“Munich”: Spielberg’s failure

Stephen Howe
26 January 2006

Rarely, if ever, has a film arrived humping so much extraneous baggage as Steven Spielberg's Munich. The movie's political and ethical message, its historical accuracy or lack thereof, the director's intentions, its likely effects on global public perceptions of Israel, of Jews or Palestinians – all have already been debated and dissected by hundreds of critics. Most of them, naturally, have sounded off without even seeing the film.

Spielberg with actors on the set of "Munich"

But maybe there's an odd kind of aptness in that. For while Munich may be a soaraway success as a magnet for political controversy, as a film it's as near to total artistic failure as Spielberg has ever come.

Everyone already knows the storyline; which is, the film's makers proclaim with dazzling ambiguity, "Inspired by Real Events". On 6 September 1972 Palestinian guerrillas invade the Olympic Village at Munich, kill two Israelis and hold nine hostage. Amidst a grotesquely botched rescue attempt, those nine too are massacred, as are most of their captors. In the aftermath, Israel's government sends an undercover team of assassins out for revenge, to kill eleven men supposedly behind the Munich attack. But as the hit squad traverses Europe's capitals and strikes at its first targets, some members develop doubts about the morality of what they're doing. And then, they in their turn find they're being hunted…

Spielberg's drama – and Tony Kushner's script – fail in part because the heart of the story lies in the moral doubts and disputes of the Israeli agents. We must understand, be gripped by, on some level share those dilemmas; which are obviously also Spielberg's own. But we're not told enough, not shown enough context, circumstance, behaviour or motivation to do so. Still more damagingly, the team's characters (they're an unlikely bunch, two of them far too middle-aged to be very plausible hitmen) are given almost no depth or nuance. With the only partial exception of group leader and young father-to-be Avner (Eric Bana), they are one-dimensional. We simply don’t learn enough about them to care much about their qualms over killing, or even when they get killed themselves.

Stephen Howe is professor in the department of historical studies at Bristol University. His openDemocracy articles include:

"Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism"
(September 2005)

"Boycotting Israel: the uses of history"
(April 2005)

"Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars" (December 2004)

"The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation"
(November 2004)

"An Oxford Scot at King Dubya's court: Niall Ferguson's 'Colossus'" (July 2004)

The gang are almost entirely undelineated, characterless – or are mere stereotypes. Indeed the actors concerned have all offered far more subtle pictures of them in media comment than they succeed in evoking onscreen. The most ruthless, gung-ho, ethnic-chauvinist member is Steve (Daniel Craig). He's South African, blond, bronzed, not at all archetypically 'Jewish looking'. It’s almost, disconcertingly, as if Spielberg wanted to make the seemingly most amoral Jewish killer not a Jew at all, but a pseudo-Afrikaner. Little less disconcerting, albeit also a well-worn movie cliché, is that the most morally troubled characters are also the first to be killed off.

Some of the yawning gap left by feeble characterisation is filled with shock effects. Nothing here, though, has the power of certain scenes in Spielberg's Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. In the multiple scenes of violence the bangs are louder and the blood more copious than in your average action movie – and there's one genuinely distressing scene, when the Israeli squad kill a Dutch woman assassin who's been stalking them. (Again that slippage into cliché: she lives on a houseboat. Sure, doesn’t everyone in Holland live on the water?) Yet one can't convey, today, any deeper message or moral argument through unusually graphic, disturbing violence: not after Sam Peckinpah and Pulp Fiction, after the burlesque of a hundred schlock-horror flicks. The disturbance is purely visceral.

Also obviously intended to shock, and to prompt reflection, is a penultimate scene where shots of Avner making love are intercut with the climactic slaughter at Munich. It's another weary cliché: rough sex and violent death yoked together in some unthought-about, sub-Freudian way. And if, as one supposes, the Munich scenes are supposed to be running through Avner's head, we're offered no reason why he should be so haunted. He wasn't there. Those scenes weren't even on TV. Why not any of the equally vicious incidents he's witnessed, or perpetrated, himself?

A tense discussion on the next steps to take

Such questions – why this or that is happening, when the viewer isn’t told, and is left doubting whether Spielberg and Kushner had thought it through themselves – recur throughout. To find their PLO targets, the Israelis rely on a mysterious, seemingly freelance-but-omnipotent French organisation headed by the shadowy 'Papa' (Michael Lonsdale). The latter is among the film's most striking performances. But why is 'Papa' involved at all, except maybe as a kind of ambiguous father-figure to Avner, a counterweight to Golda Meir and Mossad boss Ephraim? Nothing we're shown even begins to explain who Papa's henchmen are, or why they're needed. Why should a French crime family be able to track down people that all the resources of the Israeli state can't find? In any case, very few of the victims are actually at all hard to detect. They're mostly public, indeed prominent, PLO representatives.

If much of the plot is thus utterly implausible, many of the incidentals suggest that Spielberg has lost his famous eye for detail. Israeli Premier Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) makes a little speech which is actually an almost verbatim quotation from philosopher Hannah Arendt. It's hard to think of anyone Meir would have been less likely to quote, even in the unlikely event she'd read her. The Tel Aviv seafront is given a rocky coastline which it doesn’t have. When the action moves to Athens, the first shots are actually of Malta's capital, Valletta, indeed of a street there which every tourist will know. Also maybe sloppy – or just possibly, cleverly allusive – is that one of the voices heard commenting on TV about the Munich affair is unmistakably that of Edward Said, surely taped from some other, much later occasion.

At the heart of the pre-release controversy has been the film's correspondence to historical truth. For what it's worth, that is obviously not very close. The Achilles' heel here is Spielberg's reliance on George Jonas's book Vengeance. Some have claimed the latter is pure fantasy, which is evidently over-simple (and some of those claiming that have their own obvious motives). But equally, it's a quite unreliable basis for a film "inspired by" – or as the makers' publicity elsewhere, more strongly claims 'based upon' – real events. That issue has almost been bludgeoned to death already; but one major puzzle has gone almost unremarked. If, as seems to be the case, the key (and in itself laudable) impetus for the film's making was the moral questioning prompted by Israeli 'counter-terrorist' actions, why focus on these particular episodes? The film doesn't even include the most glaring and notorious failure, which was also perhaps the most indefensible act, in the 'revenge for Munich' operations. This was the killing in Norway of a hapless and harmless Moroccan waiter, mistaken for alleged Black September boss Ali Hassan Salameh.

Avner walks along the Tel Aviv seafront with Mossad boss Ephraim

More broadly and more gravely: whatever the precise truth of what Israeli agents did across Europe after Munich, their actions were far more discriminate and precisely targeted than dozens of other Israeli 'retaliations', at the time or since. If Spielberg really wanted to confront the toughest political and ethical issues, he should have zoomed in on the bombing of refugee camps, or the more recent 'targeted killings' by airstrike, which have repeatedly slaughtered numerous innocents.

When South African Steve protests that "I'm the only one who really wants to kill these guys", a team-mate replies "Maybe that's why we don't let you do it." But this, posed by Spielberg as an ethical clash, is no such thing. Dislike of killers who take pleasure in the act is not the same as moral decency. It was, in fact, exactly Heinrich Himmler's view of his underlings too. He didn’t want sadists or deranged anti-Semites, but cold, efficient professionals.

Salameh himself is shown in Spielberg's Munich as the Israelis' most wanted target. They're prevented from getting him by American – it's hinted, CIA – intervention. It is certainly true that Salameh was in close contact with the CIA and other US agencies. But part of that was, at least ostensibly, his seeking American aid for PLO moderates against extremists: which hardly fits the profile of him as prince of the bombers. As this suggests, questions of guilt or innocence among Palestinians, as well as Israelis, are far more complex than the film implies. Munich was a powerful idea pursued with mostly noble intentions. But it is a failure: artistically, historically and morally.


Avner and his wife watch the hostage crisis unfold on television

Further criticism of Munich:

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