(This piece was written by me on Dec 4,2008, right after the terrible 26/11 attacks in India, that explains the first paragraph. I am republishing this as part of a Spielberg blogathon)
The last one week, I have not been really watching movies. I have been just tracking the news, or watching the news channels, as i was first shocked and then outraged. Anyway as i was looking for some DVD’s, just glanced at Munich and happened to watch it again. Well watching a movie on terrorism, that too during a time like this, might seem a bit odd. But maybe i felt it was topical, or the fact that it happens to be one of my favorites, made me watch it.Also, it happens to be one of my favorite Spielberg movies along with Schindlers List and Saving Private Ryan.
Couple of reasons too. I have this interest in Jewish history, Israel and the Middle East from quite a long time. I got it from my father who admires Israel, and in fact dinner time, would be spent listening to his accounts of Israeli history. And when i was around 12 yrs old, i watched Raid on Entebbe, a movie about the Israeli attack on Entebbe Airport, to rescue its hostages from Arab terrorists. That really sparked a curiosity and as i grew up reading books like Exodus, Oh Jerusalem it just fuelled my passion further. The infamous Munich massacre where the Israeli athletes were killed by a fidayeen attack during the 1972 Olympic Games, was something i had read of in newspaper reports and clippings. And so when Spielberg came up with a movie on the incident, it really ignited my interest. So this is not a review per se, but just some random ramblings of mine.
After Schindlers List, this was Spielberg’s second movie i think with a Jewish background. But the task was more difficult here. In Schindlers List, the enemy was the Nazis, and it was fairly easy to make a good vs evil movie. While Oskar Schindler had shades of grey, as he was in fact initially more of an oppurtinistic wheeler dealer, Amon Goth was some one in which you could hardly find any reedemable qualities, unless you happened to be a Neo Nazi or an admirer of Hitler. But when you take the subject matter of Munich, here there was no black or white. Yes the fidayeen, were evil men, but their cause had a legitimacy in most of the intellectual circles in the West. While not many agreed with the fidayeen attacks, there were many who sympathized with the cause of a Palestinian homeland. It is one thing to show American soldiers going in and beating the crap out of Nazis, but trying to show an Israeli-Arab conflict in the same manner, would have made it a caricature. Yeah you had those Delta Force series of movies, where Chuck Norris goes and beats the shit out of the bad Arabs, but who takes Chuck Norris seriously in the first place?
While opinion about Munich, is divided, i rate it as one of my favorites, because of Spielberg’s approach. Instead of taking the easy way out, Spielberg tries to balance both sides of the conflict, and that is the toughest thing to do in the world. Being a moderate, with a centrist political view myself, i have found myself accused of being “Leftist” as well as “Rightist”. Walking the middle road, can often make you feel quite lonely, because you dont really belong anywhere. And i am sure Spielberg must have felt the same way, as he was attacked by both Jewish and Arab community leaders, as well as by many movie critics.
Munich remains the kind of movie, which polarizes people depending on what your view point is. Also because of its tendency to go into a more gray zone, trying to show the moral dilemmas the assasisn faced when executing the killers, the movie did not work with the general public too, who would have preferred a more straightforward “Bruce Willis going around killing all the bad Arabs” kind. Post 9/11, the anti Arab sentiment in US was high, and somehow American public could not really take to showing the Arabs in a more humane manner. Munich was not meant to be a movie that could make every one happy, the very subject nature was polarizing, and whatever is the kind of balancing act, you do, there would still be people not happy. But as a movie it does make you think, does make you question what you believed in earlier, whacks you out of your comfort zone. You may or may not like it, you may or may not agree with its content, but you can’t ignore it either. And there in lies the triumph of Munich, as it does not make a spectacle of a real life tragedy, but makes the viewer think about it.
“Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”-Nietschze.
The main theme of Munich revolves around the quote. Though the movie is about a group of 5 assassins on a mission to track down and execute the perpetrators of Munich 72, at a deeper level, the movie examines the transformation of those men, their feelings. The most chilling scene in the movie is the one in the Cyprus hotel. Avner Kaufman( Eric Bana), the leader of the squad, checks into a room next to that of one of the targets, Hussein Abd Al Chir. Earlier the group had planted a bomb under his mattress, which would detonate when the target sleeps on it. Avner is standing on the balcony, as he hears the sounds comming from the next room, of a newly married couple making it out. If we see Avner’s expressions, it is he feels fascinated, by the sounds next room , desperately wanting to be a voyeur. It could be the fact that he is away from his wife, who has just delivered a daughter. But the best part is when the target comes out and has a brief chat with Avner. And then Avner goes back to his room, and gives the signal. That scene just hit me straight in the face. One minute you are talking normally with a person, and then the very next second, he is gone like that.
Another favorite scene of mine, is when the group ambush 4 PLO members in an Athens safe house and claim they belong to various European terror groups like ETA, Red Army and ANC, as one of their members Steve( Daniel ’007′ Craig), is a South African. The dialogue between Avner and Ali the group leader, Ali’s stating his desire for a homeland. When Avner counters him saying that violence, would not help the Palestinian cause, Ali shoots back, giving example of the Irish and the Jews. In fact he makes a pertinent observation that the West German Govt, helps Israel, to assauge its guilt, and he asks “But did my ancestors send one of yours to the gas chambers?”. One of the best moments for me, is when the Greek porter in Cyprus, whom they have kidnapped, after the assault, is shocked at what he sees the brutal murder. In fact when one of the group members Carl, hands him money to silence him, he just spits on it and walks away. They might have succeeded in their mission, but they have lost something in their own selves. To the Greek porter, they are no better than thugs. And when Avner finds that the guard he had shot dead, while making an attempt on Salameh, the group leader, is just a teenage boy, he is totally dispirited and disillusioned.
Munich is Spielberg’s up close and personal look at the man who undertook the operations. It takes us into the minds of both the hunters and the hunted. Much as you hate the Arab terrorists, every time, when one of the targets is gunned down, you do feel a remorse, because, just moments earlier, he was another normal man on the street. Or was he really, i mean if they indeed were the brains behind the murder of Israeli athletes, it was just retribution. But then Munich provides no easy answers. You could watch the movie, many times, but still it does leave with you questions unanswered. Also Spielberg’s approach is totally understated here, in sharp contrast to his more in your face style. Even the explosions are shown like with a dull noise, not the usual high octane stuff, you see in standard Hollywood movies.
Also the detailing is really good here. For instance when Avner, meets the Mossad accountant, he is called as a Yekke, a term for German Jews. And later when Avner discusses it with Eprahim(Geoffrey Rush), he takes pain to emphasize he is a Sabra, a naturalized Jew born in Israel. Generally in Jewish society there is a distinction between Yekkes and Sabras. Also Jews of German descent, are not looked upon with favor by Jews of East European origin, especially those from Ukraine or Russia. Again when Avner tells his wife, Daphna, about moving to US, and she tells him that she does not want to be another “homeless Jew”. This again showing the attachment Jews all over have for Israel, as also the fact that Daphna was born and bought up in Israel, and she does not really relish the prospect of living her life in US. Again when Avner tells the group, that his wife is expecting, the other members say “Mazeltov”, which is the Jewish word for “Good fortune”. . Also Spielberg brings in the 70′s political scene, with references to ETA, Red Army, as also the West German Govt’s decision to release the arrested fidayeen, after terrorists hijack an airliner.
Well much as it was balanced, i feel that Spielberg could afford to do so, since he was a Jew himself. Inspite of which he received a lot of criticism for being a sell out. I am sure had the director been Catholic or Protestant, he would have been accused of not understanding Israel, and no Arab director would have even dared to make a movie out of it. Also i dont understand why Mossad would not want to get involved in this operation. Generally Mossad takes pride in dealing with enemies of Israel, and is not apologetic about its actions. Somehow the reason that Avner is not a field operative, and so the targets would not be as alert, as he is unknown, does not sound too convincing to me. Munich is not the perfect movie, i dont think Spielberg intended it to be, it has its flaws, and the pace slackens at times. But at the end it is movie that does make you think, and evaluate, and that in itself is something.