Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid
~Union Sundown / Bob Dylan
Steven Spielberg is sometimes condescendingly described as a "family filmmaker," as if family were not one of the more profound aspects of our experience. His instinct for the family dynamic has offered intimacy to many a big-budget premise-the struggling single mother in ET., the couple teetering on divorce in Close Encounters, Indiana Jones's Oedipal struggles. In the 1990s there seemed to come a tipping point: family was no longer a metaphor for the action, it was the action. This became explicit as Spielberg grew ambitious for larger clans-the African slaves of Amistad, the six million Jews memorialized in Schindler's List, the lost generation of American men in Saving Private Ryan. Depending on whom you talk to, this was either an extension of his emotional reach or a grandiose exercise in cinematic grandstanding.
I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure. The answer with Spielberg is usually: "not that stupid." His films bring pleasure where they most engage. Of course, when reviewing Munich, the cards the critic lays down are expected to be of another kind. As it happens, the film itself is neither "pro-Israeli" nor "pro-Palestinian," but this is precisely why, in the opinion of many American reviewers, it is inherently aggressive toward Israel, under the logic that anything that isn't pro is, by definition, anti. There is no way out of that intellectual cul-de-sac, which is why the script does its best to avoid that road.
Munich is a film about a truly horrific terrorist attack and the response to that terrorist attack. It is not about moral equivalence. It is about what people will do for their families, for their clans, in order to protect and define them. It is about how far we will go in the service of the people we come from and the narratives we tell ourselves to justify what we have done. Those who have sympathies with either side will go away retaining their sympathies: that is the nature of the argument. And it is exactly this, the nature of the argument-what it does to those who are involved in it-and not the argument itself that Munich is interested in. Crucially, it is billed as "historical fiction," which will permit those who cling to their separate, mutually exclusive and antagonistic set of facts to call the film a "fantasy." This film has made groups on both sides uncomfortable because the truths it tells are of a kind that transcend facticity. Whichever family you belong to, national or personal, these truths are recognizable and difficult to dismiss.
Munich is an imagined reconstruction of a program of assassination that Mossad implemented against the organizers and surviving participants of the 1972 Munich massacre. If you are too young to remember that massacre, rent the documentary One Day in September, because Munich wastes no time setting up context. Unusually for Spielberg, he treats us as historical grown-ups (though not, as we shall see, geographical ones). At the heart of the movie is Avner, a young Israeli who loves his families, both small-his pregnant wife, Daphna and large: Israel itself. He is an inexperienced but dedicated soldier chosen by Mossad agent Ephraim to head up a ragtag team of four operatives: a brash, South African-horn getaway driver called Steve a Belgian toy maker turned explosives expert a German-Jewish document forger and a "cleanup" guy. Together they roam through a series of 1970s European cities meticulously re-created, although too laboriously symbolized (in Spielberg's Paris, wherever you are, you can always see the Eiffel Tower), doing unto their enemies as their enemies have done unto them.
In the process we begin to understand the biblical imperative "an eye for an eye" as something more deadly than simple revenge: it is of the body. It permits us the indulgence of thinking with our blood. And Spielberg understands the blood thinkers in his audience: for every assassination of an Arab, we return-lest we forget to a grim flashback of that day in September, when eleven innocent Israeli athletes met their deaths in brutal and disgusting fashion. Flashbacks repeatedly punctuate the film's (slightly overlong) running time. We are not allowed to forget. But neither can we ignore what is happening to Avner as he progresses through his mission. Eric Bana gives a convincing portrayal of a man traveling far from who he is in order to defend who he is. His great asset is a subtle face that is not histrionic when conveying competing emotions. The scene where Avner is offered a double mazel tov-once for the arrival of his new baby, and once for the death of a target-is a startling example of this. Through Avner, Spielberg makes a reluctant audience recognize a natural and dangerous imperative in the blood, a fury we all share. "I did it for my family" is the most repeated line in this film. Its echo is silent, yet you can't help hearing it: what would you do for yours? The perverse nullity of the cycle of violence is made clear. Death is handed out to those who handed out death and from whose ashes new death dealers will rise. Children repeatedly wander into the line of fire. Normal human relations are warped or discarded. When Black September launches a letter-bomb campaign in response to Avner's assassinations, there is a twisted satisfaction. "Now we're in dialogue," says one Mossad agent. Forty years later we are familiar with this kind of dialogue and where it leads.
The technical achievements of the film are many. Most notable is the photography, which gives a subtle color palette to each city while lighting the whole like The Third Man, with bleached-out windows and skies that the actors shy away from, preferring the darker corners of the frame. The play of shadow and light looks like a church, a synagogue, a mosque. In the shadows, the cast debates the ethics of their situation and offer as many answers as there are speakers. If the audience recoils from South African Steve's assessment, "The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!" it understands Avner when he says, ''I'm not comfortable with confusion." It is easier to think with the blood. It is easier to be certain.
But how many of us know what to do with these two competing, equally true facts we hear exchanged between Ephraim and Avner: "Israelis will die if these men live. You know this is true!” says Ephraim. Avner replies, “There is no peace at the end of this. You know this is true!”