This is a serious movie. It’s spun as a “thriller,” but don’t go expecting James Bond or anything like that. If you get the DVD, watch Spielberg’s introductory. It does set the stage well so you know what he’s trying to do here. And that is to more or less go back to the first terrorist incident to capture American attention (or at least hold its interest for a few days) and follow how it played out. Pretty heady subject matter given the “Post 9/11 World” we live in.
The story is “based on actual events” but is still somewhat fiction. Partly because the actual records are classified. The film traces what happened following the killing of the Israeli Olypmpic team by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich games in 1972. And that was to clandestinely hunt down those responsible and kill them.
Probably the easiest way to describe this movie is to highight some things which I found interesting or thought provoking. Then wrap it up at the end.
- The way the Israelis made their decision to go after the terrorists. The speed and efficiency of their process is amazing, given what we go through in Washington. Yet they never left their morals behind. They made the decision with that impact taken into account. But there was no messing around in commitee.
- The way they handled the operation was also abrupt and hard-edged. The operatives were off the grid, paid through an anonymous Swiss bank account. The team leader had 24 hours to decide if he was willing to leave his family for possibly years. Again, stark contrast to today’s world.
- The flash-backs to the Munich event are quite brutal. Terrorists in movies are usually cast as somewhat sympathetic. Not in “Munich”; they are butchers. At the same time, the PLO members that the Mossad team meets during the film are shown to be closer to freedom fighters. Their point of view is well represented in these scenes. In this regard, “Munich” is one of the most balanced films dealing with the Middle East and terrorism to come around.
- The involvement of the CIA and KGB is the “thriller” part. Once things start rolling it gets tough to know who is who outside the team. Their informant, a former member of the French Underground in WW2, is at once trustworthy and unscrupulous. You take him at his word, but at the same time he is in the business of selling information, and business is business. A very warped world these people live in. And a view into it that we rarely get. Not that the Mossad is much better – it becomes clear that some of the targets were put on the list because they needed killing, not because they were involved with the actual Munich event. Who do you trust? No one.
- The actual killings are the obvious work of people not trained for the job and who are learning as they go. They have military training, but the bombs don’t work right, signals get crossed, and there’s lots of collateral damage. There’s a raid in Lebanon which is almost John Wayne-esque in the way it is handled. Once again, the speed and efficiency of Israeli operations is evident. What they may lack in planning they make up for with the ability to adapt and improvise. What’s interesting about this is that the typical long “briefing scenes” are missing – they decide, gather resources, and go.
- The emotional toll on the team (not to mention the phyiscal toll – 3 of the 5 are killed) is very well portrayed. When is killing justified? Are we no better than the people we are killing? Must we abandon our values to survive? Very important questions, especially these days. Some of the team is emotional torn by all this. The older members, the veterans of other wars and darker times are not. And that is also interesting. Usually spy movies have the young guys being the most “dangerous.” In “Munich” it is the two older team members who, while personable in conversation, have a coldness about the work that is a stark contrast to the younger members. It is clear that the older members will kill without though or remorse.
All in all this is a really good film. It’s not “entertainment” – but it portrays an event that younger people may not remember or have heard about much. An event which bears examining – both for the wave of terrorism that followed it, and for how Israel dealt with it. Don’t watch this to be entertained, watch it to learn.