This is not a movie about the 1972 slayings of Israeli Olympic athletes by Arab terrorists in Munich, Germany. Spielberg’s exploring something bigger. Those murders serve only as a catalyst for what follows, as a group of Mossad agents are sent to track down and assassinate the Black September members responsible. In doing so, they nearly become terrorists themselves.
Mossad is the Israeli version of the CIA, and Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) is a member. After the events of Munich, he’s given a mission: Make the Arab terrorists pay. As far as the government is concerned he no longer exists, they don’t know him. But he has a mission, he has money, and a team of specialists to help carry it out. The rest is up to him.
This isn’t a spy movie. There is spying involved and a couple of elements that look as though they dropped straight out of The Bourne Identity, but that’s not the point. Director Steven Spielberg’s ambitions are a loftier than that. Through Avner’s story Munich examines terrorism from every angle. The Munich attack resonates throughout the story, but it’s not just the impact of Munich we’re looking at, but the impact of all kinds of terrorism on all kinds of people, both the victims and the killers. But then who really are the killers? Avner is waging his own war of terror, is he that different from the men he’s hunting?
The characters in Spielberg’s film, both Muslim and Jew, are real people not two-dimensional murderers or overly heroic soldiers. Each assassination carried about by Avner and his team is different, and each affects the team differently. With each successful operation the dynamic between them shifts and they become different people. This is brilliantly developed by Spielberg, and the way each man deals with what they’re doing is our window into what’s happening. This is a film driven not by brutal action (of which there is plenty) but by the character’s reactions to what they’re doing. Through that it achieves a broader scope. By that I mean that you don’t just understand the people written in to the script, knowing them also brings you into a wider world of understanding about the terrorist problem as a whole, both then and now.
Don’t think for a minute that I’m saying this is a political movie. Munich is doggedly apolitical. Instead Tony Kushner’s script tries something that for Michael Moore would probably be unimaginable: it’s fair. Neither side is exactly squeaky clean, and whether their deeds are evil or not, often even the worst killers are motivated by the same things we all are. When under attack, they try to protect their wives and children. A dying assassin stops to say goodbye to her cat, before collapsing in a gut wrenching pool of blood. Some try to escape, some turn and sacrifice themselves to save their brethren. Every death in this movie hurts, not just the deaths of the good guys, but the apparently bad ones as well.
That leaves Munich as a unique and sometimes emotionally crushing experience. This is easily Spielberg’s best film since Saving Private Ryan, and it’s great to see him return to heavier, more exacting material. It helps that Spielberg gets so many amazing performances. We’ve been hearing for years now that Eric Bana was the next big thing, but I’m not sure I quiet believed it until now. He’s powerful, imposing, and yet warm, human, and fearful as Avner; he’s the key to everything. This is a great movie, but not a friendly one. It asks a lot from its audience, and staying with it till the end demands a price. Munich is going to stick with you long after leaving the theater. You’ll be changed forever.