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Going to see 'Munich'

[UPDATE: My thoughts on the film are below.]
[UPDATE 2: Holly passed along links to articles critical of the film in one way or another.]

No Brokeback playing around my way yet; Kate and I are heading out to see Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

This film covers, semi-fictionally, what happened after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as the Mossad tracks down those they believe connected to the terrorist act.

I saw One Day in September, the explosive and award-winning documentary of the events leading up to during the awful climax, which strongly indicted the German government’s incompetence in providing security (they had no anti-terrorist squad and the country turned down help from the Mossad after the hostage-taking began).

The big bombshell in that film was the candid interview with the last living terrorist, who was, along with others on his team that were captured, gained their freedom in a smells-to-high-heaven scenario. The Germans allowed the three surviving terrorists to be released in a deal after a subsequent “hijacking” of a plane.


I was nine years old and glued to the TV set during the whole hostage crisis in 1972. All I knew was that this was a scary event, and that it was happening live on TV. I hung onto every word of Jim McKay’s coverage. I remember so clearly when he confirmed that all of the Israeli hostages had died (from Wikipedia):

“Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were 11 hostages; 2 were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, 9 were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”[1]

Of course I didn’t understand the politics of the event. Why my folks let me watch something that disturbing, I don’t know, but I was a newshound from the time I was little.

I used to watch Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News every weekday. While other kids said they’d want Winnie the Pooh or Captain Kangaroo over for dinner, who did I want my mom to ask over — “Uncle Walter.” Clearly, I was a disturbed child. 🙂 And that’s a true story.


Munich was quite a dark, un-Spielberg-like film. I was expecting that. All the while, my recurring thought as Eric Bana (as Avner, who turns in a helluva performance) and his “hit men” were assassinating men he assumes are targets related to the Black September movement is how this film will likely piss off folks on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The overarching subtext is that this is a futile battle on both sides, that endless assassinations, terrorism and counter-attacks will never get to the root of the problem. I won’t give away any spoilers, but there is a sequence Spielberg sets up — where the Israeli hit team ends up bunking with what appears to be Arab terrorists in a shabby hotel — that affords the director the opportunity for the characters to articulate their political perspectives. They argue their frustrations of the conflict – boiling it down to the simple fact that they are battling over “homeland” in ways that are completely irreconcilable. As each generation continues to pass on the unwavering belief that the other side is completely in the wrong, assassinating key players accomplishes nothing — there are plenty of angry people waiting in the wings to carry it on.

I think where critics of this film will get hung up is their inability to accept the “inspired by real events” disclaimer that Spielberg neatly places in the opening credits. It’s called dramatic license, it’s not a documentary. This same kind of dust up occurred when Oliver Stone’s JFK came out. Some who detested the latter film (I recall George Will being particular outraged), were less concerned with Stone’s political perspective than they were that the average Joe/Jane would accept the director’s vision as fact. Munich is merely Spielberg’s speculation and artistic execution of what occurred based on facts at hand; he doesn’t spend a lot of time covering the death of the Olympic athletes, and where he does, it follows the factual “storyline” laid out in One Day in September.

The film is, at its heart, a political/spy thriller that kind of loses gas about 3/4 of the way through. It’s impossible to tie up loose ends in this sort of film, but it feels out of sorts, and a bit ham-handed. There’s an overwrought sex-scene that’s intercut with the deaths of the hostages that really doesn’t work. The film is about two and a half hours long, and could have used some trimming, though Spielberg set up the action sequences quite well.

Strangely, I was less emotionally affected by Munich than I was by One Day in September, because I walked out of that documentary enraged — at Black September obviously, as well as the German government, who again, watched the slaughter of Jews. This time that goverment was both incompetent — and deviantly colluded with terrorists to cover up how things were “resolved” on their end that allowed the terrorists safe passage. The German officials interviewed for the documentary clearly didn’t think they did anything wrong.


Criticism of the film:

* TNR: Leon Wieseltier. Oddly, one criticism in this column amounts to complaints of “Spielberg fatigue” — tired of being manipulated by the director’s storytelling technique in yet another film. It’s interesting that Munich is picked on for this particular flaw, when for instance, Saving Private Ryan was off the charts in this vein. Aside from the brilliant, gut-wrenching D-Day sequence, that film is incredibly more emotionally manipulative.

* Israeli spy veterans question plausibility of Spielberg’s ‘Munich’. Again, the JFK (“don’t accept this as fact”) clarification to make sure readers know this is a film based on real events.

* TNR: Twin Pique. A comparison of the facts of whether targeted assassination has succeeded in reducing terrorist attacks versus Spielberg’s theme in the film that violence only begets more violence. That’s a hard one to quantify; I think Spielberg is too idealistic in his worldview (but isn’t that what one would expect from this director?). I agree with Nancy in the comments:

…events like Munich made an indelible impression on Jews of my generation–and have made it impossible for most of us to pretend that if only Israelis let down their arms and their guard, their neighbors would follow suit.

More broadly, this is less about Arabs and Jews, but about the dark side of human nature, particularly when it comes to politics and war — we tend not to learn from history, seek the high road publicly, yet often take the low road privately, the end justifies the means, etc. In the end, it’s about vengeange of one sort or another. Look at Dear Leader — he invaded and has destroyed a country because he was avenging his daddy. He won’t be the last leader to do this either.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding