Directed by Steven Spielberg. US. 2005.

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"For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?"- Matthew 16:26 

Steven Spielberg's Munich is a lament for the loss of idealism, not only for Avner (Eric Bana), the leader of an assassination squad, but also for Israel, a country that once proclaimed the supremacy of human values. The film deals with events stemming from the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany at the hands of a group of Palestinians who came to be known as Black September. It is not a documentary but historical fiction that dramatizes the unofficial Israeli retaliation for the deaths in Munich, depicting the revenge killings of a secret intelligence operation.  

There is much bloodshed and horrific violence in the film but there are no heroes and no villains and, to the chagrin of supporters on both sides, the film contains more questions than answers. Will the killings stop the terror or will the men killed simply be replaced by even more dedicated terrorists? What is the result for an individual's soul and indeed the soul of a nation? Is revenge killing ever justified? These are questions in which Spielberg has shown considerable courage in raising. 

The leader of the unit is Avner, a member of the Mossad, the Israeli version of the CIA, and the son of a war hero. Though he is reluctant to leave his wife who is pregnant, he does not question his mission out of his belief in the righteousness of the Israeli cause. His team includes Steve, a dedicated Zionist from South Africa (Daniel Craig), a toymaker who has turned to making bombs (Mathieu Kassovitz), an antique dealer (Hanns Zischler) and a veteran military officer (Ciaran Hinds). All work for Mossad and their case officer (Geoffrey Rush), though officially no one has an identity or connection to the organization. The film shows that the primary decision was made by a high member of the government, presumably Prime Minister Golda Meir, who justifies the assignment by proclaiming that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”  

Each assassination attempt is shown in detail, including the planning and the execution as the team carries out its operations in Rome, Paris, Cyprus, Beirut, and Athens. As the killings pile up, the bloodshed begins to take its toll, especially the gory "personal" killing of a woman operative who lured and killed one of the members of their unit. The once idealistic Avner becomes disillusioned by the experience and he and others begin questioning the morality of their assignment and whether it will ultimately help or hurt the Israeli cause. Some like Steve, a hard liner says, "the only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood". One member of the Israeli group, however, says "Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong. We're supposed to be righteous" Another says, "Palestinians didn't create terrorism. Palestinian lands were taken by bloodshed and terrorism".   

The Palestinian point of view is represented by a group of Arab bodyguards who unexpectedly share a safe house with the team in Athens, each unaware of the other's true identity. One of the bodyguards, Ali (Omar Metwally) claims that the Palestinians can "wait forever. You don't know what it is not to have a home. Home is everything". Although the film does not take a stand on how countries should react to terrorism, it questions the wisdom of the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" philosophy and the ethical basis of the operation. When Avner concludes, "there is no peace at the end of this", he demands evidence from his superiors that the men they killed were actually involved with the Munich massacre.  

Munich is an honest, tightly woven, and very suspenseful film that contains some fine performances, especially that of Eric Bana. More importantly, it asks us to look at what is possible in today's world beyond the exchanging of atrocities, to perhaps even envision the day when claims of religious superiority ("religionism") will be seen as racism and homophobia are today, as relics of an ignorant past. It allows us to dream that the ultimate solution to the Middle East conflict will not be a political one based on dual states enforcing a religious apartheid, but a spiritual solution where direct experience, not ancient scriptures, will lead people to the divine presence. 


Howard Schumann
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