black September members released (and the press conference they held afterwards), and when Robert pretends to need to phone his editor, he goes to the phone and draws an outline of its shape and its bottom. When Mahmoud and his family have exited the apartment one day, Avner and Robert pose as workers (while Carl watches over them) to sneak in, and Robert exchanges the phone in the apartment with one wired to go off when Mahmoud answers the phone. Sometime later, Carl is in a phone booth, while Steve, Hans and Robert are in a car across the street from the apartment building, and Avner is on the sidewalk near the building, waiting for Mahmoud’s wife and daughter to leave. When they do, Avner takes off his hat, Carl gets ready to call, and Robert turns on his device to activate the bomb. Except a cargo truck pulls up alongside Steve’s car, and Avner temporarily halts Carl while he checks with Robert to see if the signal still works; unbeknownst to them, the car with Mahmoud’s wife and daughter returns so the daughter can get the phone book her mother left behind; when Avner is assured there’s nothing to worry about, he signals Carl to resume, but when the daughter answers the phone, and Avner sees the car has returned to the building, he and Carl frantically rush to Robert to prevent him from activating the bomb before it’s too late. Finally, when the daughter (along with her mother and their driver) leaves, Carl makes the call and the bomb goes off, but it doesn’t kill Mahmoud, it only wounds him.

That, of course, shows Spielberg, Roth and Kushner playing with genre expectations, but they had already laid the groundwork for it earlier. Meir had been criticized for trying to negotiate with Black September to get the Israeli athletes released (she tells Avner she couldn’t go to their funeral because she had to go to a family member’s funeral, but Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), the Mossad head who becomes Avner’s handler, guesses she didn’t go to their funeral because she didn’t want to be booed), but is now authorizing the (unofficial) hunt for Black September, and muses, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values”. Ephraim, who first appears at the meeting Avner attends with Meir and other government and military figures when Avner is first assigned the job (he’s sitting at a desk behind where Avner is standing, and only speaks after everyone else leaves), gives the type of information to Avner you’d expect in this type of thriller (“We deposit money from a fund that doesn’t exist into a box we don’t know about in a bank we’ve never set foot in. We can’t help you because we never heard of you before”), but even has a little humor about it (Ephraim offers Avner baklava, and when Avner turns it down, claims it’s good Avner turned down sweets, because, now that he’s no longer officially with the Mossad, he no longer has dental insurance)*. And while Avner is willing to follow orders without question, at least at first (Ephraim praises him for not asking questions at the first meeting), he can’t help being a little cynical about the whole operation at first; when Meir says Avner was one of her favorite bodyguards, Avner can’t help asking, “You like having the son of a hero around?” (Avner’s father, a war hero, is now in prison) The rest of the group is also cynical at first, especially when they find out, except for Avner and Carl, no one is really an experienced soldier, and they’re not even sure about them (when Steve asks Avner why he was made team leader, Hans cracks, “Because he really knows how to cook a brisket”, which cracks everyone up).

Avner breaks bread with Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and Papa (Michel Lonsdale).

That early cynicism, however, turns into something more pronounced as the team continues to chase their targets. After they shoot and kill Abel Wael Zwaiter (Makram Khoury), their first target (who’s now a poet living in Rome), Avner decides they should use bombs from then on because of the statement it makes (“it terrorizes the terrorists”). However, this proves easier said than done; while Robert gets criticized for using too small a bomb against Mahmoud, he’s criticized for going too far the other way when he tries to blow up the hotel room where Hussein Al Bashir (Mostefa Djadjam) is, and the bomb not only blows up Hussien’s room, it also blows up the hotel room where Avner was (he was giving the signal from the balcony), as well as the room between them where a couple was staying (since Louis supplied the explosives, Robert blames him; naturally, Louis claims Robert messed it up). Things become even further strained between Avner and Louis when Louis gives Avner the names of three PLO members in Beirut, and Ephraim lets the team go on the condition an Israeli commando team accompany them, which angers Louis because of his rule of not working for governments. Then there’s the close call when the team happens to be in a safe house with a PLO group they eventually have to do battle with (again, the safe house was set up by Louis’ father (Michel Lonsdale), who is in charge of Louis’ group). More important than any of that, however, is while Avner is disinclined to question their orders at first (he tells Carl at one point, “Stop chasing the mice around in your head”), he and the rest of the team are soon having doubts about the mission. They don’t know for sure if the people they’re killing are really Black September or not, as the Lufthansa hijacking and other incidents make clear, the people they do kill are being replaced by people even more dangerous (and who are targeting them), and Avner (and some of the others) are having trouble sleeping at night and are being plagued by nightmares by what they’ve done.

The ideas from that last part – that violence begets violence, and the cost to your soul for using the same methods your enemies use to stop them – aren’t particularly new ones, of course, but they are as relevant now as they ever were, thanks not just to what’s going on in the Middle East right now, but given our memories of the War on Terror here. Spielberg, Roth and Kushner were slammed on both sides for this movie – some thought it was pro-Israel, others pro-PLO – but I’d argue they’re less interested in demonizing either side than in grappling with those questions. Part of that is dealt with in dialogue, of course (Robert at one point says, “We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it”), but again, Spielberg, along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn communicate those ideas viscerally and visually as well. With the exception of the very first hit they undertake, none of the jobs they undertake go smoothly (the one person who was supposedly the mastermind behind what happened in Munich is never killed by the team), and Spielberg are able to make you feel all this without descending into what has been called “chaos cinema”. Even something as simple as taking revenge – when Avner and Steve kill Jeanette (Marie-Josee Croze), a Dutch assassin who tried to seduce Avner so she could kill him, and when he turned her down, seduced and killed Carl instead – doesn’t go away; Hans refuses to treat her as human (when Avner tries to cover up her naked body after killing her, Hans angrily tells him to stop), but then confesses he’s had nightmares about killing her. The most controversial method they use comes at the very end, when Avner is having sex with his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) after he’s joined her in Brooklyn, and he’s reliving the moment when the Black September group killed the Israeli athletes. When I first saw the movie, I agreed with those who said this was, at best, misguided (particularly since it’s showing events Avner couldn’t have possibly seen). However, I now think it’s another way of showing just how haunted Avner is by what he’s done, and how it’s never going to leave him, even doing something he obviously enjoys as much as having sex with Daphna.

Ephraim with the team.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Spielberg does trade in emotion, and one emotion his detractors normally tag him with is sentimentality, which I’ll admit can be a fault of his, in films such as Hook and The Terminal, for example, which are two of my least favorites of his. Spielberg does brush against sentimentality here, but always manages to pull back in time. The scene where the team (who is pretending to be from other revolutionary/terror groups like the Red Army Faction) and the PLO team end up at the same safe house is a good example. Steve and one of the PLO members look like they’re going to get in a confrontation over which music to listen to on the radio until Steve finds Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, and they both grin at each other briefly. Spielberg, Kaminski and Kahn hold the moment just long enough to see the temporary bond, yet also show the discord, as we see Avner and the leader of the PLO group arguing over Israel. The women characters don’t get a lot to do in this movie, but Daphna avoids sentimentality as well. After she’s given birth, Avner tries to get her to move to Brooklyn because it may not be safe for her in Israel, but she doesn’t want to move because Israel is home to her; when Avner says she’s the only home he’s ever known, she laughs, calls him corny, and wonders why she married a sentimentalist (earlier, when she was pregnant, Avner asked her how long into pregnancy was she supposed to stop having sex, and Daphna cracked, “Labor”). The final shot of the movie, from a distance, is of the World Trade Center, which is less a nod to sentiment, I think, than a reminder. Finally, even though Avner does come to see Louis’ father as a father figure to him, we also see the resentment it causes Louis, and we never forget Papa, as he is called, is dangerous.

The performances are all terrific across the board as well. Bana’s had a tough time in Hollywood since coming over on the strength of his work in Chopper, and this is probably his best performance in Hollywood, as he not only carries himself like a soldier, but also shows the toll the work has taken on Avner without overdoing it. Kassovitz has talked about wanting to devote himself exclusively to directing, and I think that’s a shame, not only because I’m not a fan of his as a director, but because he’s so good as an actor, as he is here in playing Robert as someone way over his head. This isn’t the best of Craig’s pre-Bond work, but he does show a lot underneath Steve’s bluster, and Hinds and Zischler are dependable and good. Amalric is spot on as the amoral Louis while also showing the bitterness and hidden code underneath. Croze, up till this point best known for her turn as the drug addict/dealer in The Barbarian Invasions, only has a couple of scenes, but is both alluring and dangerous as the assassin. Best of all are Rush and Lonsdale, both showing the worldview of people who have seen too much (along with Rush, Lonsdale also gets food-related humor as a way of humanizing his character; Papa complains he and Avner both have hands that are too big to be effective as cooks, and calls that “tragic”). At one point in the movie, Carl tells Avner, “The only thing that really scares (guys like you) is stillness.” By not being scared of characters who have seen too much, or of ideas, yet not abandoning his prodigious gifts to communicate those ideas or show those characters, Spielberg, in Munich, has made one of his best movies.

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2 Comments
  1. Great examination of this work by Spielberg, Sean. Many thanks for the contribution for the blogathon.

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