Saturday, 1 March 2014

Movie Review: Munich (2005)


A brilliantly pessimistic action drama centering on the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics, Munich is about the limits of bitter bloodlust.

At the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September group storm the Olympic Village, shoot and kill two Israeli athletes and take nine more as hostages. A botched rescue attempt by German authorities ends in tragedy: all the hostages are killed, as well as five of the attackers. Three are taken alive.

In response, Israel activates a death squad to find and eliminate Europe-based Palestinians connected with the Munich plot. Mossad agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), married to a very pregnant Daphna (Ayelet Zurer), is selected to lead the black ops mission, and is given the names of eleven Palestinians to kill. Avner's handler and only subsequent link to the Israeli government is Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), while his fellow squad members are the supposed explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the South African Steve (Daniel Craig), the self-designated "cleaner" Carl (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), and document forger Hans (Hanns Zischler).

In Paris they connect with the mysterious Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who runs a private syndicate specializing in selling information about agents who do not want to be found, but only to non-governmental buyers. Avner and his group get to work, and start finding and killing their Palestinian targets, although none of the killings are easy, and there are many messes and near misses involving civilians and faulty explosives. Palestinian reprisal killings also escalate, and Avner realizes that his mission is only creating more killers and more victims.

When the killings escalate to a full scale Israeli Defense Forces commando raid on Beirut to eliminate three key targets, Louis' "Papa" (Michael Lonsdale) gets involved, and Avner's cover as an Israeli agent is blown. Every successive mission becomes more difficult, and Avner and his men are soon both the hunters and the hunted.

Adapting the book Vengeance by George Jonas, Steven Spielberg wades into the Middle East conflict, and calls what he sees: a series of revenge and counter-revenge killings that achieve exactly nothing for either side. Every death generates more hurt, more pain, more victims, and more avengers, and moves the conflict further away from any resolution. The hunters become the hunted, the killers are also killed, and the blood-letting only begets more blood-letting, with innocent casualties strewn across history for good measure.

These truths can be difficult to accept for both the Israeli and Palestinian side, and Munich has detractors from every corner. It's easier to lash out and add to the violence rather than sit at the negotiating table and hammer out a peace, and Munich is meant to show both the senselessness of the war path, and the pain inflicted on the foot soldiers who are superficially successful in their missions.

At over 160 minutes, Munich is a relentlessly grim masterpiece about a dirty secret war played out on the sidewalks of Europe's capitals. The film aches with the tension of events and the intense pressure on men one misstep away from death. Spielberg captures the shadowy underworld of Europe in the 1970s, gripped by acts of terror and filled with Israeli and Palestinian agents intermingling among Cold War spies. Deadly games are played across the spectrum from regional to global, enemies making surprising friends with allies of their enemies for geopolitical gains, the double cross as close as the next street corner.

The deeper he goes into his mission, the more certain Avner is that the killings do not come with victory or jubilation. Rather, dread and reprisals accompany his transformation into a soulless death machine, and whether he finally physically dies at the hands of his enemies does not matter: he is dead inside, his life transformed into a living nightmare.

Munich ends with a painfully intense sex scene intercut with the raw, brutal horror of terrorism, the circle of life becoming the circle of death, waiting in vain for the courage required to break the cycle of violence. More than anyone, the soldiers of war know that it is the diplomats who have to win the peace, otherwise the abominations will just continue across the generations. And to make the point, in the final image Spielberg's camera lingers, for a long time, on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.






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