Steven Spielberg’s Munich isn’t really about the 1972 abduction and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich, Germany, Olympic games. That sobering historical valley, brought about by the “Black September” faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, serves only as the starting point for a story about political retaliation and personal retribution.
Avner is an intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. His wife is pregnant. And he’s seemingly never had much of a taste for violence. But none of that stops the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, from selecting him to lead a small team of men dedicated to finding and eliminating Black September operatives. One by one, by gunfire or by bomb, by hook or by crook, Avner chips away at his top-secret objective. And we can only watch helplessly as his soul erodes and his emotions crumble with each drop of blood that is shed.
It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. Avner and his men freeze it first. And in so doing reap the whirlwind. Munich informs us that even when justified and within the context of serving one’s country, the act of up-close-and-personal killing does severe damage to those dealing it. And when Avner kills outside the purview of his orders, the damage is doubled. “We are tragic men,” an informant dubbed Papa tells Avner. “Butcher’s hands, gentle souls.”
Avner’s love for his wife and newborn child is dramatic. And as he sinks deeper and deeper into the underbelly of the underworld, that love begins to function as a life preserver. At one point he turns down the sexual solicitation of a beautiful woman, letting his love for his wife help him circumvent the temptation. (His decision saves his life.) He moves his family to the United States so that he will be able to see them while he’s completing his mission. And realizing that the work that he’s been doing is tearing him apart from the inside out—and that if he continues he will lose the ability to care for his family—he refuses to be drawn into another assignment. He ferociously battles to keep his family safe and agonizes over how his job puts them at mortal risk.
Avner’s mother speaks of praying. Menorahs and other Jewish religious symbols are seen in houses. The good advice given in “The Book” is referred to several times. Avner and his team discuss whether God would want them to “rejoice” after killing an enemy. One man remarks that as Jews they are “supposed to be righteous.”
Before he leaves to begin his mission, Avner and his wife share a moment of sexual intimacy. Their act is a beautiful one—a gift that God freely gives to a man and his bride. The problem is that it is depicted for others to observe. The pair is seen mostly nude (from the side) making sexual movements and sounds. As the film concludes, the two once again come together. This time, the filmmakers further abuse their coupling by using it to elevate the emotional pull of violence and killing, making rapid cuts from their passion to the suffering and ultimately the deaths of the Munich hostages.
It’s not the film’s only scene of sexualized violence. Lengthy views of full-frontal female nudity are callously used to ramp up the excitement/devastation factor of one bloody killing in a scene that is both visually abusive and psychologically abhorrent. Earlier in the aftermath of an explosion, a nude man and woman, interrupted during sex, get screen time as they stagger from the blast zone. Lured into having sex with an assassin, one of Avner’s comrades ends up nude and dead in bed.
Just mentioning the fact that this is a Steven Spielberg war movie will be enough information for most. Death descends in the form of bombs, grenades, bullets and knives. And it is attentively examined in graphic, grisly detail. Frequent gun battles leave blood pooling on and under bodies. A Munich hostage manages to get his hands on a knife, which he plunges into a terrorist’s forehead. In several scenes when machine-gun fire rips bodies apart, blood gushes as the camera zooms in on exit wounds. A man is shot through the cheek; the bullet leaves a gaping hole, but death doesn’t come until later when he’s shot several more times in the chest.
An hour (or two) is devoted to the chilling cat-and-mouse game Avner plays with his marks. A long sequence focuses on a bomb being planted in a phone. When a young girl answers its ring instead of her targeted father, her life is spared only by a whisker. When a much larger blast destroys a hotel, gore-covered body parts are seen scattered around the rooms. (An arm hangs off a whirling ceiling fan.)
About 15 f-words and 10 s-words. God’s name is twice linked to “d–n.” Obscene gestures are made.
Many of the characters smoke cigarettes; some of them do so continuously. Avner and others share what appears to be marijuana. Wine and beer are drunk on numerous occasions, and several scenes take place in bars.
Munich is based on the 1984 book Vengeance, which according to Reuters, “purport[s] to chronicle the confessions of an assassin who broke ranks in protest at Israel’s two-fisted tactics.” Much is being made of that book’s alleged inaccuracies and subsequently the film’s. “I think it is a tragedy that a person of the stature of Steven Spielberg, who has made such fantastic films, should have based this film on a book that is a falsehood,” David Kimche, a former senior Mossad official, told Reuters. For his part, Spielberg isn’t claiming to have made a documentary-minded drama. And he’s assigned it an “inspired by” actual events disclaimer.
As Spielberg uses that artistic license to explore what he would consider to be a fine line separating assassins from soldiers, over and over again he drives home the point that if you sink to the depraved and despicable level of your enemies, you gradually become them. And he points out that violence can prompt further violence. “It did not begin in Munich,” says the wife of one target, “and where will it ever end?” Deep, heady, infinitely contentious stuff, that. But things quickly go “off the monorail” as Scott Holleran writes for Box Office Mojo. “Once again, Steven Spielberg transforms a serious subject—an historic act of Arab terrorism—into a skillfully arranged horror show, trivializing another example of 20th century barbarism. … It’s hard to tell what if anything Mr. Spielberg’s picture stands for, other than loud explosions, grotesque close-ups and throwing every excuse for terrorism up on the screen. Certainly not justice.”
Spielberg specializes in revealing how horrific war is, but he rarely hints at how necessary it sometimes is. Munich doesn’t much aid the debate over whether Avner and his team have sunk to an unacceptable level. Rather, the film intentionally muddies it. Clarity remains elusive despite the fact that Avner goes to great lengths to avoid collateral damage and does everything in his power to ensure targets are appropriate military marks, prompting Holleran to ask, “Just what is the proper response to a terrorist attack?” Spielberg doesn’t have the answer.
As important as Holleran’s question is, though, it’s not the one I’m most concerned with at the moment. I’m actually more interested in shining a light on the damage Spielberg does in the way he tells his tale. “Some people say we can’t afford to be civilized. I’ve always resisted such people. Today I’m hearing with new ears,” rationalizes Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir before she authorizes the Mossad and Avner to take out Black September. “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” It’s clear that the director strongly disagrees with her change of heart. But if he wants to preach against ever setting aside one’s moral convictions, then why does his sermon—this film—so eagerly embrace immorality and sensationalism? By injecting such huge doses of sexualized violence in the obscene manner in which he does, Spielberg serves titillation, not enlightenment. Obscenity, not observation. And shock, not entertainment.