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film review ****: Spielberg...s Prayer for Peace

Aftermath of ...Munich... Olympics Massacre Offers Universal Message

By Kevin Der


Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth

Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush

Rated R

Now Playing

In a matter of days, the 2006 Winter Olympics will begin in Torino, Italy. With the world watching, athletes from around the globe will gather to compete in events that test their endurance, skill, and determination. Probably no other event on the planet brings together as many citizens from as many countries. Now imagine that our athletes in Torino are taken hostage and murdered by some foreign militant group. Would the United States respond with military force? I believe we all know the answer to that. But Steven Spielberg would have something to say about it.

“Munich” is inspired by the very real events of the 1972 Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. Offering flashbacks to this event, the film mainly focuses on the Israeli squad of five intelligence agents assigned to find and kill the Palestinians responsible for planning the attack in Munich. They begin to carry out their assignments obediently, but as each successive killing grows more difficult and costly, the men not only start to question the morality of their actions but also become increasingly burdened by feelings of guilt.

Eric Bana portrays Avner, the leader of the squad, who leaves his wife and unborn child to conduct these operations about Europe. He is a loyal Israeli, a skilled cook, and a devoted father. As his men enjoy a home-cooked meal upon meeting each other, they laugh and tell stories, unaware that their actions of reciprocity will soon cost them their lives or their sanity.

They carry out their first assignment hesitantly and nervously, with shaky hands emoting their moral indecision. They gun down an aging Palestinian near the elevator in his Rome apartment, and the victim’s blood mingles with milk from a broken bottle, marking the agents’ first step down a road from which they cannot turn back. Each step is more taxing as the agents are forced to victimize the innocent as well as their targets; with each drop of blood spilled, the agents become more cold-blooded.

Though Avner is not even sure that the men he is told to kill were directly responsible for Munich, he says he cannot live with refusing his orders. When his team is hunted, and his friends killed, Avner starts to fear his own assassination, irrationally checking his home for explosives placed in all the ways he killed his own victims. Though Avner eventually gives up the life of an assassin, plenty of admiring young recruits are all too eager to take his place.

Each killing that Avner and his men conduct is followed by some Palestinian retaliation. Letter bombs come after the Rome assassination, for example. Spielberg likens this cycle of violence to a perpetual motion machine, as the basis for the continuing conflict in the Middle East. Calling his film a “prayer for peace,” he seems to want the killers and would-be killers to understand that their actions sustain the bloodshed on both sides. As Spielberg juxtaposes the read-aloud names of the Israeli athletes and the Palestinians targeted, he further suggests that everyone involved is or will be a victim of violence.

Though the wisdom and perfect execution of “Munich” make it an outstanding film even by Spielberg’s standards, it cannot reach the greatness of “Schindler’s List” because of the nature of the content. By advocating peace, Spielberg is obligated to present a message with which many in the audience will disagree. With “List,” Spielberg didn’t have to present a message, only an experience, because the immorality of genocide is (almost) universally accepted. And the sad truth of the film is that the response of the audience is self-revealing. The same people who argue that the film is condoning the Palestinian terrorists are the ones who need to understand the film’s message. In other words, those who are most resistant to the film’s message are the ones who need to understand it the most.

The opening title shows the names of the many cities around the world that have hosted the Olympic games before focusing on the city of Munich. Spielberg might intend this to show that the violence at Munich spread as Avner’s team carried out their assignments, but more likely, he means to show that any conflict affects the globe, and that events in the Middle East are as relevant to our country’s future as those within our own borders. Spielberg’s final shot is of Avner walking along the water in Brooklyn back to his family, framed by the Manhattan skyline and the World Trade Center.