Article By: Dan Clark
The Olympics were designed to be a peaceful celebration of the world’s greatest athletes competing against one another in hopes it would bring us together as people. In 1972 that dream was horrifically turned on its head when a group of terrorist kidnapped and massacred a group of Israeli athletes at the Munich games. The Munich Massacre sent shock waves across the globe and caused the Israeli government to go on the offensive. Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich chronicles the based on true story of events of Israel’s response to the Black September assassinations. This chilling depiction shows the complex danger of retribution, and the toll in can take on the human sole. Spielberg does not trend lightly into this very hostile subject matter, and does his due diligence as he treats this film equally as a historical artifact and impacting narrative. The end result is a moving tale filled with moments that will unsettle your inner core. Within its tension is a longing debate that has perplexed our species for generations–that sobering question of how to find justice in a world perpetuated by an endless amount of opposing ideals.
After the Black September Massacre the Israeli government decided to strike back against those responsible. Knowing a public response would only garner a negative reaction by many of their allies they decided to secretly eliminate those responsible. They put together a team that had no ties to the Israeli government. Eric Banna plays Avner the man who was put in charge of this group, largely due to his German descent and familiarity with Europe. His team comes equipped with a number of skilled agents including a bomb maker, document forger, and a man with the skill to ‘clean up’ after an assignation.
The cast does a remarkable job melding into their characters. There’s a certain connotation when it comes with the word spy. Here we see being a spy is not a life filled with fast women and dry martinis. No, it is a life filled with loneliness and the constant threat of exposure. Banna gives what is clearly one of the best performances of his career as he transform from this green agent full of ideals to a hardened man fueled by paranoia. It is evident through his dedication that he takes on this compounded role with a sense of respectful pride.
Spielberg treats the source material here similar to the way he treated the Holocaust in the Schindler’s List. He does not shy away from the moral ambiguity of this mission. He straddles the fine line never endorsing their actions or condemning them. At times however he does overtly go out of his way to make clear he is not choosing sides. Nearly every action or assignation attempt is matched with an in-depth reflection of what occurred as if Spielberg wants to make it clear he is not choosing sides. You can understand his plight, but this lack of certainty inhibits the film from being a true masterpiece.
One aspect that is certain is Spielberg’s ability to build tension. He encapsulates this divisive narrative inside a nail-biting thriller—a combination that should not work nearly as well as it does. It helps create something that is more than just a historical depiction and more than just a stereotypical thriller. Avner’s team begins to travel around Europe taking out these targets one by one. Each assassination requires an elaborate setup and multifaceted planning. Each was masterfully edited as it stretches each moment to escalate the tension. With a historical context behind it these moments could not have more weight. Almost as if the execution would have ramifications outside the context of the film.
Adding to this tension was a deep permutation of emotion. The consequences of this mission go well beyond the physical. Each member of this team sees there psyche damaged in one way or another. By creating characters that were more than just specialized tools designed to kill the emotional moments were able to ring true. This psychological exploration added another meaningful layer that begs to be dissected. The performances are also key to making these characters work. Daniel Crraig, Ciaran Hinds, and Mathieu Kassovitz all give fantastic supporting performances to go along with Bana’s leading work.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography also should get credit for making the reverent nature of the film so palpable it permeates long after the film concludes. Kaminski is unrelenting with the way he maintains his camera. Often his camera is focused on the person and not the violence as we see life escape these hapless souls in this procession of viciousness. This imagery absorbs you until you a left in a devastating heap of reckless passion. For the first time in a long time Spielberg was willing to remove the sentimentality he so often clings to in order to create a film of unabashed realism.