in Oscars Fortnight

Munich (2005)

The 78th Academy Awards (2006)
Nominations: 5
Wins: 0

Hollywood loves revenge. It’s one of the easiest ways to simultaneously motivate a character and get the audience on their side. It doesn’t matter if you’re Batman or Beatrix Kiddo, as long as you’re trying to right as perceived wrong, that’s a compelling story we’ll all want to see. As an added bonus, revenge stories come pre-packaged with ethical dilemmas for filmmakers to sink their teeth into: what does justice look like? Who decides when enough is enough? Do the ends justify the means? Ultimately: is revenge ever the best course of action? Increasingly, I find my answer to that question is no. And based on 2005’s Munich, I think Steven Spielberg agrees with me.

A globetrotting thriller set during the mid-1970s, Munich follows Eric Bana as Avner, a Mossad agent chosen to assassinate 11 Palestinians who were connected to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Despite having a pregnant wife back at home, Avner takes his assignment without asking any questions and quickly allows his handler (Geoffrey Rush) to erase his identity. The handler provides Avner the resources to put together a team (including two familiar faces, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds) and get in contact with an information broker (Mathieu Amalric) to find his targets. In seemingly no time at all, Avner and his team are taking hits out in Rome, Paris, Cyprus… nowhere is safe.

Eventually this lifestyle begins to take a toll, as is bound to happen. The team argues about collateral damage and innocent bystanders getting killed. They struggle to determine who all their targets are connected to: the PLO? The KGB? The CIA? Mossad? Probably all of them. Shit gets even more real when attacks against Israeli embassies occur as retribution and Avner and the others discover that they themselves have become the targets of other assassins. Can they survive long enough to finish their mission? Is it even worth it?

I don’t think it’s possible to view Munich without thinking it’s Spielberg’s (and screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth’s) reaction to 9/11. I mean, the last shot of the movie is the Twin Towers. And it’s similarly unambiguous what the movie had to say: revenge is an impossible goal to attain. Avner’s life is ruined by his mission, and in the end his handler reminds him that he was one of many, that everything continues without him. “Every man we killed has been replaced by worse,” Avner says, to which he coldly replies, “Why cut my fingernails? They’ll grow back.” You go down this road and all you do is make yourself worse for wear.

Munich may be the only movie in our fortnight that did not actually win any Oscars. The 2000s were a weird decade for Spielberg, who maybe felt he had nowhere left to go after mastering the blockbuster in the eighties and achieving artistic validation with two Best Director wins in the nineties. He tried wrestling with science fiction a few more times, with Minority Report being one of his better efforts in the genre. But mostly I remember it as the time of long-awaited projects slowly dragging themselves across the finish line, movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, and Lincoln, which seemed like they were in development forever. It sort of feels like a lost decade for Spielberg, even though I would argue all seven movies he made were at least OK.

I started this review by declaring that Hollywood loves revenge. I think that’s because it’s the simplest form of storytelling: cause and effect. But life isn’t that simple and our stories don’t have to be either. A child telling a story might just list things happening. Cause and effect, as Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s plotting advice might remind you, is just one step up from that: “if the words ‘and then’ belong between [your story] beats, you’re fucked… What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’.” I think we need to demand more sophisticated storytelling then that. Or at least more stories that are as thoughtful as Munich.