Spielberg's 'Munich': The Circle of Death

"Munich" is not just a study of the Israeli response to the 1972 Olympic massacre; it's an examination of the psychological effects of killing. (By Karen Ballard -- Universal Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

Steven Spielberg's "Munich" is not so much about war as about war's smallest, most inevitable and ugliest component: killing. It's about the psychological and political meaning of pointing the gun, pulling the trigger and watching -- through the recoil and the muzzle flash -- as a penetrated human begins to squirt blood, stagger, stumble and fall toward eternal stillness.

What then? A feeling of triumph? Exaltation at the slaying of the enemy? We win, we win, we win! Chalk up another one, boys. A good meal? A hoedown? According to Spielberg, the consequence is quite the opposite: despair, self-doubt, self-loathing, loss of purpose, paranoia, hysteria, nightmare -- in short, what is called post-combat stress syndrome. Moreover, one suspects he means to generalize from this specific example, suggesting that what is true for the haunted individual is also true for the nation and the culture. They become kill-haunted too.

The film arrives at, politically, today's classic liberal cri de coeur against the war in Iraq: It's taking too long. There's no plan. It's too violent. It's degrading us. We can't be like them. Too many people are dying. It'll never end. How did we get into this mess? Make it go away.

Spielberg focuses on a small Israeli killing team: five men, more or less ordinary, tasked with hunting and destroying the Palestinian Black September planners of the Munich massacre of 1972 -- in which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were held hostage and then killed -- across Europe and the Middle East in the fall and winter of that year. They still kill the old-fashioned way, by bomb and gun, and almost always they're close enough to see the blood in lakes on the dirty floors, or the limbs hanging as if meat-hooked to the ceiling after the detonation. It's not pretty, it's not Hollywood, it has the scabrous, dirty feel of reality. Nobody gives any speeches; the dead look like wet sacks of grapes that fell off trucks at high speed. And the killers, being human themselves and not bull-goose loonies, get sick and tired of it.

Spielberg is working, in some fashion, from a book by George Jonas called "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," though many doubts have been raised about its authenticity, and I note that it's not being re-released in conjunction with the movie. Other books, such as the just-published "Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response" by Aaron J. Klein, tell other stories of these events. (Jonas ascribes the Israeli action to one team; Klein suggests a much wider operation with teams combining and recombining as circumstances warranted over the months.) But both books agree: Israeli assassins went hunting and hunted hard.

The movie, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), chronicles a few months in the life and near-death of Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), a former Golda Meir bodyguard then Mossad agent who is chosen to lead the unnamed unit (again, nothing cool and code-wordy like "Team Red" or "Alpha-Niner" or "Tiger").

Avner is, naturally, an idealist. His guys are far from the commando types usual to movies about Special Operations (and to actual Special Operations themselves): One is a frail toymaker whose circuitry skills lend themselves to bombs as well; another is a Brit thug who happens to be Jewish (Daniel Craig, who will shortly play James Bond, but here is content to be an ensemble professional); there's a reluctant ex-soldier and mild-mannered guy who could be an accountant (he wears bow ties and sweater vests). No tattoos, no Seal or Delta machismo, no eight hours a day spent on firing ranges or in shoot houses or hoisting iron in a gym, no funny haircuts, no sexy specialist weapons, no throat or ear mikes -- just skilled technicians with clean backgrounds as unearthed by Israeli intelligence (represented by Geoffrey Rush as Avner's case officer).

Each has a fraudulent identity and access to a secret bank account, but other than that they are on their own, not only in killing but in administering travel and logistics, and in uncovering intelligence. Thus the most provocative relationship in the film is not between Avner and his men or Avner and his case officer, but Avner and a kind of curious -- and frankly, hard to believe -- French freelance agent who represents an equally curious private intelligence network which, for a high price, can find anyone.

That's pretty much the movie: The team seeks, finds, plans, kills, flees; and then it begins again. The names are supplied by Israeli intelligence; the team members take it on faith that they are serving justice, not vengeance, but the doubt begins to wear on them. Are these targets really directly involved in Munich or are they subsidiary people, killable more because of their accessibility (all are "soft targets") than their actual guilt? That gets a guy down, worrying about stuff like that.

Spielberg has attracted, even before the fact, a great deal of criticism for the crime of moral equivalency; that is, he shows how at the ground level, the ideologies tend to vaporize, and you are left with the squalor of violence. You can hate a man, yes, for what he has done and what he represents, but at a certain point, it's difficult to bear that in mind. If you shoot him in the head, he reacts exactly as a man who is innocent would react: There's really only one way to react to a bullet in the head. The movie is about the cost of such repetition, and how it kills the soul.

In the end, Avner becomes a self-imposed, bitter exile. At one point, when two young Israeli soldiers express admiration for what he's done, he recoils in horror. It's worth repeating, however, that this is a theme Spielberg didn't sound in "Saving Private Ryan." In that film, he argued quite the opposite: Kill them until they're all gone.

But killing, like it or not, is an important issue. Right now, in the sandbox, young Americans are killing in extraordinary numbers. Read David Zucchino's "Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad" and realize that in the rush to the Iraqi capital, American gunners spray-painted literally hundreds of men bright red. The killings, of armed combatants, were all legal and sanctioned at the highest levels of government. And nobody cares. Nobody wonders: What of those machine-gunners? Do they just go back to civilian life with 150 kills on their memory at the age of 21? What's the long-term cost? What's the cost, in short, not of dying, but of killing? How many times can you pull the trigger before you begin to go sour? We owe it to our guys to contemplate the issue.

So give the movie credit for its rigor in facing this depressing problem, and not covering it in Shinola and the other stuff, as do most movies on war or armed conflict. That's very impressive, but at the same time, "Munich" has a few seedy aspects. For one thing, it's strangely obsessed with . . . food? Yeah, food. Avner, a cook, is continually preparing giant meals for the team and as they discuss killing this Black Septemberist or that, they peel potatoes, dice celery, beat eggs. It's very odd.

Then, worse, in a somewhat crude attempt to impose a suspenseful structure, the narrative memories of the Munich massacre are inserted throughout, climaxing in intimate scenes where the Black September terrorists blow up one helicopter and machine-gun the hostages at point-blank range. Problem: Whose memories are these? The cinema grammar of the film places them in Avner's head, though he wasn't there, so who, exactly, is doing the remembering? But Spielberg has done this before (the "false memory" is the central structural device in "Saving Private Ryan"). The bigger problem is the question of appropriateness. It seems almost disrespectful to weave in a provocative re-creation of the killings -- somehow a massacre of unarmed innocents that shocked the world should be more than just fodder for ginning up the tension at the end of a commercial movie.

Then there's a strange, even troubling, episode where the boys hunt down and execute a contract killer -- who has taken out one of their own -- apparently under the pay of the Russians, who are ticked off that the team accidentally whacked a KGB agent when they were blowing up a target in a Cyprus hotel room. The contract killer is, in fact, a beautiful woman and she is, in fact, naked when her executioners arrive with silenced .22s disguised as bicycle pumps. The scene plays out with weird, sadomasochistic sexual overtones that will remind aging boy baby boomers of their most salacious prepubescent memories (guilty!) of the commingling of sex and violence in the famous, near-pornographic ending of Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury." Spielberg may be arguing that, in this case, the hit was not ordered by Jerusalem but is purely at the initiative of the surviving members; the team had become They, The Jury. Nevertheless, the weird, almost pornographic vibration of the sequence is itself completely uncharacteristic of Spielberg and completely gratuitous.

The problem with "Munich" is simple: It asks hard questions and finds easy answers.

Munich (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for intense violence and sexual content.

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