Spielberg is the public conception of cinema, you ask the average person about their favourite directors and they will probably say Steven Spielberg. In terms of popular movie culture he is about as iconic as you can get with a string of movies that brought about and defined summer Blockbusters. With perhaps only one or two out and out failures Spielberg has become synonymous with cinematic quality, a benchmark for populist directors the world over. So why does he on the DVD release for his latest film have to defend his creative choices in a five minute long introduction?
Following his string of successful family orientated films in the late 70s and early 80s Spielberg would start to move on to more cerebral fare, ditching his aliens, killer sharks and daredevil archaeologists for true life stories about POWs, the Holocaust and the brutality of the World War Two. There is still the occasional piece of crowd pleasing fodder, Jurassic Park for one, but The Colour Purple marks the start of Spielberg’s ‘growing up’.
There is not much really to say about Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and the justification for my positive opinion of both A.I. and Minority Report would entail me writing yet another two or three paragraphs of introduction. These films shape the course of Spielberg’s maturation and allow for the existence of Munich, a film which conflicts with Spielberg’s back catalogue on a basic tonal and aesthetic level.
The Cinéma-vérité elements of Schindler’s List and the harrowing, brutal and honest violence of Saving Private Ryan are the key considerations when viewing this film, a treatise on the nature of escalating violence and ‘eye for eye’ politics.
Munich starts quietly, a simple act of intercontinental charity kicking off the horrific event that will become the catalyst for everything to follow. Flurries of media reports relay the situation as Palestinian terrorists kidnap and hold to ransom the Israeli Olympic Team. We already know what is going to happen, the brutality of the Munich Hostage Crisis of 1972 burnt into the public consciousness enough to allow Spielberg to focus on presenting reaction to the event rather than summarising what happened. The subsequent firefight between Munich police and the terrorists, and the murder of all eleven hostages will be dramatised later in the film but our opening experience with Munich is that wild media frenzy. As I said earlier, the film is not really concerned with documenting the factuality of the terrorist action and instead uses the massacre as a catalyst for its ruminations on vengeance and escalating violence.
Avner (Eric Bana) is a young Mossad agent whose low profile offers him the potential to operate without suspicion on a state funded revenge mission. Hired to eliminate eleven key members of the Palestinian Terrorist group ‘Black September’ responsible for the Munich kidnappings. Resigning from his job and becoming exiled from his home country of Israel Avner finds himself in command of a four strong team with the prerogative to pursue and eliminate his targets in any way he deems fit.
That is about as much plot as I need to go into, anymore and I’d just be rambling. The majority of the film follows this mission, as Avner and his team journey around Europe buying information and carrying out both public and secluded executions. As you would imagine from the director of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List Munich is hardly an Israeli version of Delta Force.
The action in Munich is punctuation, messy, unflinching and never particularly pleasant. Spielberg is a master of composition and he uses this to present violence in two distinct styles. Certain acts are carried out with an unreal melancholic grace, the first assassination being a prime example of artistic licence adding emotional truth to a scene. The target, gunned down in his hotel lobby whilst carrying his groceries home, pleads for his life two shots ending his life and leaving his body to fall dramatically onto the floor, milk and blood mixing as his groceries and bodily fluids spill out in front of him. There is a forlorn poetry to the entire scene that makes the directors opinion on retaliatory violence crystal clear.
When not going for artistry, the film opts to showcase violent events in a subjective way. Two key moments in the film, a bomb blast in a hotel and a Mossad assault on a Beirut fortress, are filmed in a distinctly documentary style. The camera pulled back from the action to allow for a distanced reaction to what is occurring onscreen. There is a brutal banality to both of these scenes, particularly the way in which a Mossad agent finds a wounded Palestinian and compares him to a photograph of one of the targets before summarily executing him. The dispassionate way these scenes are executed only highlights the humanity of the film, and the way it is slowly eluding our central characters.
Avner is an easy entry point for the audience, his initial feelings of cognitive dissonance synching up with audience perceptions. We’re meant to question the retaliation from the first kill onwards and Avner initially joins us in this uneasiness. His hesitation to kill, despite his training as a soldier, showcases the same sense of uncertainty about the justness of the cause that we the audience are feeling. Balancing Avner are the conflicting ideologies of his team mates, in particular the fiery Steve (Daniel Craig) who rejoices at every Arab killed and the reticent Carl (Ciarán Hinds) who balks at initial celebrations over the death of the first target.
As more and more of the executions are carried out Avner becomes increasingly disassociated, his initial dilemma at the gunning down of a target slowly giving way to a man willing to shoot his targets down in the street and use brutal ordnance to get the job done. By the end of the film Avner is a paranoid and schizophrenic wreck, his realisation of the futility of his action and understanding of the recompense soon to befall him twisting his character into a shell of itself.
The violence in Munich is cyclical, the Israeli occupation forcing Palestinians to kill at the Munich games, the Munich games forcing Israeli’s to kill around Europe, the Israeli killings inspiring stronger Palestinian attacks which are themselves greeted by more severe Israeli assaults.
The characters themselves start to understand this, with Avner’s dreams of the hostage situation changing from being the thing that drives him, to being the thing that hounds him. His final dream, where he imagines the final moments of the Israeli Olympic team, is twisted with guilt at his own contribution to the escalating violence. There is still a hatred of the terrorists responsible, but it is mixed with a sense of self loathing brought about by his realisation of what his mission has achieved, removing moderates from Black September and replacing them with far more dangerous people.
That is the answer to the question I posited earlier on. Spielberg introduces the film to try and make people understand that his film isn’t anti Israeli; it is not a comment on Israeli politics as such as it is a comment on the nature of violence itself.
Munich is a film that is at once both beautiful and utterly hideous. As a director Spielberg crafts a truly luminous work of art, which is engaging, shocking, occasionally witty and always enthralling. It is a film made with skill and dedication and filled with great performances, particularly from a pre-Bond Daniel Craig and the greatly underappreciated Ciarán Hinds.
Eric Bana is a standout in the central role, bringing humanity to a character who is often hard to read and becomes increasingly disassociated from the audience.
But it is also a film that is meant to be unpleasant, meticulous recreations of the Munich massacre and brutal, morally contemptible violence making Munich a bitter pill to swallow.