Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Munich (2005)

Welcome to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  We're only a few weeks away from this year's ceremony....

Today's subject is another film I'm ashamed to admit I just now got around to watching.  There's a pair of years in the mid-aughts where the one Best Pic nominee I hadn't seen up until recently was directed by one of my all-time favorites.  In the case of 2004 it was Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, and for 2005 it was Steven Spielberg's powerful, gripping political thriller Munich, about a team of Mossad agents tasked by the Israeli government with assassinating a slew of Palestinian targets, in retaliation for the terrorist attack during the 1972 Olympics.  Led by Avner Kaufman (in a pretty spellbinding performance by Eric Bana), the team spends hundreds of thousands of US dollars searching the entire European continent for the targets and picks them off one by one.  

Despite wanting to maintain plausible deniability for the assassinations, the Israeli government, via Kaufman's handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) insists that the team use bombs as their primary weapon, in order to make as high-profile a statement as possible.  The goal is to make examples of these targets and deter future terrorist attacks, but of course as the story progresses and the team really begins to consider the consequences of this mission, the unavoidable question arises, "But what happens when they retaliate against our retaliation?"
Spielberg and his collaborators expertly draw us in at the outset, the Olympics hostage situation serving as an inciting incident that compels us to identify with Kaufman's team and their mission.  We fully accept that these assassinations are justified, a righteous response to a heinous terrorist threat.  The early sequences depicting their mission play out like a riveting action thriller, in particular a scene where they plant a bomb in one target's phone and wait for his wife and daughter to leave the apartment so they can call him and trigger the explosion.  But they don't see his daughter run back upstairs to retrieve something she forgot, and when she unexpectedly answers the phone they scramble to prevent a horrific misstep.  Another sequence involves a bomb under a hotel room mattress, where Kaufman must signal the trigger man from an adjacent room, not knowing if the explosion will kill him too.  These sequences are rife with suspense, and we are fully on board with the mission, confident that the team is on the side of justice.  

But as the team completes more of their assignment, each of them (and in turn the audience) begins to question the morality of it all, not to mention the effectiveness.  Will responding to violence with more violence prevent future attacks, or will it breed further acts of terrorism?  Does removing the head of a terrorist group bring down the group, or will a new leader spring up in his place?  Kaufman slips down this rabbit hole, at one point answering the question "How many killings are enough?" with "As many as it takes."  Later as he battles depression, PTSD, and paranoia so severe he has to sleep in his closet because it's the only safe place, he comes to understand what a dangerous game one-upmanship really is.

Munich was released only a few years after 9/11, when America was mired in the War on Terror, waging two simultaneous fruitless wars, one against a country that wasn't even involved in 9/11.  No points for spotting the symbolism of the film's final shot - a view of the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn, the World Trade Center prominently visible in the distance.  The film wisely doesn't truly take a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but instead forces us to think about what its ultimate price is; in the grand scheme what peace can ever come from an endless cycle of escalation?

Another triumph in Steven Spielberg's filmography, Munich fascinates us with a harrowingly detailed procedural thriller and then leaves us haunted and horrified as we come to realize its terrible cost.

I give Munich **** out of ****.

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