By Scott Ross
If you were alive at the time, and of age to be aware, 5 September 1972 is unlikely to be a date you forget. I was 11; coincidentally, a 5th grade writing assignment on the subject was my first experience of composing an essay, and my first angry opinion piece. There was much I did not know then — primarily about the appalling manner in which the Bavarian government botched things so thoroughly that a deadly encounter between the Palestinian terror group Black September and 11 Israeli athletes mutated to a bloodbath; concerning the complicity of the news media, most specifically the ratings-crazed ghouls at ABC, and how much its idiocies cost the hostages; and of the indecent callousness of the International Olympic Commission, then and now* — a mounting pile of incompetence and insensitivity (and, in the end, complicity**) that compounded the ugliness of the event and turned it, inexorably, into a public horror-show. Had I known then half of what I’ve learned since, my pre-adolescent rage would almost certainly have become positively incandescent.
The value of factual narrative such as that in the 1999 documentary One Day in September, for all its slickness and even its errors of fact, is that it can stand as an exercise both of education and of remembrance. The virtue of a documentary fiction like the 2005 Munich lies in its willingness to grapple with matters beyond fact and into something very like a popular treatise on the mutability of human morality.
Kevin Macdonald, who made One Day in September, has been criticized severely — and rightly, I think — for his climactic use of imagery from the catastrophic failure at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield, in which 9 of the athletes were slaughtered. When we are told, in Michael Douglas’ voice-over narration, what happened to the nine Israeli athletes held hostage there by members of Black September, the horror does not require photographic proof to lodge in the mind. If there is anything served by the sight of those men’s bodies, mangled and bloody on the tarmac, its documentary value eludes me. It is, in its way, as obscene as the footage of athletes in the Olympic Village sunning themselves and playing ping-pong while nearly a dozen of their confederates either lie dead where they fell or sit in their suites under hostile armed guard. It most certainly does not ennoble the enterprise, or add meaning to the lives and pointless deaths of the Israeli team. Since the movie is so clearly and resolutely sympathetic to the athletes’ ordeal, one is left stunned by the filmmaker’s sudden, and nearly unwatchable, violation of them in death. Nor is this the only disparagement one can make of Macdonald: He somehow gets the very details of those senseless murders wrong, and I’ll be damned if I can understand why. Particularly since Steven Spielberg, in Munich, gets them right.***
What the director does accomplish, while not mitigating these lapses of judgment and taste, is a thorough, and deserved, rebuke of the utter incompetence of the Germans and of the broadcast media. Not only was security at the Village so lax as to be virtually nonexistent, the final attempts to bring the situation to a satisfactory end were doomed from the start through lack of manpower, communication, proper planning and a tactical incompetence so vast as to exist somewhere well beyond the realm of the merely shocking. As for the soon-to-be venerated Peter Jennings and his television team, their own lack of foresight is simply astounding, as they continued to film and broadcast from an adjacent building, even as a hastily assembled team of German officers prepared to mount an assault. In an ever-shrinking world in which the broadcast media had, by 1972, become ubiquitous, it is both staggering and unconscionable that no one at ABC considered for a single moment as it aired these events to the world that the terrorists in the Israeli suite also had access to television sets. One Day in September does not provide any information on what happened in the boardrooms of ABC Television following the massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck, but considering Jennings’ rise at that network, I scarcely think he was regarded by Roone Aldredge and his cronies as anything but heroic.
Spielberg is scarcely any less impassioned than Macdonald. And while he has been at pains to make it clear he intended in Munich no rebuke to the Israeli government, his somewhat fictionalized account of the events that followed the massacre is, paradoxically, even more precise and exacting. Working from a more than unusually intelligent screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, taken from George Jonas’ nonfiction account of the Mossad response to Black September, the director fashions not a revenge fantasy but a meditation on the price of vengeance and whose conclusion is, aptly and refreshingly, a question mark.
It seems unlikely that Spielberg could have achieved the emotional complexity of Munich, much less its striking, de-saturated visual scheme, without having made Schindler’s List. While it is possible to lament that the maker of Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind appears to have turned his back on the fantastic and relatively innocent fare that was unique to him, and which it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else making (or making quite so perfectly, anyway) if the trade-off is a picture like Munich, then popcorn entertainment’s loss must surely be said to be serious cinema’s gain. (Although I don’t think the aforementioned, with the exception of Raiders, is less than thoughtful and, in the case of Close Encounters, very possibly profound.) I don’t wish to overstate the case, or turn Spielberg into some sort of intellectual manqué. There are deeper thinkers amidst the directorial ranks, and creative artists of more daring generally. But if is it impossible to think of Spielberg’s having made this morally complex exercise 40 years ago it is equally improbable to imagine any filmmaker with less of a box-office track record getting it made at all. They’d be laughed out of the studio for even suggesting it.
While some of the events at Munich are re-created, and teased out at strategic moments in the narrative, reminding both us and the character of the assassination team leader played by Eric Bana of his very raison d’être, Munich is not really about the terror of that September day. Nor is it, except incidentally, about an un-tested quartet of operatives who begin uncertainly and improve with each sanctioned killing; it is instead concerned with the very nature of deliberate, cold-blooded murder and the effect it has upon its practitioners. Only two of the five (Bana and Daniel Craig, as the most dedicated member of the team) escape with their lives, but all of them are mortally unnerved, long before their fates are determined. There are moments in the picture in which Bana appears so haggard, and haunted, he begins to resemble the survivors of a Holocaust he, as a young Sabra, knows only through largely impersonal history. And although there are a number of brief, hot debates scattered throughout the action (and in which one senses the nuanced and intellectually bracing hand of Tony Kushner) Munich is the furthest thing from a didactic picture. No conclusions are reached, no particular ideology identified or embraced, beyond the inescapable one: That blood begets blood, and its actors can never sleep untroubled. As the taciturn Carl (Ciarán Hinds) notes to Avner late in the movie, “You think you can outrun your fears, your doubts… The only thing that really scares you is stillness. But everyone’s overtaken eventually.”
The look of Munich is extraordinary, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, the splendid Janusz Kamiński, whose images are of such de-glamorized clarity they allow for no romance of the subject. Michael Kahn’s editing is likewise of such precision that there is no flab here, no attempt to linger prettily at some depiction of aesthetic beauty. But then, there is little beauty to be had in the picture; it’s as tough and uncompromised a movie as can be imagined. Morally bankrupt filmmakers can be had by the score, and their movies celebrate violence as a thing to be admired; Spielberg never lets you forget that taking a life is a dirty business —the ultimate obscenity. Even when an innocent is spared, as in the harrowing first assassination attempt when the target’s young daughter unexpectedly makes an unscheduled appearance on the scene, the moral thread is torn asunder by our knowledge that her father’s existence will not be similarly spared. There is a sequence, late in the movie, wherein a Dutch assassin (Marie-Josée Croze) is coolly, and agonizingly, disposed of, that is about as brutal and unblinking an indictment as I think can be imagined, yet even here we cannot shake with what duplicitous calculation she has disposed of one of the team. Munich has little time for innocence, nor much belief in it. What a long, hard road this is from E.T.!
Munich is so exceptionally designed and contains devices so fresh in conception and execution, that the viewer may be hard-pressed to recall seeing them in a picture before. That Dutch assassin’s death is one such moment, her stunned reaction to the silenced bullets that are draining her life as she stumbles about her houseboat both startling and, in a way, the most felt death in the picture. Another is the moment when Eric Bana’s Avner, finding his colleague dead at the woman’s hands, buries his face in the bedclothes and emits a muffled scream of anguish that expresses more than mere personal grief; Avner is an active participant in his own nightmare, and that scream is like a violent rending of his soul. Avner is also the focus of a sequence, late in the movie, which uses eroticism in a way that is almost unbearably powerful, something I’ve never seen in another director’s work and certainly never expected to see from the man of whom Francis Coppola once observed, in their relative youth, “Stevie hasn’t discovered sex yet.”
Spielberg commits only one inaccuracy in Munich I can detect. When the team assembles in London in the early spring of 1973, a poster may be seen on the street for The Sting — a picture that was not released until December of that year. This error only becomes obvious when, later, Ephraim begins a tape-recorded interrogation with a date of June, 1973. But in a movie of a length approaching three hours, that lapse is minor indeed, and all the more noticeable for being the sole discernible example of miscalculation.
If there is a didacticism in the approach of the filmmakers, it is raised only at the end, when Avner confronts his mercurial Mossad chief Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) on the Brooklyn shore, arguing that the vengeance he and his team have enacted has led only to more bloodshed, and that the deadly tit-for-tat will, in time, merely engender more of the same — an endless conundrum of the type human beings, and their governments, seem incapable of avoiding, or extricating themselves from. Just before the end credits roll, as Avner is exiting to the left of the screen, Spielberg frames the New York skyline behind him, the World Trade Center towers visible in the background. It’s a discreet visual paradigm, a sort of silent rebuke, eloquent in its understatement.
In a large cast, the at once ordinary yet somehow remarkably beautiful Bana is revelatory as Avner, the character (based on the actual Yuval Aviv) who resides at the center of Munich’s ethical maze. He seems open, yet is constantly guarded, so that not even his cherished wife (the radiant Ayelet Zurer) can penetrate the curtain he draws over himself. In the movie’s most pointed sequence, in which Avner, under cover, engages in a lengthy discussion of the Palestinian ethos with the unsuspecting Ali (Omar Metwally) Bana conveys a fascinating ambivalence, capped by the corresponding moment that follows, in which Avner must kill Ali. He’s been brought to consider the Palestinian as an individual, perhaps even a man he can like, and it’s the first instance in his experience in which he must end the life of someone he has come to know, however superficially. Ali is no longer simply an abstraction, and it is this killing that tests Avner’s sense of what his bomb-maker thinks of as the righteousness inherent in being a Jew. The action is not lingered over, or in any way elongated, by Spielberg, but it resonates.
Mention ought also to be made, and at length, of a number of actors here, particularly those in Avner’s team: Craig, in his first important role, to which he brings no hint of what he would later do as James Bond; Steve’s is an entirely different character altogether — a man who, unlike Bond, kills his perceived enemies with relish. Hinds contributes a performance of quiet magnificence as the philosophizing Carl; the redoubtable Geoffrey Rush gives a superb account of Ephraim, alternately seductive and enraged, and making it clear that, with him, neither emotion is to be trusted; and Mathieu Kassovitz (himself due to appear in a Bond picture, as a memorable villain) makes of the independent information contractor Louis a figure at once enigmatic, gentlemanly and dangerous. The wonderful Michael Lonsdale (himself, interestingly, a former Bond villain) steals every scene in which he appears as Louis’ venerable Papa, Gila Almagor does wonder work as Avner’s mother, and Lynn Cohen provides a fine account of Golda Meir, outwardly mother-like but never less than the successful (ergo, ruthless) politician. John Williams’ superb score employs none of the maudlin over-emphasis that marred his compositions for Spielberg’s equally sentimental (and, ultimately, pointless) Saving Private Ryan. Munich is a picture so accomplished, on so many levels, that it stays in my mind as the last great, new American movie of my experience.
Yet notwithstanding all of the above, Leonard Maltin, in his popular video guide, was able to muster little enthusiasm for the picture, accusing Munich of both lacking focus and of “treading familiar ground.” You mean like all those dozens of other American movies about teams of government-sanctioned assassins that question the morality, and the efficacy, of piling violence on top of violence? In a picture of some 2 hours and 43 minutes, that places us absolutely in the midst of the planning and execution of deadly vengeance and that reflects in every particular the paranoia and mounting ethical, emotional and intellectual anxiety implicit in such activity, the very last sin of which anyone of moderate intelligence could accuse the writers and director of is not being focused.
Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross
* The IOC continued the Games during the day of the 5th, and only acceded to public outcry the morning after the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield. And while it sponsored a documented day-trip by the Israelis to nearby Dachau, the organization refused, 40 years later, to permit a public remembrance of the 11 murdered athletes, claiming — speciously — that it could not allow a “political” demonstration. The IOC did honor the 11 in 2016… very pointedly not during the ceremonies themselves but two days before the Games began.
** As One Day in September makes clear, the German government appears to have arranged, with Black September, the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in October of 1972, as a result of which the three Palestinian survivors of Munich were freed and allowed to emigrate to Libya — an act designed to mitigate its own deep international embarrassment over the manner with which it mishandled the Olympic crisis.
*** I am referring here to the manner in which the hostages were killed. In One Day in September we are told that one of the Palestinian terrorists threw a grenade into the first of two helicopters in which the Israelis were being held, and that the German armed forces accidentally shot up the second. In fact, Black Sunday raked the inhabitants of the first vehicle with bullets before tossing in the grenade, then similarly sprayed the occupants of the second with gunfire. Macdonald’s errors here nearly defy belief, and certainly beggar comprehension.