A team of Israeli assassins sneaks into the empty apartment of an Arab terrorist mastermind. The bomb specialist replaces the inner workings of the Arab’s telephone with a jelly-like bomb so that when he answers the phone, his
apartment will be gutted and vengeance for the Munich murders achieved. The team exits, waiting for him to return. Then the Israelis place their deadly call ... after the Arab’s innocent young daughter leaves, of course. The phone rings in the other room. But then something goes wrong - the little girl has forgotten something and returns to retrieve it. When she enters the apartment, she is quick to pick up the ringing telephone.
Nothing happens. One of the covert Israelis, Avner (the protagonist, played by Eric Bana), saw the little girl run upstairs and aborted the explosion. Minutes after she departs in the limousine, the phone rings again. This time, the deadly mission succeeds.
This is just one of many scenes that makes Steven Spielberg’s pensive “Munich” such an impressive film. The tension and suspense certainly maintain the audience’s interest, but more significantly, scenes like these reflect the complexity of this story. Originating with the murder of eleven Israeli athletes by the Arab “Black September” group at the 1972 Munich Olympics, “Munich” follows the efforts of the Israeli government in subsequent years to avenge the killings, and thus send a message to enemies of the young Jewish state. (However, it is important to remember that the film is based on the uncorroborated testimony of an unidentified Israeli agent.)
Central to the story is Avner, a father-to-be who was born in Germany and transplanted to Israel and now works for the Mossad (the Israeli foreign intelligence agency). He is hired, along with several other wildly different Israelis, to hunt down and execute the Arabs who planned the Munich attack.
The film is gratifyingly evenhanded; Spielberg does not patronize the audience by slanting the story in favor of the Israelis and instead is sensitive to the opposing argument. One of the most tender scenes in “Munich” is the stairwell conversation between Avner and an Arab agent (who does not know that Avner is Jewish), during which both rationalize their respective people’s claim to the Holy Land. This is the film’s central theme: how conducive to peace is the policy of “an eye for an eye”? As heroic and thrilling as the actions of Avner’s team are, the question of the rightness of what they are doing is what makes “Munich” so appealing.
While not Spielberg’s masterpiece, “Munich” is a worthwhile study of violence and its effects on its practitioners. Clocking in at over 160 minutes, Spielberg’s gift for infusing his films with suspense makes the length bearable. Eric Bana’s brooding interpretation of Avner brings an arresting topic to a more personal level, while the supporting cast does much to reinforce the pro-peace message. Likewise, the frank violence of “Munich” serves to deal directly with the brutality of Israel’s revenge, rather than to water it down.
“Munich” offers valuable insight into the personal side of contemporary international relations. While it fulfills expectations by providing a stirring history of violence and revenge in the wake of the Munich attacks, it is exceptional in its treatment of the emotional toll that violence of questionable justifiability can take on an average family man like Avner. This facet of “Munich” makes the film an essential addition to the study not only of the modern situation in the Middle East, but also of patriotic violence in general.
This movie is rated R.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.