From warning about abandoning civil liberties under the guise of stopping crime in ‘Minority Report’ to the capturing the mass hysteria that follows a city-levelling disaster in ‘War Of The Worlds’, Steven Spielberg’s output in the mid-2000s primarily wrestled with the aftermath of 9/11. With ‘Munich’ the director uses a different terrorist attack, the massacre at the 1972 Olympics in which many Jewish athletes were held hostage and later murdered, to examine America’s response to the events of September 11th.
In the film, Eric Bana plays Avner Kaufman, a fictionalised version of the alleged Mossad agent Yuval Aviv. Avner is asked by the Israeli government to lead a team of assassins in killing the members of Black September, the Palestinians group responsible for the Munich massacre. Their instructions are to travel across Europe to find these men (upon agreeing to fulfil the task, they cannot return home) and launch a merciless retaliation for the Jewish blood that was shed in Munich. However, violence only ever begets more violence. There are retaliations for the retaliations, and retaliations for the retaliations of the retaliations. Soon, although the squad are duty-bound to complete the assignment, the futility of their mission becomes abundantly clear.
As well as questioning the objective of the mission itself, the assassins whose story we follow in ‘Munich’ begin to ponder the ethics and morals of their actions. They may appear thirsty for blood at the outset but as the operation progresses they become noticeably repentant for the killings. In Spielberg’s movie, the assassinations are far from glamorous. They are harrowing, messy and there are almost always civilian causalities. In one sequence, their plan to bomb a target’s home is complicated by the interruption of his young daughter. In another, it is disturbing and humiliating to witness a Dutch contract killer slowly bleed to death, naked, as revenge for slaying one of Avner’s team. The film asks what makes them different from the terrorists they are pursuing, particularly by comparing Avner, a man who cannot return to his homeland until the mission is complete, with Black September whose actions aimed to facilitate the return to their own homeland.
By the final sequence of ‘Munich’, the team have both directly and indirectly caused dozens of fatalities on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nevertheless, almost nothing is achieved. There is no closure, redemption or justice to be found in the conclusion of ‘Munich’ with Avner now living in New York in perpetual fear of himself being assassinated. In the last shot, the camera pans across the New York skyline complete with the World Trade Centre. Watching it in 2016, a time when the violent retribution to 9/11 has allowed groups like ISIS to thrive, one can’t help but think we should have heeded ‘Munich’s warning that an eye for an eye indeed leaves the whole world blind.
This review is part of New In Cinema’s Steven Spielberg season. Find all our reviews and on-going rankings of Spielberg’s movies here.