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Review: Munich (DVD)

Steven Spielberg Script by Tony Kushner

Gerry Fitzpatrick

24 October 2006

This film will not be one of Spielberg’s successes – for the simple reason that it tries to walk a tightrope. The subject is the story of the assassination squad that was set up by the Israeli government in response to the deaths of Israeli athletes at Munich in September 1972.

Spielberg’s enactment of the killings at Munich airport shows clearly that it was the German police who fired first, and that this had the effect of changing the PLO hostage operation into a suicide mission. Here Spielberg clearly implies that the PLO unit was panicked into killing their hostages. The implication being, that their actions were acts of desperation. But this randomness is deliberate because Spielberg wants the audience to expect the standard war film shape – ‘they’(the PLO) are irrational and abominable, ‘we’(the Israelis) who represent reason and the good – will stop them. 

The first indication that the film is not following the standard war film shape occurs when the man who is detailed to pick the assassination team selects the ‘leader’ because of his inexperience and then orders him to resign from Mossad. This to a Belfast audience of course stirs interest because it is the standard procedure to set up what is known as a ‘counter-gang’ i.e. a group with a deniable connection to the government who are running/supporting the group. Part of the groups’ function is to de-politicise the conflict to give the appearance of cycles of irrational or ‘motiveless’ acts in the same way that the sectarian killings carried out by unionist death squads were depicted by the police here.

But their primary function of the killings is of course to strike fear and terror into the opposition.

 ‘Acting alone’ also has the effect on the group of having to find other sources of information to find its targets (something that didn’t happen here of course, as Loyalists had full British support in the shape of the Force Research Unit). Without any information,  the Mossad group uses paid informers to find its targets, which turn out to be mostly PLO officals.  Here Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, really try to give us the full horror of what the team did.

In this they can only fail, and I would say the producers also accept this, because the effect that Spielberg wants us to feel is a kind of strangeness, that can only come about when we identify with the group – not politically, but as participants in this lurid nightmare. The script in conjunction with probably the best camera work and editing I have seen in a long time, manages to suggest the confused state of mind the actions of the death squad produce in the gang members participating in the slaughter. 

So what does the film do with this confused ‘consciousness’ that it manages very skillfully to give the gang members and its leaders? It has the effect of giving depth to the doubts that they feel about their actions. 

In a film about an assassination squad we would expect chaos and death as be part of what we see them doing, but what if the gang in the end, can’t justify their own actions to themselves? What then? These are questions the film seems to be asking – questions most felt by those who would identify with Israel.  It’s here that the inexperience I spoke of earlier comes into play, as Spielberg implies that even if the gang had been much colder and more professional – it still would not have made what they did right. Because their inexperience allows them to see in the end, that actually it’s all wrong – the whole conflict – the whole war. The sheer absurdity and oddness of that is captured in one scene when the young gang leader visits his mother who says to him ‘I don’t know what you did’ and ‘at least now we have a place’ meaning most will never know (or want to know) the horror and the chaos that is necessary to maintain Israel. 

This is a devastating conclusion from Kushner, who has made his support for Israel very clear in his previous work, Angels in America. 

But a lot has happened since then, as the film clearly implies, as we see when the gang leaders final meeting with his boss ends and the camera brings into view the Twin Towers.  But of course the Towers were attacked by another group of assassins, a group of fundamentalist Muslim killers that were originally a thousand times more effectively supported by America than Israeli support for this particular gang of assassins. 


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