One scene in “Munich” typifies the movie’s troubling duality. A beautiful Dutch spy is killed on her houseboat in retribution for her murder of a Mossad agent. She is surprised at home still in bed, her lovely body wrapped in an elegant silk robe that falls open after she is shot the first time. The scene continues. She goes to pick up her cat, dazed and woozy from her wound. Then she is shot again and collapses into a deck chair. Her robe sags open in the breeze, and the camera fixes on her exposed body, still beautiful and yet as lifeless as a corpse on a slab.
The scene is a haunting depiction of cold-blooded, face-to-face murder. The agents perform a humdrum task. No time-bombs exploding, no car chases, no helicopter stunts. There’s no cutting away. No quick escape. A life is interrupted—houseboat, river, lovely morning, newspaper, cat, coffee—and then summarily extinguished. They, and we, watch the woman die. Spielberg wants us to feel the full weight of the killing. On the other hand, the use of the woman’s beauty to emphasize the horror of murder, turning it into a perversion of eroticism or the violation of a feminine ideal, is a thudding cliché and softens the scene’s moral punch. Spielberg’s aesthetics constantly clash with the intellectual rigor of his story.
Much of “Munich” repeats some variation of this clash. When Spielberg gets the balance right, his film dazzles the eye and provokes the mind. The team of Mossad hit men, waiting to detonate a phone bomb in the street below while a little girl runs back into her house, is an obstreperous ticking time-bomb suspense piece, but even Hitchcock would have loved the pinpoint timing of the edits and the perfect camera placements. Here the consequences of Israel’s revenge for the massacre of their athletes neatly matches the cinematic demands of a spy thriller.
When he gets it wrong, Spielberg swerves in one direction or another. Either a scene is all conversation, and boringly uncinematic, or too crowded with cinematic artistry to let its intellectual themes breathe. Spielberg’s problem is that his eye is surer than his mind, his moviemaking instincts sharper than his intellect. In Spielberg’s mature films, ones that tackle history or topical issues, there is no easy marriage of thought and cinema. He is an utterly bourgeois filmmaker, yet he keeps tackling complex moral dilemmas. The resulting movies make for a maddening, cumbersome, fitfully brilliant combination of honorable philosophical questing and nuts-and-bolts movie thrills. “Munich” is a high-point of muddled cinema, and if that sounds like strange praise, wait for this: this movie is the best of 2005.
If “Munich” were nothing more than a conversation-starter, it would have tremendous value. In squeezing drama from mind-boggling geopolitics, the screenplay is everything “Syriana” tried to be but couldn’t. Observers and critics agree that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner played fast and loose with the material (“Vengeance”, the book on which this movie and “Sword of Gideon” was based, is only said to be an “inspiration”). Some think he went way overboard, some think he made smaller embellishments.
A major point which Spielberg made into a minor one was the fact that the Germans—and the world—seemed utterly indifferent to Israel after the massacre. The mood and attitude were felt in a few scenes early in the movie, but maybe not sufficiently enough. The Israelis really believed their backs were against the wall and their hit-team solution was the only possible way to get justice. This should have been a crucial part of the scene-setting.
Generally, though, the screenplay presents the different sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intelligence, sobriety, and fairness. Each character’s point of view is articulated carefully and without resorting to didacticism or preachiness. Golda Meir’s speech in the first hours after the murder of the athletes is succinct and chilling. She manages to embod in her tiny aging frame a great civilization turning wearily to the compromising task of meeting savagery with savagery.
This speech is key to understanding “Munich”. Charges of moral equivalency or appeasement against this film are totally unfounded. Spielberg is careful to telegraph the theme of the movie in Meir’s words. The purpose of the film is not to humanize the killers or suggest that there is no distinction between good people who kill and evil people who murder, although at different times these are flirted with. Nor does the movie suggest that Israel should have done nothing. Very simply, “Munich” examines the question of law: how far does a civilized nation bend its own laws to punish its enemies? Avner’s final objections to Geoffrey Rush are even expressed as an objection not to killing but to illegality. He demands to see the proof of guilt, and Rush has none.
Avner’s role in the film is the second, crucial point about “Munich”. There is much talk in the film about Jews or Israelis as abstract entities—a people and a nation—and how they are to co-exist with outsiders. A running theme is the idea of home. Avner is both an individual man, husband, and father, and yet he is also a Jew and an Israeli. What are his obligations to each part of his identity? But from a different, narrower perspective, “Munich” is the story of an operative in the field with almost no way of verifying the integrity of the orders he is given. Many of Avner’s objections to the mission, which become more and more paranoiac and vivid, are those of a spy grappling with the problem familiar to intelligence agents, namely, intelligence. Who is calling the shots? Who is lying? Who can be trusted? “Munich” has all the twists and turns of the classic spy movie in this sense. Up is down, black is white, nobody can be trusted; by the end of the movie, Avner is sleeping in closets—exactly what happens, according to another character, to spies who have become lost in the labyrinth.
Spielberg is self-conscious of the ambiguities in his movie and in the actual historical record. He employs a subtle visual theme to mainfest the problem of perspective, which ties in directly to Avner’s paranoia and his moral doubts. Most of the camera shots were designed so that at key moments in each scene one character sees another character or event from a narrow angle or in a reflected surface. In a lot of the car scenes, they’re looking in rear-view mirrors and relying on oblique angles to see. In one or two cases, like the Palestinian girl, or when Avner is in the hotel room next door, they’re not looking directly at their targets at all. Or, when Avner peers through the scope, he doesn’t see the Palestinian boy on the grounds. There’s an early scene when we watch a terrorist on television on one half of the screen and on the other half he looks out at soldiers. Spielberg uses the camera to illustrate the difficulty of understanding and interpreting people and events when we are forced to rely on distortions, reflections, keyhole glimpses, obstructed views, narrow perspectives—or when, for example, we attempt to make sense of history through a movie.