Back in May, when everyone was treating the death of Osama Bin Laden like the U.S. hadjust won the intergalactic Super Bowl, I wrote here that it would be a good day for everybody to sit down and watch Munich. That the revenge business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, despite the momentary thrill of “We got him!” Of course, most of the people celebrating that day would have probably missed that and started bragging about how Seal Team 6 would have done a better job. I talked earlier about how Spielberg indirectly dealt with 9/11 in The Terminal and War of the Worlds. But it’s impossible to see Munich as anything but a direct commentary on the origins of and our reactions to the attacks, even if the film does so by taking us back to probably the most infamous terrorist incident before 9/11.
Munich is really sneaky about it though. It builds up our sympathies for the Israelis by starting off with a recreation of the initial attack on the Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. It gets us invested in the team Avner is put in charge of by giving them all distinct and mostly likeable personalities. For all intents and purposes, Munich starts off like a classic “men on a mission” film, and our expectations are that we’ll see justice handed out to the terrorists by this crack squad of heroes. But after the first target is taken down in sloppy fashion, and the team very nearly kills the daughter of the second target by accident, we start to realize that there is nothing thrilling or exciting about any of this. It’s butcher’s work, bereft of any sense of justice at all. The strain begins to tear the team apart, their veneer of invincibility is shattered, and Avner is left wondering whether they’ve exacted a price for Munich or simply run up a bill for more violence, this time in the name of revenge for those they’ve killed. The final shot of the film, of Avner alone with the World Trade Center rising in the distance, makes it clear which one Spielberg thinks is the case. Both sides have been simply creating martyrs for the other.
One of my main points of contention when talking about the Middle East is how we’re never going to achieve any kind of peace over there until we try to understand what it is about the terrorists that makes walking into a crowded building and blowing themselves a viable option. It’s not like they’re waking up one day and deciding to become a suicide bomber. There’s a couple of thousands of years of history (most of which the U.S. wasn’t even involved in) behind the Arab/Israeli conflict, a lot of which seems to lose sight of the fact that what this boils down to is two groups of people who want the right to exist; they just happen to want to exist on the same piece of land. Which is a roundabout way of pointing out the scene where Avner’s team inadvertently ends up sharing a safe house with a group of PLO members. We see that in some ways the differences are deeply silly — they can’t agree on what radio station to listen to — but that they’ve got a lot more in common than they might think. You get the feeling that if the two sides could simply sit down and have a discussion the way Avner does with the PLO member, we’d get a lot further along in the process.
Aside from the politics, one of the things that struck me about Munich is that it feels like it could have come from the 1970s. It doesn’t have the hyperkinetic pace you see in more modern action films, and it’s not afraid to take its time on some quieter character scenes. It makes sense it would feel like a 70s film given that it’s set in that decade, but it goes beyond simply production design and costumes. It’s got a real 70s sensibility to it, like something you’d see playing alongside The French Connection, where there’s grit and grime rather than glitz and glamor. Spielberg doesn’t restrain himself quite to the extent he did in Schindler’s List, but you can tell he’s muted himself a bit here.
What’s also remarkable about the film is that Spielberg managed to pull this and War of the Worlds off in the same year. Then again, Spielberg isn’t a stranger to the double-header: he gave us Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can in the same year, and perhaps the ultimate two-fer in 1993 with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. But those combos lack the thematic unity of War and Munich, where the first one asked us to relive the fear and confusion of 9/11, while the second asked us to examine the fear and confusion of our reaction. It’s almost as if Spielberg wanted to us to think about which was more troubling.
Tomorrow: One beard does another a favor.