Munich: A Sandcastle Built to Fall

The list of those responsible.

Terror comes to us in many forms. It can be a story on the news, a man with a bomb, or an airplane being flown into a building. The madness of extreme and disillusioned men can be overwhelming. It makes no sense to us; how men could have so much hate within their bones for people that they have never met. But at the Olympic Games held in Munich the Summer of 1972, terror came in the form of a man wearing a ski mask on a balcony, while his fellow Arabian terrorists, members of a group known as Black September, were holding 11 eleven Israeli athletes hostage inside. Eventually, all of these hostages were killed, sending the Middle Eastern world into a frenzy.

Israel was determined to respond.  And this response is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s ambitious film ‘Munich’.

The film opens with a filmmaker’s perspective of the events that happened that day. It is shocking, violent, and an aggressive bit of chaos to watch on screen, as news cameras tune in and take notice of what is happening. We are then shown the world tuned into their television screens, united in horror over these atrocities. The world watches while the terrorists take the hostages to an airport, and it is here that the world watches them die. Let me tell you what a well done opening sequence this is; a perfect set up for the rest of the film, done in textbook fashion by Spielberg.

Then comes a scene of great significance: We are then brought into the Israel “war room” with Prime Minister Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen). Meir informs her generals that the world must know that Israelites cannot be slaughtered in front of the entire world without consequence. And in a Biblically profound speech, she tells her generals that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” She orders her military to take action against those responsible for Munich.

The narrative centers on five ex-Mossad agents that are charged with a seemingly simple task; to assassinate 11 men involved in the planning of the massacre. The team’s leader, Avner (played by Eric Bana), is a young Israeli father who is asked to lead this mission of Zionist vengeance. Accompanied by a trigger man, a bomb maker, a forger, and a forensics expert, Avner takes his team all over the capitals of Europe, tracking down and killing their targets with bullets and homemade explosives.

This central portion of the film where the Israeli assassins scheme and eliminate their targets is truly one of the most entertaining things that you can watch. Watching the characters come up with ideas for explosives, develop a plan, and experience problems that cause them to improvise is thrilling. It reminds me of the old Hitchcock films, with their patient pacing and suspense, and I feel like Spielberg even channeled some of Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ with a particular scene involving a telephone bomb. And Mr. Movie Magic himself still never ceases to amaze me with some of his action sequences, how the chaos of a moment can be filmed in such a compelling way.

Avner and Ephraim discuss the mission.

Not only are the first two acts of this movie entertaining in its action, but it is also thought provoking in its dialogue and character interaction. Like when Avner meets for the first time with the Frenchman who sells agents information, a man known as Papa. He tells Avner that they refuse to work with governments because governments cannot be trusted with power. Papa believes that family is the only thing in this world worth protecting. In another scene, the team is forced to stay in a safe house with Palestinian terrorists. While together, unbeknownst to the Palestinians that they are staying with Israelites, Avner and one of the Palestinian men talk about what they want most in the world; a place to call home. This scene humanizes the enemy for our hero as well as for the audience.

While on their mission, some of the men begin to question the morality of what they are doing. All of them Jewish, there is this prevailing thought that they are called to be righteous, and what they are doing is not what they were called to be. At this time, Avner justifies it by saying that with every man they kill, they are saving Israeli lives. These dialogues between the protagonists are both deep and challenging, causing the viewer to also question the moral value behind the violence they are watching. At what point do these men start to become terrorists themselves?

Now, let’s pause for a moment. At this point, we are about 2 hours into the film, and there is about 30 minutes remaining. Up until this point, ‘Munich’ is an incredible movie. It is exciting, deep, meaningful, and it seems to be going somewhere. Although so far the ride has been fulfilling, our characters are beginning to experience opposition and the audience is in need of a very strong third act if we are going to be able to pull it all together. It is a tight 30 minutes away from greatness.

Then, something unexpected happens. The movie begins to fall apart. Our characters who were once bound by a mission begin to implode psychologically. Avner, the leader of the unit, becomes paranoid and untrustworthy, not only for other characters, but for the audience as well. The story that was once so put together and purposeful, loses focus from the goal. It begins to take detours and tangents that make the audience want to ask “Where are we?” The protagonists begin to share something in common with the viewer in the fact that we both become lost in a world of violence with no real way out, so much so that by the end of it all, we forget how meaningful it was when we started.

It’s hard to say when this really begins, although I have two scenes in particular that “jump the shark” for me.

One involves the failed assassination of the most well protected Palestinian leader on their list; when the coup is broken up by a patrolling teenage guard, Avner responds by shooting him in the face. This, to me, is the first real evidence that Avner is no longer the man we thought he was. The other involves a scene in which Avner is making love to his wife accompanied by haunting flashbacks to the Munich massacres. Although I understand the purpose of this scene (at least I think I do), it seems unnecessary, out of place, and in all seriousness, overindulgent film school garbage. And trust me, I’m being kind with that description.

There are many who believe that this is done by design, that the writer Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg purposefully allow the film to go downhill, as a way of showing the viewer that the conclusion of these violent acts is not glorious, but ugly. In the same way that Avner is in conflict with himself, the film begins to contradict the ideals that it once believed in. With the opposition that the team is experiencing, the audience begins to feel opposition with what they want; a great ending. If this is true, then kudos to Spielberg because he accomplished this self-destruction with flying colors.

However, from where I’m standing, that’s not what I see. What I see is a writer and director that didn’t truly believe in the message that they were originally preaching. They decided that they were not comfortable with going all the way to the end. Like the characters in the story, it is truly the creators of this film that are lost. They couldn’t choose what to believe in, so instead, they chose to believe in nothing.  To end the film by telling us that the conflict between Israel and Palestine will never end through violence is not a profound statement to make. It is merely an echo from what we know in our conscience to be true.

My Note: ‘Munich’ is two hours of a fantastic movie followed by wave of disappointment that brings the entire sandcastle crumbling down.

My Grade: A-

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