Spielberg: Munich

Spielberg’s Munich (2005) can be read as a companion piece to the more focused Schindler’s List (1993), but it’s probably best not to approach it that way. Munich is an out-and-out political thriller that also wants to be a psychological examination of one man’s slide into moral murk. It is possible for a film to be both, of course, but Spielberg can’t figure out how to do both at once.

As a result, Munich’s running time comes in at a patience-testing 164 minutes: not that long for a feature film, but by God does the time drag by. It felt like watching all three episodes of a miniseries back-to-back. It was, therefore, no surprise to discover that Munich began life as just that – a 1986 Canadian TV miniseries called Sword of Gideon, that was in turn based on a book.

We first meet our ‘hero’, Avner (Eric Bana), hanging out at home with his wife (caution: unless you have a very relaxed workplace, this is NSFW):


So let’s be clear – Avner loves his wife, and he’s about to become a father. Obviously things can’t continue in this happy vein. He has to become embroiled in a Mossad operation to assassinate the Black September terrorist group who were responsible for the deaths of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, risking his life and his very soul in the process.

But he’ll have help, of course, from various people. Including Daniel Craig as a South African Jew named ‘Steve’ …


… who’s presumably not just an older version of this character:


Of course, this “The only blood that matters is Jewish blood” approach is only helpful if Avner isn’t going to have to listen to the other side of the argument. Thanks to a ridiculous plot device that requires the audience to accept that all of Mossad’s information is coming from a single informant, Avner and his team wind up sharing a grungy safehouse in Athens with a group of PLO members. Pretending to be affiliated with other revolutionary groups like the ANC and ETA, the Mossad agents feel safe enough to engage in some very superficial conversation about the Palestine problem:


This turns out to be safer than talking to the female agent at the hotel bar in London:


Although she all but announces that she too is a spy, and Avner warns Erik (Ciaran Hinds) against her – “Look out for the local honey trap. You can’t miss her, and you don’t want to” – poor old Erik can’t help himself and winds up getting killed. (It’s never made clear of the woman does the hit herself.) Going off mission, Avner and Steve hunt her down to the Netherlands and shoot her in one of the most repellent scenes of misogyny ever committed to film.

Steve and Avner find her reading on her houseboat – she’s Dutch, so of course she lives on a houseboat – clad in nothing but a silky dressing gown. After using the “Helen of Troy defence” (baring her breasts and declaring “What a fucking waste”) to no effect, the Dutch woman is then shot several times and dies the slowest death in a movie stuffed with onscreen deaths. As a final insult, when Avner tries to close her robe a third member of the team insists it’s left open so that her nude corpse is displayed. Admittedly, remorse is later expressed for this indignity, but given all the other terrible things the Mossad agents have to feel ashamed of – for example, the little girl whose father is blown to smithereens in the family home moments after she kisses him goodbye – the treatment of the Dutch spy’s murder is simply inexcusable. It also does nothing to advance plot and character development in a film already lumbering under the weight of its own self-importance and a script in desperate need of a damn good edit.

Although filmed in part in Malta, which stood in for Rome, at times Munich has an amusingly clichéd approach to scene setting that’s not worthy of a director of Spielberg’s experience: how will I let the audience know we’re in Paris? I know – let’s film Avner’s first encounter with his contact directly in front of the Eiffel Tower while a woman wearing a beret and carrying a baguette strolls past in the background. If it’s the Netherlands, we must have a houseboat, a canal and bicycles!

The performances in this film are all but beyond reproach – it’s the script and direction that let the cast down, and nowhere is this more evident than the ‘climatic’ sex scene between Avner and his wife. It comes toward the end of the film, when Avner has carried out the last of his state-ordered executions and gone into hiding in New York with his family. This version has been very, very slightly re-edited for comedic effect, but I think you’ll agree no tweaking was necessary (needless to say, this is most likely NSFW):


Be shocked not, gentle reader, that this came in at number 11 on IFC.com’s list of the 50 worst sex scenes of all time. I think Spielberg’s intent here was clear, particularly when contrasted with the first sex scene between Avner and his wife – which was focused on her and far more tender. But as other critics of the film have pointed out, Avner wasn’t present at the Munich massacre, so given all the deeply grim things he’s done himself why aren’t his nightmarish visions about those? As IFC put it:

“Timed just as the hostages are shot and blown up in his vision, Avner has a big ol’ crying, drooling, impassioned orgasm … an intended moment of moral complexity made clunkily simplistic and laughable.”

Despite it’s good looks, good intentions and sterling cast, “clunkily simplistic” is as good a summation as I can think of for Munich as a whole.

Clare Moody

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