Munich is not Steven Spielberg’s best film, but it is his most important one right now.
It’s a film about the danger of knee-jerk emotional responses by apparently ‘responsible’ states in times of crisis, about a cycle of violence propagated by a refusal to explore options beyond taking an eye-for-an-eye-style approach. It’s about how applying a good vs evil narrative to a difficult story, and treating a severely complicated situation like it’s a straightforward one, necessarily only complicates the picture further. How very timely.
Munich isn’t a film you’d have expected Steven Spielberg to make. Not because it’s so flagrantly adult (despite his reputation, Spielberg has never been just a peddler of family entertainment; Munich was released in 2005, by which point the Beard had already done harrowing wartime dramas Schindler’s List and Empire Of The Sun), nor because it’s so jaded and unsentimental. No, the most surprising thing about Munich is how complex it is. It’s thematically entangled, where Spielberg’s prior ‘mature’ feature, Saving Private Ryan, is almost cartoonish in its separation of combatants into good guys and baddies.
Munich begins with the horror of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists belonging to the group Black September took hostage then massacred 11 Israeli athletes. Israel’s reaction is to create a squad of hitmen – led by Eric Bana’s idealistic Avner – to take those responsible out. Avner and team kill their targets, but the dead are replaced by even worse. Avner and his hit squad themselves become targets, and fight back harder, losing men of their own to the Hydra. As both sides turn ever more savage, it becomes evident to Avner that he’s entered a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.
After the Paris attacks on November 13th, the response of Western powers was to seek revenge. Almost immediately France bombed the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa in retaliation, and called on its allies to assist in obliterating the so-called Islamic State. Before Christmas, the UK voted to begin airstrikes on Syria, despite protestations from opponents that previous violent intervention by Britain and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya had only increased radicalisation and made the regions less stable. There were calls to try alternative solutions this time – cutting off sources of funding to Daesh, empowering local allies like the Kurdish Peshmerga, ending the civil war in Syria that has been said to feed Daesh – but those calls went unheeded.
Munich doesn’t attempt to simplify its central conflict or depict either side in its ‘war’ as righteous. The film caused controversy like no Spielberg movie before or since. That’s partly because it doesn’t offer a solution to the bitter ongoing battle between Israel and Palestine, and through its naïve protagonist Munich questions what the point in all the bloodshed has been. The film, shocking in its brutality, says that responding to violence with more violence only degrades the situation. Munich, with its sympathetic depiction of both its opposing factions, asks us to consider that war is almost always much more complicated than we’re often told.
It asks us to delve deeper, and recognise the complexity: that Qatar and Kuwait are officially at war with Daesh while certain Qatari and Kuwaiti citizens privately aid the ‘Islamic’ state; that the US is apprehensive about damaging Daesh’s oil production (its main source of income after drugs) because rebels opposing Syrian dictator and Western enemy Bashar Al-Assad rely upon it; that Saudi Arabia’s – the “ISIS that’s made it” – state laws are virtually identical to those of Daesh. Daesh has in truth been coming for decades, after Iraq became a region of instability following the 2003 Iraq War, and after the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s gave rise to al-Qaeda, the group which Daesh eventually ‘span off’ from. And as the West continues to funnel money into Saudi Arabia, it ignores that the country funds the global growth of Wahhabism, an extreme fringe form of Islam that has given rise to al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and now Daesh.
In Munich, the Israeli ‘solution’ is to ignore any complexity and hope for the best from further killing – killing that inevitably leaves innocents dead, inflates the anger of the opposition and exacerbates the division between either side. You see how well such an approach works out.
“One day I’m going to wake up, I’m going to kill… I’m not going to feel anything at all”, Avner dispassionately declares after his team execute a Dutch assassin in cold blood. Avner is at this point in the film how we are in the West right now: numb to the slaughter, but dutifully pressing ahead with more anyway.
By this point in Munich, Avner realises that what he does isn’t working, but forges onward regardless – because he’s trapped in the cycle. So he just continues to pound away, putting bullet after bullet into the endless chain of targets in the vain hope his war will eventually end, as we in the West hope something else won’t come after Iraq won’t come after Libya won’t come after Syria (for those looking to the future, Yemen is currently home to a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Daesh is already using that conflict to grow there).
The most recent Spielberg movie has an important message of its own: Bridge Of Spies suggests that getting to understand one’s enemy and treating the opposite number with caution and intelligence can solve the problem. It’s a nice thought. Munich unfortunately is the Spielberg movie most relevant for today. It doesn’t offer any suggestions for solutions like Bridge Of Spies does. Munich instead offers a clear, simple warning: that responding with violence alone only leads to further violence.
There, at the end of this jarringly cynical film, is a shot of the World Trade Center, making a point about causality. Continuing down this road of black and white, of eye-for-an-eye, without acknowledging the complexity and exploring all the options available, Munich appears to be saying that further bloodshed only lies ahead.