Probably the first public act of modern terrorism on a truly global stage took place a generation ago in Munich, when an armed group of young Palestinians representing a hitherto unknown organization called Black September raided the Olympic Village and kidnapped and murdered eleven members of the Israeli team. Because ABC televised the games and broadcast them all over the world, a huge audience witnessed the chaos and horror of the event, which opened a new chapter in the bloody book of terror. Less publicly, as Munich shows, in response to the murders, the Israeli secret service authorized a secret and illegal team of agents to track down and assassinate the men who planned the operation.
As in his Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, in Munich Steven Spielberg forsakes the special effects that characterize most of his work to follow a semi-documentary approach in telling a story drawn from history of the Palestinian massacre and the Israeli retaliation. He employs a good deal of the actual television footage from the original event, narrated by the familiar voices of Peter Jennings, Howard Cosell, and Jim McKay, to lend authenticity to a grim and ambiguous tale of revenge and remorse.
Spielberg's protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana), recruited by the Israeli secret service to lead a team of assassins across Europe, methodically carries out a most complicated and difficult mission. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a family of professional informants for the names and locations of their victims, he and his team hunt down and kill a number of Palestinians, mostly with guns and bombs.
The inherently compelling business of searching out their quarry, avoiding detection, and planning the killings creates a level of tension appropriate to the thriller. The ingenuity of the team's remote controlled bombs, concealed in telephones and mattresses, further suggests something of the big caper flick. Munich departs from the conventions of the thriller, however, in its continuing concentration on the tortured psyches of its people. Its real subject becomes not so much their dangerous mission, but the moral abyss they inhabit, their own ambivalence about carrying out what amounts to a series of cold-blooded murders.
Some of the members of Avner's crew agonize over the morality of their mission, which, whatever its initial righteousness, seems to them a betrayal of the beliefs and traditions of their people and their culture. The prime minister tells Avner at the outset that a civilization must sometimes "negotiate compromises with its own values," a statement that grows increasingly ominous as their task becomes both more routine and more violent. On the one hand, they gain ever greater proficiency and confidence at killing, but suffer ever greater remorse after the deed. The better they get, the worse it all becomes.
The picture tends to settle into a series of assassinations interrupted by a series of anguished seminars on what their mission has done to them. The men also realize that they live in constant danger themselves and, further, that the Palestinians, aware of the team's work, undertake their own escalating reprisals in the form of attacks, hijackings, kidnappings, and bombings. Their actions resolve nothing, conclude nothing, but instead create an endless cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation, with an ever increasing body count.
Despite the importance of its themes, the tensions of its action, and some terrific camera work, Munich tends to repeat its violence and bloodshed until the protagonist and his comrades essentially squander the sympathy of the audience. Even the intensity of Eric Bana cannot sustain the endless repetition of his anguished nightmares, the sappy domestic scenes, and the constant underlining of his insoluble moral crisis. Almost every member of the cast, however, attains a remarkable authenticity, especially a charismatic actor named Michael Lonsdale, who plays a sort of Mafia patriarch selling information to Avner.
Within its quasi-documentary study of a terrible slice of history, the picture keeps returning to the events at Munich in 1972 so that the whole story of the massacre unfolds in pieces throughout the progress of Avner's mission. The conclusion of the Munich tragedy subtly connects Avner with the Black September group, resulting in the obvious identification of the two opposing sides, terrorists and counterterrorists, Palestinians and Israelis. As many Americans now realize, the violation of principles in the alleged defense of those principles leads inevitably to a profound and permanent moral quagmire.
Munich (R), directed by Steven Spielberg, is playing at Henrietta 18 and Tinseltown.