Few actions are apolitical so that in watching a movie, fans and critics alike will often see political agendas or themes in the images created by the moviemaker or through the actions undertaken by the movie’s characters. Movies based on politically sensitive events on the other hand will be judged firstly on their portrayal of the events in question before judging its entertainment value or aesthetics. This is especially true of ‘Munich’, based on the events of the hostage tragedy during the Munich Olympic Games, orchestrated by Palestinian group Black September which lead to the deaths of members of the Israeli Olympic team and the Palestinians themselves. Events and responsibility for actions are especially salient in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with historians and politicians disagreeing on the sequences of events, engaging in blame games, ultimately increasing tensions.
The responsibility of the producers behind ‘Munich’ can be discussed in the broader context of freedom of expression and how individuals, institutions, governments and others portray events- Michael Moore’s tirade against the Bush administration, Eddie Hobbes ‘salvation’ of the Irish consumer, suggestions that the numbers of those killed during the Holocaust have been exaggerated- how do we judge and decide where individuals are being reckless with the truth at the expense of individuals genuine rights and interests. Who can effectively determine what is the truth? Are filmmakers in making entertainment obliged to comply with this ‘truth’? Should artists and activists be given free reign- what about impressionable people for whom this movie will be the closest examination of events they know?
The approach of Spielberg aided by his scribes is to construct a story littered with each point of view through tense exchanges to demonstrate the motives of both sides. For every conversation with a PLO member or wife of one of the organizers of the siege, Avner (Eric Bana) has a conversation with his mother, a faithful Jew or Geoffrey Rush’s character, representing the Israeli government. The approach could have failed, but is gauged and a success in a political dispute where statements and technical wording is all important. The dense quandary that is this dispute does not hamper the film. This film has of course been subject to criticism, as ever it if the Israeli PR machine that criticizes too much, condemning the film for humanizing the actions of the Palestinians.
In trying to offend neither side, the film instead develops through the scenes where the team lead by Eric Bana are not debating the motives or agendas behind their missions but simply questioning their very actions. There is a beautiful scene in a train station on the way to their most questionable death, that of a woman which is not directly linked to their mission and one that serves to strip away any sense of nobility to their purpose. One of the team members, the explosive’s expert, withdraws from the group, displaying his total sense of loss and understanding of what they are doing. He speaks to Bana, a brilliant white background blurring the edges of each man as other passengers are silhouetted in the foreground. This is glorious filmmaking. Spielberg works with the same team on each movie, yet manages to create such distinct pictures. Look at the contrasts of the muted blues of ‘Minority Report’, the 50s day-glow colours of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and in ‘Munich’ the rich matte painting of the various locations across Europe. Within this simple scene, not over stylized nor gut wrenching like other violent scenes in the movie, the first traces of these men beginning to question the value or contribution of their actions emerges and the film finds its voice.
The central character of Avner played with quite grace by Bana, remains steadfast at this stage, committed to killing the men on their list so he can return to his family. He explains that he finds comfort in the confusion- it never letting him stop to seek answers. Gradually, the futility of their actions, the questionable and brutal deaths, the lack of clarity that distinguishes them from the men they are out to kill who will ultimately be replaced by worse means the confusion offers no comfort, only fear, paranoia and doubt. The body of the film is purposely episodic made up of incredibly tense set pieces, in-fighting and gruesome deaths becoming life for these men and all they have is more questions. The film becomes the story of the complete desolation of our hero, one of the great tenets of story telling and one Spielberg delivers to the screen in every film- Hanks, Leeson, Cruise and now Bana consume the screen, completely lost.
There is no resolution and all we have is the confusion, that only points to a disjointed and dangerous world. The film ends with men who thought they were fighting for the same cause parting ways- another shade of grey in a melee of different factions, states, lobby groups and vigilantes which emerge throughout the film to show there can be no easy or uniform solution. So much of history has been this dispute, including the few days events that inspired the film, it has created the problems and such differences are entrenched and political expediency is so dominant that the lives of the largest group of refugees on the planet and a race that seek to protect their heritage are mere pawns in international politics and terror. You can’t take a stance on which side the judges hammer should fall, doing so you are placing differing values on lives which no man has a right to do. Watch this movie and take in its final shot and become less satisfied with every answer you hear and finally we can get around to asking the right questions.