Spielberg’s ambitious Munich skimps on the emotions behind the explosions

By Matt Johnston

A title card helpfully informs us that Munich, Steven Spielberg’s entry for this awards season, is inspired by actual events. Considering that our generation has its own terrorist attacks to remember, I would not be surprised if the majority of college students today were only vaguely aware of the historical setting to which Spielberg refers. Thinking back on my formal education, I cannot recall a single mention of the Munich massacre. Enter Spielberg to remind the general public, in much the same way he did for the Holocaust with Schindler’s List.

His new film begins much like Oliver Stone’s JFK, combining actual news footage with his own fiction to create a feel of confusion and fright as the world watches the terrorist group Black September hold Israeli Olympic athletes hostage in an apartment complex. These early scenes are loaded and powerful, partly because we have our own memories of helpless voyeurism during crises, partly because Spielberg has the good sense to keep gunfire to a minimum. We begin inside the hostage quarters but are quickly exiled to Peter Jennings’ evening report. With some hope, I imagined that this film would at last be a historical recounting that did not focus solely on gunfire.

Real life, you see, is less interesting than the movies because it does not have as much gunfire. Movies cut out all those “boring” conversations that take place between the headlines, thus allowing us to see history as a clear trajectory from event A to event B. Munich bravely cuts from the terrorist situation without the violent pay-off we have been trained to expect.

Instead, it plops us down in the center of the Israeli Defense Committee, which is trying to agree on an appropriate response to the off-screen bloodshed. There is confusion, anger, and worry. Ultimately, Prime Minister Golda Meir decisively orders a hard line response. The Mossad is authorized to track down and kill those who were involved in the Olympics attack.

Up to this point, the film has not taken a wrong step. It provides a useful history lesson, reminding us (or, for many, telling us for the first time) that terrorists from the Middle East have been carrying out attacks in the West for decades. Yet at the same time it is adding shades of ambiguity and ambivalence, demonstrating that even though people and governments often seem to speak with one, unshaking voice, there are always backroom arguments based on a paucity of information.

We are introduced to Avner (played with an uncertain accent by Eric Bana), who is selected to lead the Wrath of God operation to track down and kill the planners of the massacre. He is a fictional stand-in for Juval Aviv, who described Wrath of God to author George Jonas in Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, on which this film is partially based.

A team joins Avner and early on it becomes apparent that these are not the assassins of ninja fantasies. They are normal people who sweat and shake and consider the morality of their missions. Shrouded in a layer of fiction, they are stand-ins for all assassins and—for that matter—all people who make important decisions. Further, the fictionalization gives the early sections of the film an almost palpable sense of subjectivity. Like Juval Aviv’s book, Munich tells one version of a story that has a thousand versions, each with truth and falsehood.

But then the film takes a series of wrong turns and never recovers. There is a fine line between brilliant generalization and cliché. The screenplay falls from the former to the latter at about the one-third mark. Avner, for instance, begins as a reasonable, conflicted man. His wife is expecting a child. He will quite possibly be killed without ever seeing his child. On top of that, he is not entirely sure he believes in vengeance. He is a character we can identify with because we see his recognition of the situation’s gravity.

But then Avner looks at his reflection in a window and imagines the violence that occurred during the Munich Massacre. And suddenly this is a film about gunfire instead of the complications in between. It takes the easy route of evoking emotion by brute force instead of by subtle distinction. I do not object to the portrayal of violence itself—just to the fact that it is given precedence over the moral questions it is meant to invoke.

Much of the next hour and a half consists of watching Avner’s team prepare bombs and then watching them blow up. Between each event, the characters withdraw to say unbelievably insightful things about their mission. Everyone is a poet on the spot. Gone is the feeling that these are real men. They still are not ninjas, but they become books of quotations.

The result is a James Bond movie that we are obligated not to enjoy. There are guns, chases, cross-dressing agents, explosions, and even a sexy seductress who may be working for the other side. Again, all these elements exist in real life, but it is too easy to make history about them rather than the spaces in between. Much of the same footage here could have been cut into a fairly exciting action movie, but the choice to be “inspired” by true events mires this film in depression. I am not saying that I wanted to have fun at Munich. I am saying that Munich should know better than to depend on the trappings of action movies for its emotional punch.

Avner covers a complete character arc without much trouble. He begins with faith in his government, descends into doubt, and arrives at paranoia. Yet Bana is given only a few scenes to portray that complicated transition, because so much running time is reserved for yet another explosion. What is accomplished by the fourth sequence of killing a stranger that was not accomplished by the first? Explosions and gunfire look similar each time. It is the characters’ reactions that change, that need to be emphasized after the mechanics of an operation are established.

Munich is an ambitious picture. But its time allocation is all wrong. The first few segments are the best, because they bravely exist in that space between the bits of history we tend to think of as exciting. The last few segments try to return to those lofty heights. They fail. Abruptly, we are left with Avner, a man haunted by clichéd flashbacks. We do not know this man. He is different from the one we met, having been irreversibly changed by the journey. Yet all along the way, when we wanted to witness that change, we were given yet another explosion.