Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield, Ph.D.
|2 hr. 44 min.
|Year of Release:
December 23, 2005 (limited)
January 6, 2006 (wide)
DVD release: May 9, 2006
|Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, Colin Wilson
“The world was watching in 1972 as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. This is the story of what happened next.”
Plot: Avner (Eric Bana), an Israeli field agent, leads a team of operatives assigned to assassinate Palestinians they have been told masterminded the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Rated R for consistent violence, mutilation, sexual content, and nudity.
No war is ever entirely cold, is it?
“Munich” is a skillfully made, emotionally earnest examination of an important subject. Because of that, and because of its pedigree, people will think it is both better and worse than it actually is. I want to be up front about its strengths, since my concerns about its limitations don’t mean that I think this is anything less than a high caliber film.
If there is one knock against Steven Spielberg that I accept, it is that he has never presented moral ambiguity or complexity very realistically. His villains are Nazis or slave owners or mindless animals—sharks, dinosaurs, martians—misogynist men (“The Color Purple”), Thugee cult members, or faceless truck drivers. Much has been made prior to the release of “Munich” about how Tony Kushner’s script gives the Palestinians their say (before it kills them), and it does, but this is a film that thinks it is marinated in ambivalence when it is really only braised. To decide whether you will think the film is subtly nuanced or typically heavy-handed, you need only ask whether you are the sort of film watcher who found the final shot—of the New York skyline in 1979 with two towers just off center—pregnantly symbolic or whether you are the sort who was already fishing for your car keys and didn’t even see it.
If you are in the latter of these two categories, then you probably won’t mind that the conversation between Avner and the Arab about home is given an exclamation point later in the film as Louis (Avner’s information broker) looks in a store window at a home furnishing store and tells Avner that kitchens are expensive. You probably won’t mind a second scene between Avner and his mother where she exonerates him for sins unconfessed, just in case you were using the restroom during the first one. You may even think that Golda Meier’s prominently featured admonition that ‘every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’ is anything more than a slightly eloquent book-end for Avner’s own conclusion that ‘I believe anyone is capable of anything.’
Even the most docile viewer, though, must feel led by the nose when Spielberg intercuts scenes of the terrorist attacks into Avner’s dreams. Much like the end of “Dead Man Walking”, these images can be effective at getting the audience to see the intimate relationship between remote causes and immediate effects, but here they seem oddly out of place. For one, Avner is dreaming of events he could not possibly have seen, so their inclusion in Avner’s dreams is a bit of a cheat—used more to increase the audience’s moral oscillations than represent his own. For another, shouldn’t Avner be more haunted by his own violence? Structurally these scenes needed to be at the beginning of the film. Yes, they would have less dramatic effect there, but the whole thrust of the film’s moral trajectory is a movement from righteous certainty towards wilderness doubt as the events that prompt vengeance recede from memory, gradually replaced by our growing awareness of our own flawed humanity.
For all the depictions of self-doubt, the film can’t quite escape the fact that narrative structures always tend to create more sympathy for the protagonist than the antagonist. In the same way that “The War Within” creates some sympathy for Hassan merely by presenting him as a human being and telling his story, “Munich” creates slightly more sympathy for the Israeli side of the conflict simply by foregrounding Avner’s story.
In spite of these complaints, there are things that “Munich” does quite well. The one time that Avner sobs—while talking on the phone—is both unexpected and authentic. The final speech between Avner and Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush in a great performance) effectively depicts the inevitable break between those who have no problem accepting the moral compromises that Meir mentions and those who can live with them—but only just.
The suggestion that the CIA might have funded the PLO in exchange for an agreement to not target American diplomats, while quickly glossed over and deliberately left unconfirmed, was a brave inclusion for an American studio film. Strangely, one of the most effective scenes was the opening one. When a group of English-speaking athletes returning to the Olympic Village run across another band of men at the security fence, they give them a boost over it without a second thought. Suspicions that are second nature to us now are portrayed as literally unthinkable. This scene alone reminds us of how quickly and poignantly the world has changed in just one generation.
In 1599, William Shakespeare had King Henry V ask a cleric whether he could, in good conscience, invade France. The priest replies “the sin on my own head.” Meir, in ordering the assassinations says that she has made a decision and the responsibility is hers and hers alone. “Henry V” ends up declaring that no man can take moral responsibility for another: every man’s duty is the king’s, but every man’s conscience is his own. “Munich”? It proposes that mortgaging your conscience to make and preserve a home may not morally bankrupt you, but it is still a heavy price to pay.
My Grade: B+
P.S.—The film’s depictions of human sexuality are a bit more graphic than some Christian viewers might expect or be comfortable with, so do take its “R” rating seriously.
Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Moderate
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.
I need not discuss the plot any further, but I will say that this movie has a more pro-Israel feel than pro-Palestinian. This is not a happy-go-lucky film, mind you, so treat it more of a realistic fiction of some horrific events. In closing, if you are a more closed-minded or legalistic Christian, you will probably not enjoy “Munich” much. It is certainly a mature film, but I felt that every single aspect of “offensive” material that was put into the film was genuinely done for the purpose of realism and plot development, which also added to the Oscar feel. You will not see any trashy nudity or comic relief in this film.
Average / 5
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