The History Place - Movie Review


By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

The alternative title for Steven Spielberg's "Munich" might be "Ambiguity." The two-hour and forty-five-minute film, which opened about a week ago to the instant acclaim of a Time Magazine cover story, is reminiscent of LeCarre at his best. Not since "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the BBC mini-series set in roughly the same era, have the moral dilemmas of our post-WWII world been explored so mercilessly.

In the wake of the 1972 slaughter of Israel's Olympians, the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, sets loose a team of unlikely assassins: a toy-maker turned bomb fabricator, an antique dealer turned document forger, and two other, equally-unlikely operatives, all led by a desk jockey tackling his first field assignment. Like the GIs of Spielberg's earlier "Saving Private Ryan," they are civilian-soldiers learning their nasty, new trade of killing on the job.

Learning by trial and error how to make the 'Goldilocks' bomb -- not too puny, not too powerful -- turns out to be child's play compared to learning how to live with their dastardly deeds. As he did unforgettably on the beaches of Normandy, Spielberg again makes death and dying into the gory realities they really are. After the team ambush and shoot their first target, we see tiny puffs of smoke wafting from the bullet holes in his overcoat.

Collateral damage is inevitable, though the team tries heroically to spare innocent passersby and their intended targets' family members. But their bombs and bullets aren't so discerning. Additionally, each successful "hit" unleashes a chain reaction of Palestinian reprisals -- all those airport shootings, car bombings and other terrorist attacks which marked the 1970s as indelibly as America's retreat from Vietnam and Nixon's retreat from the White House. As the body count mounts, team members lose commitment and heart. They begin to wonder aloud whether the new terrorists taking the place of their now-deceased targets aren't worse than the ones they've eliminated.

Worse still, the Mossad team gradually becomes caught up in a game of double and triple crosses. The Palestinian who planned the Munich atrocity turns out to be on the payroll of the CIA. He keeps his bloody hands off American soil and the Central Intelligence Agency bankrolls -- well, whatever it is he's going to do next. One result is an assassination attempt gone awry on a London street, when drunken Yanks -- are they CIA or aren't they? -- interfere at the moment of truth.

Collateral damage eventually includes the killing of a KGB bodyguard assigned to yet another Mossad target. This mishap, combined with the team's ever-increasing reliance on a family of French mercenary private-eyes to identify and locate their Palestinian targets, results in the hunters becoming the hunted. When one of the five is found shot to death in his hotel room after picking up a hooker, the survivors learn that she's a Dutch freelance assassin. Off they go on a holiday to Holland for a little freelance "wet work" of their own. Although she's killed a team member whom the audience has been made to like intensely, her own death is a poignant rebuke to his avengers.

When two more team members die, we are left wondering, was it murder or was it suicide?

In the end -- and to say more might spoil the climax of what is at one level a well-crafted thriller -- the team leader is left looking over his shoulder, wondering if even his own side has singled him out for elimination. He's also stuck in the moral quagmire of wondering whether the world, or even Israel, is better off for all his crimes and sacrifices. Isn't there an endless supply of terrorists? And isn't the new generation of terrorist leaders worse than the ones who plotted the Munich attack?

As if answering those questions, Spielberg closes his film with a panoramic shot of lower Manhattan -- a shot which required him to insert a computer-generated image of the World Trade Center, which was still standing tall in 1973, when the story ends.

Rated R - For violence, sexual content and language.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

Munich - Official Website
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