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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006
Calculating the cost of getting even
Somewhere in Paris, the early 1970s. A middle-aged, professorial-looking man sits in his study. He is a Palestinian exile, and unbeknownst to him, his phone has been rigged with a powerful bomb by Israeli agents, who suspect him of recruiting for the terrorist group known as Black September.
One of those Mossad agents is in a phone booth outside the Palestinian's flat, making the call that will lure his target into the deadly trap. As someone answers the phone in the flat, the Mossad agent suddenly realizes, to his horror, that the Palestinian man's young daughter has unexpectedly returned home and picked up the phone. In a panic, he races to a nearby car, where other Mossad agents have already received an electronic signal to trigger the bomb, hoping to stop them before it's too late . . .
This moment in "Munich," Steven Spielberg's latest and easily most controversial film, shows that the director knows his Hitchcock. ("Sabotage," in particular.) It's a perfectly executed bit of cinematic suspense, which will leave your heart in your throat as that Mossad agent's finger starts to press on the detonator.
But more than that, the scene encapsulates the highly political, or -- as I suspect the director would say -- moral questions the film grapples with. When is revenge justified? If it is justified, is it possible to enact without harming innocents? And if you think that murdering innocents is an acceptable byproduct ("collateral damage") of intended results, then what makes you any different from the "evil" people you oppose?
"Munich" is a profoundly provocative film, exploring the limits of fighting fire with fire. Spielberg's protagonist, Avner (Eric Bana), an undercover agent for Israel's Mossad, explores the same moral fog as does Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now." Though this being a Spielberg film, you know this essentially decent family man isn't going to cross over to the dark side. He comes dangerously close, though, and in this portrayal, Spielberg shows us our potential to become consumed by revenge. Especially -- and this point is underlined -- when we are convinced of our own righteousness.
The film begins at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where a group of Palestinian terrorists from the Black September faction take 11 Israeli athletes hostage. This is actual history, and Spielberg buttresses his re-creation with the use of period newscasts (including Howard Cosell!) and elides -- initially -- the massacre that occurred when German police botched a rescue attempt at the Munich airport. (We see only what television viewers at the time did -- an explosion in the distance. But over the course of the film, Spielberg brings us closer through a series of flashbacks.)
This was, if not the first, the most dramatic instance of media-savvy terrorism, the direct antecedent of al- Qaida and 9/11, and Spielberg is right to draw our attention back to this moment where everything changed. Remember a time when most airports didn't have metal detectors? Not if you were born after the Munich Olympics.
In postulating the advent of spectacular terror, Spielberg asks us to consider the response. In a cabinet meeting in Israel, we see Prime Minister Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen) ordering a deadly riposte: 11 of the "intellectual architects" of the hostage-taking will be tracked down and executed. As one general says, in language that directly echoes the post-9/11 Bush administration, "What happened in Munich changes everything."
In comes Avner, a low-level Mossad agent who's given the task of going deep undercover in Europe and hunting down these Palestinian targets. To serve his country he must leave his pregnant wife, his life in Israel, everything, to -- as his handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), puts it -- "do what the terrorists do."
Operating with money left in a Swiss safety deposit box, Avner assembles his team: toymaker-turned-bombmaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); antiques dealer-turned-forger Hans (Hanns Zischler); tough-guy driver Steve (Daniel Craig, the next 007); and nondescript clean-up man Carl (Claran Hinds). The hit squad is sent to nail their first target in Rome . . . and find he is a doddering old man, a poet who had translated "1001 Nights" into Italian. The evidence against him is, well . . . somebody higher up must have seen the file), right? (Again, this echoes the extrajudicial aspects of the current "War on Terror.")
When members of his group later express doubts, Avner says only "This is a war -- don't think about it."
As the group works its way down the list, it has several hairy encounters with bombs that either don't explode or explode too much, shady intelligence dealers in Paris, a full-on commando raid in Beirut, and an unexpected encounter with a Palestinian guerrilla team. The latter leads to a great scene -- similar to one in Atom Egoyan's "Ararat" -- where Avner and his Palestinian mirror image, Ali, have a conversation that only demonstrates their inability to communicate. Referring to Munich, Avner says, "The world will see you're animals." Ali replies, "The world will see what made us animals." Avner refuses to recognize Ali's means or motives, but he does recognize this man as someone who is, in many ways, so similar to himself. "You don't know what it is not to have a home," laments Ali, but Avner -- adrift and cut-off on his journey of retribution -- can understand exactly what he means.
It's this sort of moral equivalency that has infuriated many viewers -- although their angry reactions only confirm Spielberg's depiction of the inflexible, hardline viewpoints that drive this conflict. Israeli government officials, as is their wont, refuse to admit the assassination squad ever existed. Israel right-or-wrong sympathizers and Bush administration supporters take the usual, Manichaean view, and refuse to accept any criticism of Israel's response to terror; they're on firmer ground when suggesting real Mossad agents would do far less soul-searching.
The Palestinian side, meanwhile, has seen bias in telling this tale from a solely Israeli perspective. They would do well to notice, however, the news footage Spielberg has included of one of the actual Munich terrorists saying, "We have made our voice be heard by the world . . . 200 people were killed when Israel bombed two refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. No one cared." A biased film would not have included even a hint of this view.
While "Munich" does not claim to be the ultimate arbiter of who's right or wrong, it does make the point -- hammered home by a view of the Twin Towers in the film's final shot -- that you can be right and wrong simultaneously, that you can kill your enemies and kill them some more, and make not the slightest difference whatsoever, except to your own soul. Israel continues its policy of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and guess what? Hamas just won the Palestinian elections and has more support than ever. For every terrorist leader who is blown up, there are the dozen innocent bystanders from whose friends and relatives will come the next suicide bomber.
Spielberg has made the point before -- in "Saving Private Ryan," with Jeremy Davies' character -- that liberal good intentions and inaction can prove fatal when confronted by an enemy who has no such qualms. I doubt the man is a pacifist. But confronted with the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- now in its seventh decade -- and the fact that America now has its own "intifada" in Iraq, Spielberg is asking us to consider, what has violence really achieved?
"Munich" is a great espionage film, a thriller that thrives on the cinematic pleasures of double-crosses, near escapes, and daringly executed hits. But unlike most all films in the genre, it leaves the viewer with haunting questions. If you can answer all of them, expect a call from the Nobel committee.