Controversies surrounding films can swirl up like clouds of dust and debris obscuring a film’s content from its potential audience. Munich, Steven Spielberg’s account of the impact of the terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, prompted a flurry of contradictory reports about the film’s highly incendiary topic. Unfortunately, this storm of confusion and hearsay as well as Steven Spielberg’s avoidance of promotion and interviews stifled Munich’s box office performance and critical reception. Over eleven years later, now that the debates attending its release have subsided, Munich reveals itself as one the most powerful and nuanced films about terrorism since the September 11th attacks, a profound reflection on the consequences of revenge, and Steven Spielberg’s greatest film of the last twenty years.
In the fall of 2005, within the formative years of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, Steven Spielberg adapted a novel about the Israeli government’s alleged covert operation to target and assassinate members of the Palestinian terrorist organization, Black September, responsible for planning the murder of eleven Israeli athletes participating in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Opening the film with the first of four segments documenting the Black September massacre, Spielberg masterfully blends a heart-pounding reconstruction of the ambush on the Israeli dormitory with a montage of people all over the world observing the events unfold on live television. During a meeting among Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and her advisors following the Munich attack, she sanctions a secret retaliation mission by announcing, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Eric Bana portrays Avner, a member of the Israeli secret service, Mossad, and Meir’s former bodyguard in a performance that should have propelled him into mainstream success. Meir and her advisors select Avner to lead a small group of covert operatives who will carry out assassinations on Black September targets living in Western Europe. Geoffrey Rush plays Ephraim, Avner’s contact within the Israeli government, and tucks a dry, cynical humor into his efficient explanation and analysis of Avner’s task. Spielberg draws out themes of family and community with multiple scenes of meals shared among Avner, his team, and his contacts. The film swells with a warm, delicate intimacy that belies the deadly nature of Avner’s mission. As an audience we face both the calculated brutality of the attack on the Israeli athletes as well as the methodical assassinations of Black September operatives. Through the actions of Avner’s team and the resulting consequences of those actions, we witness the true price of a life lived in the service of revenge.
With Munich, Spielberg confidently tackles a sprawling epic focusing on the geopolitical realities of a pivotal moment in the twentieth century, but enriches his story with a loving and cautious eye for the details that make our families, homes, and values worth living and dying for. A bracing vitality pushes through Munich as Spielberg operates at the top of his game and delivers a film of consequence that manages to be both deeply personal and searingly relevant to the state of the world. A prominent Jewish American director broaching the topic of the Israel/Palestine conflict and framing a story around a very real terrorist attack and an unconfirmed retaliation plot may have been a tough sell for audiences and critics in 2005, but in taking on this project, Spielberg allows us the opportunity to reflect on what happens when we compromise the values that define us as a people.- John Parsell