A creeping death of trust, love, faithIn 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in a botched hostage-taking operation. In the aftermath, Israel’s Mossad intelligence service commissioned a series of revenge assassinations targeting suspected terrorist leaders.
In the mid-1980s a book called “Vengeance” and an HBO film called “Munich” dealt with the events. The book took a journalistic approach, while the movie, which was based on the book, took some liberties in interpreting the story, even changing the main character’s name to Avner.
Spielberg follows the earlier film’s lead, keeping the changed name, probably to signal that he too has taken some artistic license.
Those who feared “Munich” would be a political diatribe dressed up as an “important cinematic event” will be pleasantly surprised. This brutal story, told with emotional detachment, belies the real complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, despite a meandering middle and some unfortunate cliches, “Munich” is a qualified success.
Avner (Eric Bana), a married government agent with a baby on the way, is tapped for a special mission. He is given the names of 11 Palestinians and sent to Europe to kill them. It’s a simple premise that gives Spielberg plenty of room to fill his cinematic canvas with shadows, suspense and showdowns.
As Avner and his team of novice assassins begin their work, with the help of the shady Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and his “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), they predictably experience the emotional meltdown that mistrusting everyone, all the time, will bring.
But what makes “Munich” more than just another thriller is Spielberg’s deft manipulation of his audience. He doesn’t just tell the story of a man whose faith in the world is destroyed ― he conditions the audience over almost three grueling hours to feel the same way. By the final scenes, in which Avner tries to readjust to normal life with his wife and newborn child in New York City, every passerby looks like they might be packing hand grenades, automatic weapons or remote detonators. Images of the brutal revenge killings set in Europe of the 1970s haunt viewers as they must have haunted Avner.
Unfortunately, the unnecessary length and repetition of genre cliches cause the film’s stretched center to sag. The assassinations come one after another without any significant changes, and on the whole the supporting actors in the Mossad cell squander any chemistry they might have had with performances that are so understated they almost fade into Spielberg’s misty alleys. The exceptions are bright moments between Lonsdale’s Papa and Bana in the pastoral environs of a country chateau. These scenes provide the audience with breathing room between killings. The film is also not free of spy film tropes such as a femme fatale and a dangerous godfather.
“Munich” is not an easy movie to watch. Not only is it grotesque and disturbing, it’s also too long. But for patient fans of Spielberg’s serious work, it’s a well-crafted, affecting film.
Suspense / English
by Ben Applegate