Like his 1997 film Amistad or his 2012 film Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, released at the height of the war on terror, is a long-winded slog with sophisticated, nuanced politics and excellent performances that works in parts, but gets bogged down at the end. Set in the aftermath of the Black September attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, it follows a team of Mossad agents through Europe as they assassinate Palestinian militants and intellectuals who may, or may not have been involved in the attack on the Olympic Village. The message of Tony Kushner’s screenplay is clear. Don’t act like George W. Bush. If Osama Bin Laden blew up the World Trade Center, don’t go after Saddam Hussein.
Of course that’s a story a skilled auteur like Steve Spielberg could have told in 90 minutes. Munich is almost 3 hours. What makes the film simultaneously fascinating and infuriating is the way it wraps Kushner’s cautionary tale of the war on terror in Spielberg’s larger philosophical exploration of how he, an upper-class Jewish Boomer and an American pop cultural icon, relates to “old Europe” and European high culture. The murder of Jewish athletes in Munich 1972 was closer in time to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 than we are to the Cold War Olympics of 1984 in 2023. Was Germany a western democracy or was it the shadow of the Third Reich, a place where the Baader–Meinhof Gang allied itself to Palestinian militants, and the response of the West German police to Black September’s hostage taking was a bit too inept to be entirely an accident. Would the jaded, sophisticated French ever accept an American Jew as “family?” Or would they simply exploit him as an ATM machine with a bottomless safe deposit box of money? Will Eastern and Central European Jews ever really fit into the Mediterranean world as easily as the Palestinians, or will they always be outsiders and colonizers hiding behind American military power?
The casting of Munich’s team of Mossad assassins reflects Spielberg’s conflicted attitude towards Zionism and Israeli patriotism. There’s Steve, played by the blond, blue-eyed English actor Daniel Craig, a Jewish supremacist who declares that “only Jewish blood matters,” and yet who seems to have entirely transcended his own Semitic nature to become a full-fledged Aryan. There’s Robert, played by French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz, a reluctant demolitions expert who would rather defuse bombs then rig them, a man who’s deeply conflicted about the dirty job of murdering the leaders of a dispossessed and defeated people. Finally there’s the team leader Avner, played by Australian actor Eric Bana, real name Eric Banadinović, who looks like a young Daniel Day Lewis. Why he was even chosen for the mission in the first place is confusing. He’s a happily married man with a baby on the way who isn’t even a particularly good killer. Just about the only thing that brings him to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s attention is his father’s past as a hero of Zionism. He is, in effect, a patriotic symbol, the Pat Tillman of 1972.
Whether or not the Israeli government is cynical enough to dispose of Avner the way the CIA disposed of Lee Harvey Oswald is the great unanswered question that runs through Munich and which, in the end, drives Avner to the brink of paranoid insanity. Avner is no fool, but he’s no master spy. He’s more of a bag man who brings loads of cash to a shady left-wing Frenchman named Louis, a shady left-wing Frenchman who seems to know everything, and in exchange gets a list of targets to be eliminated. Louis father, played by the Anglo French actor Michael Lonsdale is not only Old Europe personified, he’s the disillusioned French intellectual turned opportunist, Casablanca’s Captain Renault who’s gone in the opposite direction. Having served in the French Resistance, he’s so disgusted by his country’s putting the conservative De Gaulle on a pedestal that he’s become the perfect anarcho-capitalist. He refuses to work directly with governments but will take their money as long as he has plausible deniability. He’s the final outcomes of the cynical post-1968 radical, willing to sell himself to the highest bidder.
Avner in turn, badly wants the approval of Louis and Papa. He is in fact so oblivious to the idea that the seemingly omniscience French are simply master manipulators working for the Mossad and CIA themselves that he refuses to consider the possibility that when members of his team start ending up dead, it might just be his own government “tying up loose ends.” Who exactly sent that sexy Dutch assassin? It is in fact only when he joins his wife in exile in Brooklyn that he finally comes to his senses and realizes that he might in fact be next. Avner who was a very stupid man in Old Europe has suddenly gotten a clue. A true patriot, of course, is willing to die for his country in total obscurity. Jean Moulin died after weeks of torture in the hands of the Gestapo, who couldn’t break him even after reminding that not a soul in the world would ever realize what happened to him. But Avner is not that man. In the end all he really wants is to be home, a concept he ironically learned about from a Palestinian enemy. But that home isn’t Israel, France, or even New York. It’s his family. His desire to live has in fact made him an enemy of the Mossad, who refuse to “break bread” with his family and bury the hatchet however imploringly he pleads.