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January 7, 2006


For reasons I'm not sure I can articulate, I was reluctant to see Steven Spielberg's most recent film, Munich (IMDB). I know that I've been let down by many of Spielberg's "historical" films (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and, in a different way, The Color Purple). But Munich has challenged me in ways that I did not expect. I'm still not quite sure what I think about the film, so if you've seen Munich I'd appreciate knowing what you think.

Munich opens with the 1972 kidnapping and murder of eleven athletes and coaches from the Israeli Olympic team by a group of Palestinians. Much of this material has already been portrayed in the 1999 documentary, One Day in September, but like the documentary, Spielberg focuses on ABC's live coverage of the crisis, culminating in ABC broadcaster Jim McKay's bleak comment, "They're all gone." This sequence sets up the recruitment of Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent and former bodyguard for prime minister Golda Meir, to a clandestine assassination squad. Meir's chilling observation that the assassination of the Israeli athletes "changes everything" clearly echoes post-9/11 rhetoric, as David Walsh points out, and throughout Munich, we encounter echoes between the past and present.

Avner is tapped to lead a squad of four others, including most prominently, the cold-blooded Steve (Daniel Craig) and the reluctant "worried," Carl (Ciarán Hinds), allowing Spielberg to explore a relatively broad range of responses to the morality of revenge. Eventually, Avner enlists the help of the mysterious Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who provides the squad with information about the location of their targets, as well as safe houses where they can stay while plotting each assassination. And this is one aspect of the film I'm still trying to interpret. While Louis and “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), the even more secretive source of information, suggest some sort of larger conspiracy, that conspiracy is never fully articulated. Are they representatives of the CIA? Mossad? Or are they merely profiting from this desire for revenge?

This question is complicated when Avner's squad is sheltered in the same safe house as a group of Palestinian bodyguards, presumably by mistake (the Israeli team pretends to be European left-wing terrorists in order to avoid conflict). Avner ultimately discusses the history of the conflict with one of the Palestinians, Ali (Omar Metwally), raising anothre important question that was unresolved for me at the end of the film.

Clearly, any history of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East will be informed by the chronological starting point of the narrative. By beginning the story with Munich, Spielberg's film places less emphasis on what might have provoked the events in Munich. Still, Spielberg's version of this history does challenge prior narratives of this history. Munich also portrays all of the murders as tragic--including the deaths of the Israeli Olympic team, which are conveyed in one of the more troubling flashbacks I've seen in some time.

Again, I'm still not quite sure how to respond to this film. The echoes with the present are clearly important. As Stephanie Zacharek points out, the film's final shot, which takes place in 1973 after Avner has resettled in Brooklyn, shows the World Trade Center deep in the background. But the film's moral and political positions are somewhat ambiguous. Whether, as Zacharek suggests, that's due to the competing visions of screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth or due to Spielberg's own ambivalence is another question.

Again, I'm curious to hear what others thought about Munich. I'm still sorting through my reading of the film, but I am glad to see filmmakrs such as Speilberg tackle such a complicated topic in what appears to be a very serious way.

Posted by chuck at January 7, 2006 12:36 PM

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Being a huge Kushner fan, I watched this film with a very high consciousness of how it relates to his body of work, and the connections were much stronger than I anticipated: the image of the distant, troubling mother; the discussion of what counts as home; the "debate" between Avner and the leader of the other squad they encounter at the safehouse in Italy (I think). I forgot to think of this as a Spielberg film because I was so conscious of Kushner's hand in this. I really enjoyed this film much more than I expected.

Posted by: Nels at January 7, 2006 3:58 PM

That's a really interetsing point. I'm relatively unfamiliar with Kushner, but the connections with Angels in America are compelling, especially, for me, the ongoing discussion of what counts as "home." The debate in the safehouse is also quite powerful and seems to speak to questions about how history is defined.

Finally, I wanted to revisit my observation about how Spielberg complicates our desire for revenge, in part through his depictions of the murders (including those of the Israeli athletes). The first murder of the poet/translator, who rather significantly discusses a theory of narrative in relationship to the Sheherazade story, troubles becuase the target seems like a decent, friendly person, and when he is killed, his blood mixes with the milk (the whiteness recalls purity) he has just purchased.

Many of the later murders are even more violent and graphic (including the scene on the houseboat).

Posted by: Chuck at January 7, 2006 4:21 PM

Chuck -- it's a complicated movie, and like you I'm still thinking about it. And also like you, I'm still not sure about my reaction to it. I heard some saying that it was anti-Isreal, but I don't think it is. I heard others say it was anti-Palestine. But I also disagree with them.

To Spielberg's credit, what I THINK he is doing is raising some very troubling and difficult questions and then choosing NOT to answer them, perhaps because they are unanswerable.

The Munich terrorists are painted as humans (your example of the decent man killed after his reading of Sheherazade). And in fact, we forget sometimes that these crimes are committed by humans. The squad led by Avner is human, too. Not the "Isreali killing squad" we would expect, but five men of differing levels of belief and commitment to this task, differing approaches to the problem of terrorism.

It all points (for me) towards Spielberg not having an answer, but posing the problem, with all its angles and all its complexity, and leaving us to think about it.

Even the end, with Avner leaving Isreal, seems incomplete. I am left wondering if Avner's resolve about remaining in his adopted land will last, or if he will return to Israel at some point. I don't think he knows.

And so how can we know? To me, the point was to put a human face on this conflict -- on ALL sides of it. Even the ones being paid for information.

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2006 5:28 PM

I read Avner as a permanent exile, but that may be too easy. For some reason, I have come to emphasize the fact that Avner's identity is virtually stripped away. Even his status as the son of a war hero is essentially taken away from him, ensuring that he will no longer be able to regain his identity as an Israeli (I'm trying to connect these ideas to Giorgio Agamben's idea of the homo sacer, but it's not quite working).

Spoliers: I also think that the final sequence where Avner, drawing from his Jewish identity, invites Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) to his home and Rush refuses is significant (another reviewer noted that it seems significant that the final word, Ephriam's, is "no," but I can't find that review). I might be guilty of misreading here, but Ephriam seems to be refusing Avner's claims to a specific identity here. In that sense, I'm not sure that Avner adopts the United States as much as he is orphaned by Israel.

Posted by: Chuck at January 7, 2006 5:43 PM

That seems like a valid reading (his being orphaned). Certainly Ephraim's refusal to "break bread" with him can be read as a refutation of his heritage as a Jew. The question that remains in my mind is: Ephraim's kind claims Avner is not an Israeli, but does Ephraim represent all of Israel? Certainly he represents the 'establishment' of the government and its agencies, but in another sense isn't Avner more true to his heritage? As the bombmaking member of their team (can't recall his name) explains at one point, it is their righteousness that makes them Israelis. So Avner, in that sense, is more an Israeli than Ephraim. Perhaps?

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2006 8:32 PM

This distinction is an important one. I'd certainly highlight Ephriam's role in representing an "official" response to Avner, and this official or "establishment" response certainly has a lot of power (at least, presumably, when it comes to the possibility for Avner's return to Israel).

Of course, the bombmaker, Hans (I had to look it up), defines an alternative heritage, and Ephraim should not be seen as representative of all of Israel. I've been unable to resist thinking about this film in the light of the recent political situation, in which the settlers have withdrawn from the West Bank (under the direction of Sharon) and in which a sizeable number of Israeli soldiers (over 1,000) refused to serve in the West Bank.

I don't know whether either position (Ephraim's or Hans') represents a "true" Israel. Or whether that is the question that Spielberg is asking.

Posted by: Chuck at January 7, 2006 9:05 PM

I agree, it's not clear which (or if) one represents a true Israel. I do think the question is intentional, if only because of Hans's explicit discussion of what defines an Israeli. His comments seem to make the distinction pretty apparent -- and yet he and Avner (and the others), even if they believe that, participate in the "establishment's" response, so it's not so cut-and-dried.

It points to the question of what defines 'Israeli' -- faith/religious issues or cultural/governmental issues. I think the religious issues are not as clearly represented, but Hans's comments bring them into the discussion, at least.

This is interesting, Chuck. Helps me figure out how to think about this film.

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2006 10:15 PM

Good point, Chris, and thanks for helping me think thrugh the film. Hans's comments are important, and my reading was probably a bit too dismissive of their relevance. I think I'm uncomfortable with that kind of definitional question (i.e. "what defines 'Israeli'"), but it's probably fair to say that this question is important if only because these definition questions have had profound effects on what has happened in the Middle East.

Posted by: Chuck at January 8, 2006 11:43 AM

I'm definitely uncomfortable, personally, with the definitional question, in large part because I don't think I should have any say in that! Of course I probably have a relatively uninformed opinion, but I think the question is a very important one for the characters in the film and for Israel as a whole.

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2006 1:39 PM

I think you're right about the definitional question, and I'm not sure how mcuh I can add, so I'll abruptly change topics...

One thing I've been trying to sort through with regards to the film is its treatment of gender and sexuality. To some extent, Golda Meir is a key figure, even if her role is undeveloped. But it seems interesting that one of the most brutal murders of the film involves the "Mata Hari" character, the Dutch (?) woman who seduces and murders Carl (and would have seduced Avner).

Then later, we have the crosscutting between Avner's violent s3x (trying to dodge my comment filter) with his wife and the apparently subjective images of the murders of the Israeli athletes. It's a strange scene--and one that doesn't seem particularly motivated--but it does point to the relative lack of interest in/development of Avner's wife.

Not sure what to do with that point, but it has been bothering me for teh last day or so.

Posted by: Chuck at January 8, 2006 2:08 PM

I agree with the brutality in the scenes with the mata hari character. My reading of that had to do with the advancing level of brutality in the assassination squad's murders -- that is, by this point, they're not just 'doing their jobs' anymore. They're freelancing, killing someone who had nothing to do with Munich (thus removing themselves more and more from their ideals and the reasons this all started). And the murders are growing more and more gruesome.

But I'm not 100% on that -- and her murder was particularly brutal.

The other scene you mentioned, the crosscutting between Avner and his wife and the murders of the athletes, has been problematic for me to. The best I can figure is that the scene was trying to say something about how this experience has affected Avner. My reasoning is that his passion for his wife was presented very strongly in the film, at the outset and throughout. So now, when they are permanently reunited, he is having difficulty in relating to her intimately (trying to dodge your comment filter, too) as a result of hsi exposure to all this violence.

It's the best I can come up with, though certainly not a GREAT concept. But thinking like a filmmaker, it makes sense from a 'characterization' standpoint.

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2006 4:04 PM

Wow, you two have given a lot of great ideas here that are swirling in my head. To go back to my initial comment, I want to say don't forget Kushner's role in this. His plays (and I'm thinking less of Angels and more of, say, Homebody/Kabul and the others) also deal with ways of defining Israel and Israeli, but he never comes to any strong conclusions because I think he believes there is no one way to define things. And in thinking about gender, Avner's mother seems right up there with Kushner's representation of mothers in much of his work: distant, strong, cold, creating a sense of yearning in the child.

Is this the first time Spielberg has worked with a screenwriter known for his or her own strong sense of vision?

Posted by: Nels at January 8, 2006 5:26 PM

Nels, the Kushner angle is an interesting one. Spielberg has worked with good screnwriters (Scott Frank and Steve Zallian among others), but Kushner has the biggest reputation/vision by far. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Homebody/Kabul....

I'd planned to mention Avner's mother based on your initial comment, and her narrative of the founding of Israel seems crcuial (it also seems significant that we get that narrative orally and not visually).

The Mata Hari murder is complicated. Visually, of course, it resembles Carl's murder. I think your reading of the s3x scene makes sense, Chris, but for some reason it's unsatisfying. Why do we see the murders of Israeli athletes and not the murders that he has committed?

Posted by: Chuck at January 8, 2006 5:44 PM

I don't think it's the first time Spielberg has worked with strong writers, but I think Kushner is probably among the strongest in terms of having a strong vision in his own work.

And I admit I'm not too familiar with Kushner's work. I mean, I'm familiat with it in name, but I haven't read or seen any of his work. But I imagine his ideas about gender would inform this script in a significant way.

I think the mother thing is interesting, as you say, not only for adding another way of looking at the female role in this, but also for the way the role of the mother in Avner's life is connected with the Israel as mother. Even Avner's wife says something to him early on, relating to his sense of duty about this task, that Israel is not his mother.

I think the mother's role is the least well developed of the strong female roles, but its presence and what IS developed with it does add an interesting dimension. If you look at the Prime Minister as one dimension, the wife as another, the mother as another, and perhaps the Mata Hari character as another, I'm not sure what you end up with, but it's worth thinking about.

In some ways, I think none of them are adequately developed as individuals, and they all seem to represent stereotypes (perhaps archetypes? or am I giving too much credit there?), and they all seem to provide different 'sounding boards' for Avner...

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2006 5:47 PM

PS: Just to clarify, I don't think Scott Frank and Steve Zallian compare to Kushner but meant to suggest that they are reliable studio hands. Spielberg has, of course, adapted several strong writers (most notably Alice Walker, though I think Spielberg's adaptation of her work is simply awful).

Interesting that you have a strong, disant mother, but also an absent (though heroic) father, given Spielberg's frequent exploration of absent fathers (ET, especially).

Posted by: Chuck at January 8, 2006 6:27 PM

Good point about the absent father/strong mother issue, Chuck.

And of course you're right about Frank and Zaillian. Very good craftsmen, but they haven't yet established themselves as visionaries in their own right (I do think Zaillian's Searching for Bobby Fisher is an underrated film).

Kushner is just a completely different kind of writer than they are. he's working on a bigger canvas, with bigger issues, and saying a lot more.

But perhaps we don't give them enough credit. The reality is that Spielberg's films would not be what they are (whatever you think of them) without people like Frank and Zaillian (and Kushner). Spielberg isn't exactly writing these himself. Sure he's involved in the process, but it's not the same thing as actually writing it.

Oh, and I find that sex scene unsatisfying as well. I think we long to finally SEE the entirety of the way Munich played out. And I think it is unsatisfying in part because that experience is 'interrupted' by Avner and his wife in the midst of havinf s3x. Or, at least, that's why it bothered me.

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2006 6:50 PM

You're right. Given Speilberg's auteur status, it's easy to forget the roles that his screenwriters have served (and in general, this is worth emphasizing for all interpretations that emphasize the director's vision)....

Posted by: Chuck at January 8, 2006 9:20 PM

It is easy. I mean, we all know Spielberg is at least exerting final say over the direction of content. But it's one thing to write it and another thing to meet with writers for several hours or several days and then going off to make War of the Worlds while the writers work. And from interviews I've read, that certainly seems like a fair take on the process. Some directors work closer with the scripting process than others, and I have NO idea what Spielberg did with Munich, but he's not the writer.

Sorry, didn't mean to turn this into a rant about auteurism and the screenwriter...

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2006 9:43 PM

Don't worry about it. Film (in most cases) is very much a collaborative art, and that's a point that is worth emphasizing from time to time.

Posted by: Chuck at January 8, 2006 10:06 PM

I saw Munich on Sunday and I saw this post in bloglines, but I was meaning to write a post myself in response so I didn't come over to comment. Now I see that there are all these thought-provoking comments here.

I'm no Spielberg expert, in fact I've usually not liked his movies of late because they're so sappy, but I really liked Munich--it might be his best movie ever in my opinion. I'm still working out why I found the movie so powerful and how it plays out for me, and I'd really like to write that post that's vaguely forming on it, but part of it for me is that it's such a fundamental lesson, that there is a price to be paid when we do not act according to our ethics, even if we do so as some form of self-defense. And that's a lesson that it seems we need to keep learning over and over again.

Posted by: Scrivener at January 11, 2006 12:04 AM

I'm reaching the point that I think this might be Spielberg's best film. It's certainly his most critical. I'd enjoy reading that longer post if you get a chance to write it.

Posted by: Chuck at January 11, 2006 12:10 AM

Wow, I just reread my comment--I don't know if it's such a good idea for me to write a longer post on the movie if that's the kind of confused gobbledy-gook that's gonna come out of my mouth when I do so! I am going to try to write that post tomorrow, if things aren't too hectic. It's been a really long week.

Posted by: Scrivener at January 12, 2006 11:25 PM

I've been all over the place on Munich, so I think it's just a difficult movie to write about. My first week was pretty exhausting, too.

Posted by: Chuck at January 13, 2006 10:02 AM

While I think that Walter Reich misreads the film considerably, this Washington Post online discussion is pretty interesting, if problematic.

Most significantly, I think he misreads the film by suggesting that the deaths of the Israeli athletes are not viewed tragically. While the athletes are not individualized in any significant way, the violence of their deaths is impossible to deny. And, other than the one Palestinian, Ali, who explains the Palestinian position, we get little sense of whether the Palestinians are conflicted about kidnapping (and eventually killing) the athletes.

The anti-Kushner comments (describing him as having "biased views" and portraying him as anti-Israeli) are also problematic (in fact, Reich even seems to speculate that Spielberg was duped by Kushner).

Posted by: Chuck at January 13, 2006 11:33 AM

I've figured out that one of the things that bothers me about Walter Reich's online discussion is that there is no mention (by Reich or anyone who asked a question) of Louis and "Papa," the two secretive individuals who sell information under the table to Avner.

I'm not suggesting that these encounters are "historically accurate," but it is an important complicating factor in portraying the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Posted by: Chuck at January 13, 2006 2:45 PM

I am not sure if this post is still going on. If it is, can someone please respond so that I can raise a topic? I do not want to type a huge long post if this is not active anymore

Posted by: Jesse at September 1, 2006 1:45 AM

Jesse, I'm sill accepting legitimate comments, so feel free to post.

Posted by: Chuck at September 1, 2006 7:38 AM

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