REVIEW: Munich

Note: contains spoilers and politics.

The most frequently-misused word in the modern English-speaking world, and likely not without intent, is “violence.” In modern parlance, it has come to define all forms of deadly force, which is simply a matter of mis-definition. This should be obvious: The “root” of violence is violation, or rather “to violate,” as in to force into or upon someone or something without right or justification.

In the cleanest of terms, the stranger or foe who leaps from the shadows and attacks you without cause “does violence” to you by violating your personal space and right not to be attacked without justification; but when you take a swing and break his jaw in self-defense you have not “done violence” to him, you have merely “used force.” Because he cedes his rights to space and safety by infringing on yours without just cause, there is no violation and thus no violence on you’re part. (Hence why police who go to rough on criminals they arrest are charged with “excessive force” instead of “excessive violence.”)

Modern parlance, bowing to the ludicrous over-application of postmodern “relitavist” philosophy, has managed to boil ALL force down to “violence” in the minds of many, a by-product of the mushy logic that holds ALL “opinions” (as opposed to all INFORMED opinions) hold equal weight if you squint hard enough. Thus, so goes the “logic,” if all force is a violation in someone’s opinion, then all force must be violence. And since basic laws of action and reaction dictate the force is most often met by force, we come to the favorite trope of the “civilized” guilt-complex: “The cycle of violence.” Or, as you’ve heard it more colorfully put “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

This notion is, of course, not without merit in many cases. But it doesn’t apply across the board, or even (I’d argue) in a majority of instances where force is used against force. In the case of “Munich,” much has already been said about your belief (or disbelief) that the “endless cycle of violence” model fits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a deciding factor in how you eventually feel about the film.

Let is also be said that I do not. Many who also do not have dismissed “Munich” out of hand for this. I, on the other hand, do not demand that a film match my political beliefs in order to draw from me a proper review. As in all cases, I only ever ask that a film fulfill the basic requirements of filmmaking and be worthwhile in it’s own right. A movie gets no pass from me because I agree with it’s “message,” but also gets no “extra venom” for advocating a position opposite to mine (advocating a position opposite to truth is another matter.)

Now here’s the kicker: Those expecting a political film out of “Munich” are in for a rude surprise, no matter which politics they were expecting. Yes, it raises questions and deals in moral gray-areas, but for all the early hype about the film’s message (pro-Israel? anti-Israel? allegorical Bush-bashing?) something has been lost entirely, and that something you need to know about:

“Munich” is, first and foremost, a spy movie. A great spy movie. A bad-ass, ultra-violent, bloody-as-hell spy movie. What can only be described as truly misguided marketing campaign has got the world convinced that Spielberg has released a stodgy meditation on the meaninglessness of violence, when in fact he’s gone and made the bloodiest assassin movie in years, along with the first great spy thriller of the new millenium.

The story, you’re already aware, is set in the 70s following the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists of the Black September organization. The film opens with a dramatization of the key turning point in modern Middle Eastern politics: Israel’s decision to finally take the gloves off and go on the offensive against the groups, nations and peoples that have sworn a religious oath to wipe them out. Priority one: hunt down and kill the eleven surviving men most responsible for plotting Munich. Eleven lives for eleven lives, each to be hunted secretly but eliminated publically and spectacularly (preferably with bombs) so that each new body might begin “putting terror into the hearts of the terrorists.”

Eric Bana stars as Avner, an agent and patriot of Israel tipped to head up one of the ultra-secret Moussad hit-squads. He and his men; a bombmaker, an accountant, a clean-up man and a stone-cold hardcase played by 007-to-be Daniel Craig; strike out across Europe with a to-do list of Arab names and only the most essential of tools to get the job done.

And get the job done they do. While it’s true that the film’s lengthy running time allows for ample reflection on the morality of assassination by it’s heroes (only Craig’s character openly claims no remorse or moral qualms about his mission,) Spielberg doesn’t for a moment skimp on the “money shots” of what very frequently become blood-soaked action scenes: A bedroom bomb leaves a messy severed arm dangling from the ceiling, impromptu gunfights riddle actors with juicy squibs of movie-blood, and one hit on an unexpected target creates 2005’s grimest, goriest tableau- more alarming, even, than those from the thematically and stylistically similar “A History of Violence.” You heard me: Steven Spielberg has out-bloodied David Cronenberg.

Between (and occasionally during) the bigger moments, the film finds it’s full greatness by building on the personalities of it’s characters and the complexity of it’s situation. In the course of their so-secret-it’s-not-on-any-books mission, Avner’s men cross paths with everyone from CIA agents to information-selling French anarchists to actual Palestinian terrorists, and the further they sink into the confusion of international espionage the more they find themselves changing from the experience.

But the fears that the film might morph into a kind of “peace on Earth” screed or justification of Palestinian aggression turn out to be unfounded: This is too smart a movie to be take any kind of simple track on either side. While Avner and others grow disillusioned and paranoid, Craig’s hardcase stays focused for the whole mission, proudly declares that the only blood that matters to him is Jewish blood, and is never called wrong or even made to be unlikable because of this. Meanwhile, Avner is shown experiencing imagined visions of the actual Munich murders, which leads to more impressive bloodletting and seems to imply that he summons these “memories” in order to drive himself onward.

“Munich” does ask whether or not retaliation like this is really the wisest policy in the long run, but it never answers the question yes or no. Interestingly, the story includes a “side-adventure” involving a nonpolitical, in fact very personal, revenge-killing which is played both as catharsis and as a more-or-less justified action. It’s possible, I think, that this scene (you’ll know it when you see it) exists to underline an admission by the film (and it’s director?) that sometimes revenge may be a necessary part of justice. Or, at least, that it “understands” what the need for vengeance is.

Steven Spielberg has made his best film since “Saving Private Ryan,” a knockout of a spy thriller that is a no-contest must-see for those bemoaning the lack of great espionage movies. As for the politics, do what the movie does and put them second to the experience, namely the experience of watching one of 2005’s best films.

See this now.


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