Catch Them — and Kill Them — if You Can

Photo by Karen Ballard
On an ordinary sunny day

in 1972, my husband, an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University, was invited to an off-campus café by a friendly fellow answering only to a first name, who asked if my spouse wanted to serve his newly adopted country by lending it his British passport for unspecified uses. Several months later, when a family emergency forced us to fly back to England in a hurry, the passport came back within 24 hours with my husband’s photo expertly glued back in place and a host of exotic countries he’d never set foot in stamped into the visa section. For the life of me, I can’t remember whether all this happened before or after that September when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Black September terrorists at the Olympic Games in Munich. What I do remember is how thoroughly jazzed (albeit discreetly, in deference to my surly-young-lefty opposition to the whole passport business) my partner was to be drafted, however indirectly, into the defense of a country whose siege mentality was still defined by the scars of the Holocaust, even if the threats to its existence now came from its next-door neighbors.

That same frisson at being let in on a grand secret conspiracy is what makes Steven Spielberg’s Munich a riveting thriller — and also what works against Spielberg’s liberal-peacenik qualms about vengeance in general and government-sponsored counterterrorism in particular. Alongside Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Munich is being positioned in that sober part of the Spielberg oeuvre labeled responsible grown-up. That’s right as far as it goes, but no one who has seen the film could possibly argue that the director has set aside his inner adolescent in making what is first and foremost a rip-roaring boys’ own adventure. With its frenetically fragmentary, globe-trotting structure, the film recalls not just the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s it’s lovingly fashioned after, but Stephen Gaghan’s recent Syriana, which can be read as an update of Munich’s account of the roots of modern global terror. True, Gaghan is a committed leftist who’s openly contemptuous of United States foreign policy, while Spielberg is an American patriot and a Zionist with strong ties to Israel as well as a good liberal’s sympathy for the Palestinians. But both filmmakers are caught between political and moral scruple, and a vibrant schoolboy addiction to the thrill of the chase and the technology of killing.

I don’t know anyone over 40 who doesn’t remember the suspense of the Munich massacre, breathlessly relayed by Jim Mckay in successive TV news updates that first had the hostages safe and unharmed, then hours later told viewers that nine of the 11 had been killed, most of them during a spectacularly bungled assault by the Germans, who also later, to the helpless rage of the Israelis, gave the surviving Palestinians safe passage to the Middle East. The episode pushed many Israeli buttons, not the least of which was a recognition of their own uncharacteristically lax security arrangements in the Olympic Village of a host country trying to live down its catastrophic intervention in Jewish history. This may be one reason why Munich focuses more on the Israeli reprisal than on the massacre itself, which is paid out in edge-of-your-seat installments as a motivating memory in the troubled mind of Avner (played by Aussie hulk Eric Bana), head of a Mossad-sponsored team quickly pulled together to take out as many members and affiliates of Black September as could be found hiding in Europe. A young bodyguard with family ties to Mossad, Avner is handpicked by Prime Minister Golda Meir (a grandmotherly Lynn Cohen in baggy dress and support hose — imagine the extreme makeover she’d get from the image consultants today) to go after the terrorists with an international team that includes Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy maker who builds quaint little bombs on the side; Hans (Hanns Zischler), a German who forges documents and does the accounts for each pricey assassination; Steve (Daniel Craig), a belligerent South African getaway driver of the blood-and-guts school of Jewish nationalism; and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the quietly efficient cleanup man.

Fueled by Spielberg’s bottomless appetite for paranoid conspiracy, Munich is an extraordinarily effective and occasionally uproarious account of the early phase of global terror with its mushrooming webs of secretive links between groups often dedicated to opposing goals. The implication that both Mossad and Black September were tied into the CIA is the least of it: Most of Avner’s information about the whereabouts of his scattered targets comes from a murky French group headed by a simultaneously sinister and avuncular paterfamilias (played by the terrific Michael Lonsdale) who, still smarting from French humiliation at the hands of the Nazis and its own Vichy collaborators, will do business only with individuals, not governments. (One senses that Spielberg, who never saw a father figure he didn’t like or a government he did, is with him all the way.) Like Gaghan in Syriana, Spielberg wants to invite us into the visceral, terrifying pleasures of the hunt while dutifully questioning whether it should ever have been mounted in the first place. Washed in Janusz Kaminski’s foggy, desaturated light, Munich would have us gorge on the romance of blood, which seeps sensuously from shot-out brains, smoking corpses, severed hands. Spielberg wants us to share in his amused delight at the rinky-dink telephone bombs used by 1970s assassins — quaint jokes compared to the long-range precision missiles used today, if just as deadly. And, of course, he can’t do without his avenging heroes. But he also wants us to feel his pain over the endless cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and as this three-hour drama wears on, with terrorists from both sides pleading their case (the screenplay, which was written by Eric Roth and worked over by playwright Tony Kushner, is Kushner at his most rhetorical and declamatory), there’s a gathering stench of bad faith in the tug between gory excitation and moral squeamishness.

Munich wavers between reliance on a widely disputed book by Canadian journalist George Jonas — who claimed the Israeli response to the massacre was a largely emotional desire for vengeance and that they got the men they wanted — and Time reporter Aaron J. Klein’s contention in Striking Back, a new book (hastily rushed out last week as what the publishers enchantingly call a “reverse tie-in” to the movie), that the assassinations were strategic, but mostly bagged only minor figures whose affiliation to Black September was at best marginal, at worst doubtful. (Should we be disgusted or amused that both Mossad and Mohammad Daoud, who masterminded the Black September massacres, were miffed at not being consulted for the movie?) In his only interview about Munich, Spielberg told Time film critic Richard Schickel that his ideological inspiration is the Israeli novelist and peace activist Amoz Oz, who believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will go unresolved as long as both sides are working from the mentality of the truly oppressed. I’m with him there, but Munich is at best a muddled prayer for peace whose weakness stems not from its politics but from the misconception of its main character. Avner is not just a fictional character, but an absurdly improbable expression of Spielbergian schmaltz. No self-respecting secret service, let alone the hard-bitten Mossad, would send an operative as sensitive and morally fastidious as this young man into the field. And if by some error of judgment it did, he’d be yanked home to a desk job pronto if he conducted himself like Avner, who goes into full murderous rampage against the targeted Palestinians, pausing every half-hour or so to rustle up comforting briskets for his passionately Zionist teammates and engage in earnest debate about whether they’re doing the right thing. In the more savvy Israeli thriller Walk on Water, released earlier this year, Lior Ashkenazi’s assassin is, far more persuasively, so overwhelmed by battle fatigue that he ceases to feel anything at all and, with mechanical ferocity, goes on doing his job over the objections of his alarmed handlers.

For his part, Avner grows ever greener about the gills, coos to his new baby over the phone while bursting into tears, and in a truly ridiculous sequence near the end that signals little more than Spielberg’s embarrassed discomfort with onscreen sex, tries to blot out the pain and fear with an energetic fuck. If there is a compelling argument about the legacy of terror, it slides in unobtrusively in the movie’s final scene, in which Avner, suspicious that he is now more the hunted than the hunter, argues the efficacy and morality of his completed mission with his Mossad handler (Geoffrey Rush). Behind them, presiding serenely over the lower Manhattan skyline, stands that other hapless target of a September attack.

MUNICH | Directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG | Written by TONY KUSHNER and ERIC ROTH, based on the book Vengeance by GEORGE JONAS | Produced by KATHLEEN KENNEDY, SPIELBERG, BARRY MENDEL and COLIN WILSON | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide

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