directed by Steven Spielberg
(DreamWorks, 2005)

I'm not a big fan of "inspired by true events" films, mainly because it can be impossible to distinguish truth from dramatic license at any given moment, but Munich represents the genre at its best. It's an important movie because the events of this story lie beneath the surface for those of us who are too young to have actually watched the drama play out back in the summer of 1972. We hear references to it every four years during the Summer Olympics and think about how awful it must have been, but I don't think I ever read or heard the whole story -- especially Israel's actions in response to the kidnapping and murder of 11 of their Olympic athletes in Munich. The Israeli government's determination to mete out justice to the terrorists responsible for the plot easily lend themselves to questions on ethics, morals and the like -- and this aspect of the story really becomes the centerpiece of this motion picture.

The Munich massacre is one of the real lynchpins in the history of Islamic terrorism. When a group of Palestinian terrorists calling themselves Black September (and aligned with Yassir Arafat) infiltrated the Olympic Village in Munich, held 11 Israeli athletes hostage, and eventually slaughtered them all in the midst of an incompetent German rescue attempt, the Palestinians succeeded in attracting world attention to their cause. Germany soon handed the terrorists another major victory, cowardly releasing the three terrorists arrested (the others were killed) for the crime in acquiescence to the demands of other terrorists (hijackers in this case). Seeing that no justice would be forthcoming in European courts, Golda Meir gave a green light to a daring plan to kill the 11 most prominent planners of the massacre. This is the dramatized story of five men who gave up their own identities to serve their country in Operation Wrath of God.

The film centers around the team leader, Avner (Eric Bana), and the emotional effect this operation had on him as the mission advanced from one target to another. The whole group of Mossad agents was something of a motley crew, as none of them had the kind of qualifications I would expect of assassins charged with such a dramatic mission. Director Stephen Spielberg did a fantastic job of generating real tension in the moments leading up to each assassination attempt, and then made each hit as violently realistic as possible. Still, I do think the plot has some shortcomings. Early on in particular, I sometimes missed a connection between one scene and another; for example, I'm still a little hazy on exactly how Avner struck up his relationship with his main informer. Likewise, I have to believe it could never be so surprisingly easy to gain access to a target's residence in order to set up a given hit.

At two hours and 45 minutes, some will say Munich is too long and drags in spots, and I can see some viewers questioning the nature of the film's final 20 minutes or so. Those later scenes are very important, though, as they basically transform the film from a suspenseful action flick to a deep and almost philosophical examination of good and evil, personal responsibility, ethics and the like. When you're an assassin, you just don't put everything you've seen and done behind you after the fact. Avner is truly haunted by his own actions, seeking some kind of assurance that he had done the right thing. The whole presentation manages to magically walk a line between the competing ideologies of the Palestinians and the Israelis, asking tough questions of each side and examining events from both perspectives. Whereas an Oliver Stone would have politicized this story up to its eyeballs, Spielberg keeps the film surprisingly objective in its presentation.

Besides a grim reminder that terrorism is by no means a new phenomenon, Munich finds ready application to the lively debates of the present day. The questions surrounding this story are the same kinds of questions being asked today in Western society (partly because we've let this cancer of the body politic fester for decades). That is what makes this film especially important.

by Daniel Jolley
21 October 2006

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