RIORI Vol 3, Installment 71: Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2005)



The Players…

Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Clarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler, with Mathieu Amalric, Alylet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale and Lynn Cohen.


The Story…

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of healthy competition amonst nations, highlighting athletic prowess and cultural pride. It’s a show of goodwill amongst nations, to come together and cheer for favorite sons and daughters. It’s supposed to be almost familial, not political.

Supposed to be.

So when Palestinian terrorists hold hostage and ultimately kill a group of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the tragedy prompts the Mossad to track down the assassins and deliver justice.

Whoever wins this race will not get a medal.


The Rant…

Steven Spielberg. One of the most popular, esteemed directors in the history of American cinema. Heck, maybe the most popular across the globe. Man’s had more movie hits than Jordan’s had slam dunks. His style of storytelling is so wide-eyed and visceral audiences can’t help but be drawn into his many, many celluloid worlds. He’s done it all: suspense, sci-fi, comedy, drama, fantasy, everything save porn (and he probably has a project about that in the works. Historical drama, of course. With squeegees).

For a lot of you I’m willing to wager that Spielberg’s films taught you to love the movies. Sure did for me, if only for the fact the first flick I saw in a for-real theater was a Spielberg flick. I was six years old and properly damaged in head so that now you’re reading this snarky blog. Pros and cons abound.

I was six, knew nothing about going to the movies, simply because I had yet to go to a damned theatre. I was six, couldn’t reach the pedals. That’s what grown-ups are for, and my parents got hip to this new, big deal movie in theaters. They friends caught it, raved and insisted they catch it, too. This is how legacies are created.

For reasons lost to a spotty memory, mom and dad got the idea to bring me along to see this blockbuster. Me. Dopey, six-year old, when’s the new Lego catalog coming out me? Damn. This…this was something. My folks never invited my booger-eating butt out with them for grown up things. At least fun things. Meet The Teacher night didn’t count. Even being a mere stripling, my gut new this was something. Something BIG. I mean forget the babysitter big, li’l me was going out for a night on the town with mom and dad to see a MOVIE. In a THEATRE. With POPCORN and SODAS you drank from a wheelbarrow and above all else, staying up PAST MY BEDTIME (okay, it was a weekend, but still). I didn’t know about beer and sex yet, so this whole package was epic. In some ways, a bigger deal than booze and p*ssy, and a lot less messy, barring the cinema floor.

An aside: What the hell is up with that? You’ve waded through it every premier night. Is it Coke mixed with discarded Gummi Bears dappled with Velcro? Probably closer to the truth than comfort allows. Yick.

Anyway, speaking of a babysitter, didn’t need one that night. At least didn’t. My kid sisters were waylaid for the evening by the teen up the street. Big bro was gonna paint the town red. That’s what it felt like anyway. As a little kid I had no concept of what a big night out was, only that when the sitter was called on to watch my little sisters and “big” me while mom and dad trotted off into the night a came home super late (almost 9:30), something special went down when that front door closed shut. Even if it was merely for a new movie. An R-rated movie probably, so no kids. Sigh.

Keeping that in mind, the ‘rents invited me to see a PG movie. Okay for kids, right? So long the P’s provided proper G, all would be okay (y’know, like intense scenes that reflexively make go grab mom’s arm). That was my folks’ logic it seemed. Besides, this film got rave reviews, and a Spielberg movie to boot!

Um, who?

I was six, remind you. The peak of visual entertainment for me were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and the original Looney Tunes on the Bugs And Daffy Show that rounded out Saturday morning TV programming. I loved Chuck “How The Grinch Stole Christmas/Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote” Jones. Guess that showed a modicum of taste.  No clue what that name meant (please refer to the Sahara installment to better illustrate my cinematic ignorance). We didn’t own a VCR yet. Early 80s and such. The movies were the big time, and that being said Mom and Dad actually dressed up for this event. And me too. It would’ve been considered business casual nowadays, but being six doffed with a college prof turtleneck and khakis around my waist…hell, might as well have been a tux. To this day, even though I don’t get dressed up for it, going to catch a movie in a theatre is alwaysspecial event for me. It ain’t the Oscars red carpet, true, but I have access to a monster pouch of Twizzlers and the Afflecks do not. I win, always.

The place is lost on me, but I recall my parents taking me out to eat before the show. At a real restaurant. With menus! I was used to the occasional jaunt to McDonald’s (especially when they were giving away dinky Lego sets with the Happy Meals. Good times, good times), but this was another new experience. Namely,we had to wait for our food, at least longer that 30 seconds. Another experience of the kind of grown-up fun I was missing simply by being too short. Now life was happening.

We ate and left for the mall. That’s where the cineplex was. Like a dozen theaters. Big deal hub for a movie hungry crowd. To me it was like Grand Central, so many busy lines and crowds of people. It was the weekend, mind you. Not much has changed in the past 30-plus years when it came to venturing out to cinemaland on a Friday. Then I clung to my mom, praying I didn’t get lost, stomped on or stolen away to wherever kids are sentenced when they stay up past their bedtime, big boy khakis or no.

Never fear. The big people knew the way. They paid for the tickets and the popcorn (I got a f*cking bale of the stuff, bucket bigger than my pre-puber old head. Like I said, some things haven’t changed much), so they had the kings to the kingdom. They found seats. The theater was packed to the gunwales with eager cinemaphiles. Never I had seen so many people crammed into a single room, and the room itself was miles wide. It was like being in a hangar, minus the planes. Felt like thousands of people were attendant, but I was a kid. EVERYTHING in the place felt huge and out of proportion. Especially that screen. That big, big screen. We had a modest 24 inch set at home. Here, in the gloaming, amongst all the other grown-ups out “late” on a Friday, that massive screen was the Monolith and I was a mere, scrabbling chimp. A big deal.

I’ll cut to the chase. The lights went low, the previews played (probably a simple three, rather than the present half-hour plus parade these days, with NO commercials), and the declaration that as the letters encircled an image of Earth, Universal presented the movie. Funny what sticks.

I felt a palpable hush, an electric feeling of anticipation. I knew I had one, turtleneck vibrating. I was wedged between mom and dad, mutual easy access for an arm to cling to. This was PG territory, mind you. The big leagues. And big it was. The show began, the title faded into view and I strapped in.

It was called ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.

What the hell was an “extra-terrestrial?” I was intrigued. And well-rewarded for my interest.

The rest is mystery. Welcome to RIORI.

Another aside: I feel it necessary to say the next film I caught that year in a for-real theatre (I recall it being a birthday thing) was Star Wars: A New Hope in re-release. Doubtless whetting fans appetites for Return Of The Jedi coming soon to a theatre near me. To which I felt after seeing Lucas’ space epic that I needed, neededMillennium Falcon. Alas, too short. Couldn’t reach the pedals or synch the hyperdrive. Probably woulda crashed into a moon anyway. Nuts.

So yeah, my first intro to Spielberg was my first film seen in a theatre. Not a bad way to start, and it probably explains a lot. Like this bilious blog you dolts keep on visiting. Thanks, BTW.

It’s understood that Spielberg is one of the most esteemed, popular and vital directors in film history. That goes without saying. And of course his ET properly tampered with my mind when it came to watching movies. I say tampered because the guy’s talent sometimes overrides common sense.

An example? For reasons only know to the cinema gods, I got wrapped up one summer as a teen with his Jaws. Watched it everyday, alternately enthralled and freaked out. It was almost an every afternoon ritual for me to watch Robert Shaw get chomped in two. At my grandparents’ summer place. On Fire Island. A postage stamp of a summer ville bookended by the Atlantic and the Great South Bay. Water on both sides. I steered clear of the beach and watched it over and over. I was a doofus.

Another example? This not nearly as dopey, but the Spielberg touch gave up the whammy again. I’ve spoke of this here before, but I feel it bears repeating.

Dateline: late summer, 1998. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is making the cinematic rounds, and gobbling up both critical praise and oodles of tickets at the box office. Hype could not be ignored, so my father and I caught it.

We indeed caught something.

Mom came home from work and saw us, post-viewing, chain-smoking on the porch. She asked how our day out was. We said it was good. She asked how the movie was. We said it was good. We kept smoking. She politely shrugged, went inside and let us be.

A more telling aspect of Spielberg’s light touch was when dad and I were in the theatre. The opening scene. The storming of Normandy. Bullets and screaming and amputees and blood and screaming. When Tom Hanks’ Capt Miller makes it to the beachhead and alternates between commanding his troops and relaying what the f*ck’s happening with the comm officer, when he sees the comm no longer has a face, me at 22 years old, reached over and clasped my dad’s hand. Hard. He squeezed back. Hard.

Good work, Steve. Good work.

*pant*

Let me reel it in now. Dad quit smoking. I go through a lighter a day. Damn you, Spielberg.

*sigh”

But after all my gushing, not all of Speilberg’s movies have been so compelling. By compelling I mean good. He’s had a few duds, mind you. Either outright lame-brained or stalled at the gates duds. To paraphrase Mick, even Jesus had his moment of doubt and pain. Which is why I called you all here today, and I ain’t talkin’ old time religion. Please adjust your turtlenecks.

Steve may have a golden touch, but you really can’t be regarded as a great director without having laid a few turds in your punchbowl. For every Vertigo, Hitchcock cut a Family Plot. For every Harold And Maude, Ashby cut an 8 Million Ways To Die. For every Paths Of Glory, Kubrick cut a Killer’s Kiss (betcha never heard of that one let alone saw it. Don’t) It’s the old truth: how can you gage what’s great if you have nothing bad to measure it against? You need a Vanilla Coke to chase that Crystal Pepsi.

Spielberg has had a few missteps. His proper cinematic debut was the loud, goofy and overly offbeat Sugarland Express. He followed with his breakout, the first blockbuster Jaws with the wondrous, engaging sci-fi Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (the best The Day The Earth Stood Still rip-off ever) with the, um, loud, goofy and overly offbeat comedy dreck 1941. Most of his stuff in the late-80s came across as stiff or underdeveloped, but not without ambition. The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun (which gave the world Christian Bale), even the remake of the Spencer Tracy vehicle A Guy Named JoeAlways had their merits, but without the verve Spielberg has been known for. Resting on laurels?

Perhaps, but there have been stone cold duds in his CV. Hook springs immediately to mind. The Lost World is another stillborn. The Terminal confused audiences (more on that later, like next installment). What he was aiming at with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and The BFG approached a retreat to six-year old kiddie fare wearing khakis.

*wink*

However, the missteps sometimes take time to sink in as decent films in the end run. Cinematic history regards Empire Of The Sun as a dry run for stuff like Schindler’s List and especially (you guessed it) Saving Private RyanThe Color Purple addresses lesbian love, albeit in a very PG-13 way. In the 80s. That counts for something I feel. And War Horse brought his fascination with military history full circle, like saying: “Hey. Important sh*t happened prior to my birth!” Then enter Lincoln.

The point I’m getting at (and I do have one) is that there might be a difference between bearing the mantle of one of the world’s greatest directors gauged against his failings. Here it’s not the “good vs bad” argument. It’s the influence against the expectation here. I equate this to an interview with writer Joseph Heller, author of the famed and seminal Catch-22. Something about him being accused of not writing anything else as good as 22.

His candid response? “That might be true, but nobody else has either.”

So go watch Empire Of The Sun. Maybe again. Back to China in the 40s and beyond.

Today, Germany in the 70s beckons.

So stay up late, clean the gunk off the microscope lens and put on your turtleneck…


A terrifying, despicable thing went down in Munich, 1972’s host city of the Summer Olympics. An act of terrorism. An act political reaction. An act of murder. Murders.

The Olympics are supposed to be a time of countries to hang up their differences, keep the sabers sheathed and work it out on the battlefield of athletic competition. It’s not supposed to political, at least not overtly.

A cadre of Palestinian terrorists feel otherwise, and in the dead of night break into the Olympic Village and take the Israeli track team hostage, demanding safe passage home as well making a statement to the world that Palestine wants its independence from Israel. So much for athletics over differences.

The camera crews are at the ready, the whole world is watching, and of course nothing goes well. The whole Israeli team is slaughtered. The ones who pulled the triggers escape. And leaves a mess of red tape interwoven an international crime to be solved.

Not solved. Avenged.

Enter lowly Mossad desk jockey Avram Kaufmann (Bana). A lifetime ago in his career he was a soldier, a field officer, the man with connections. Now, quaint domesticity, his expectant wife and a safe, albeit boring job. Life could be nothing simpler.

Then the Munich massacre. Enter Ephraim (Rush), the man with the plan.

You see, Avner has that certain something—namely being raised in Germany—which may loan some cultural insight as to how in the world did what happened happened. These terrorists weren’t acting independently you see. They were funded. About a dozen high-end Palestinian sympathizers funded this hit, and they need to be investigated, sought out and be brought to justice.

Wait, that’s not correct. They need to be executed.

This is not a mission of uncovering an international crime ring. Ephraim puts it plain to Avner, his chosen angel.

This is about revenge…


Munich was not Spielberg’s first foray into historical fiction. Well all know about Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan (which indeed was inspired by a true WW2 story) and maybe Empire Of The Sun. All great films via Spielberg’s lens. However Munich was the overtly dark historical fictions I’ve ever seen by the man. It was so intense, and beyond the actual investigation tactics and, well, murder tactics. Munich has got an equal amount of intrigue balanced by a lot of graphic gunfire and explosions. In some way, this stuff came across as more dire circumstances than storming the beaches of Normandy or a no exit train ride to Auschwitz. At least as Spielberg spun it.

I’m not downplaying what the man brought to film with above two. It’s just that Munich is a different beast. It’s ugly. I mean need a chemical shower ugly. List and Ryan had an element of hope attatched to them. Munich is as cynical as…well, me. And even I was disturbed. I mean, I never killed anyone in the name of vengeance, but after watching Munich I could sympathize.

Does that make me a bad person (beyond my bleak worldview)? I don’t think so. Munich hits you on a gut level, blurs the corners between good and bad and eventually throws the whole tale into the confusing, emotional Cuisinart. It gets jarring, but feels so pure you can’t help but not press pause even if to take a leak. Okay, admittedly I had to pee a few times. A two and a half hour viewing warrants that; I’m only human. Beer does that, but I felt a bit guilty letting this film wait for me. Munich waited for no one. And especially not my distended bladder.

Sorry. I was saying:

I’ve noticed a different aesthetic in his films he takes an emotional, personal, almost gritty stance then when he’s just having fun. The guy has a signature with “looking at things” with either awe, disgust and/or terror. It’s all about drawing you in and digest what’s going down. That being said it may go without saying: Jaws was fun to watch in a terrifying sense. Close Encounters was fun to watch in a mindbending sense. Raiders was fun to watch in a fun sense. Those stories invites empathy with the characters. But when the man ain’t screwing around he throws down the gauntlet. Mentioned before his historical fictions don’t mess around, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. Munich espouses no hope, and with all the engaging spygame, I think I know why.

Munich was too close to home, even if you weren’t extant in 1972. However I’m willing to wager you were alive in September, 2001.

Munich—couched in historical fiction—was the man’s (belated one may claim) 9/11 response. The film was one of the most telling, brilliant metaphor of the tragedy I’ve ever seen, on film or otherwise. Like I said, it blurs the corners. Over the course of 2-plus hours, the spygame goes from straight ahead to who are really the killers? The terrorists: are they the financiers of the slaughter? Or are they a reason for a crew of reactionary Israeli Jews creating elaborate hits to also make a political statement? The deeper you play, the more muddled the rules become. And at either end, it’s the dealer who walks away with the full deck. I got the chilling feeling watching Munich that its message (if there really was one) here lies within this question: “Who are the real terrorists?” The invaders or the invaded? Depends on the response/point of view. Like I said, an ugly-feeling notion, but he’s skilled at making you look at things.

Munich does feel like Spielberg, though. It’s a good thing here. It’s dark, cynical, deliberate and unnerving. Also good things (Always vs Raiders, remember?). It’s time then to chat about the technical things. One cannot have a melodrama of harrowing violence and a progressive examination of the futility of man without some flair. Despite Munich being a very un-Spielberg film at first watch, there are his fingerprints all over the movie. Duh, it still is his movie. Muted, but still.

Munich illustrates how the real spygame gets played. This ain’t no 007. Staging hits on the politically guilty is clumsy, grimy and messy most of the time being a slave to the watch. Bond may have been suave, and have the cool tech courtesy of Q getting his back, but Avner’s mission failed to have any Alfa Romeo ejection seat at the ready. As the movie moved on, every hit became less and less certain of “success.” More patchwork, damage control. Maverick. The crew getting more and more frantic, desperate. Almost all of Israeli nationalism on their sleep-dep shoulders. That aspect sorta had a classic spaghetti western feel; revenge, grease wheels for intel thudded against the wall, a motley crew of raw gunslingers, etc. It later feels like a dupe. Traditional Spielberg offbeat heroes against odds unsurmountable. That much is true, but foibles, mission and the aforementioned makes for some gripping tension.

Actually, smart tension may be a better phrase. Nothing here is flashy, like a la Bond again. No. It’s not visceral, either, though it may feel that way while watching. Here you can see what’s coming, but you don’t. There’s this edge. It’s the bleeding edge at the aforementioned blurry corners that bear investigation. We’ve learned over the course of the second act of the movie that Avner and co’s mission is a desperate one, but it might be a futile one. Sure, we know the terrorists are gonna get theirs’, but how about getting there? Everything is frail, fragile and could go off pop at any minute. It was made clear at the outset Ephriam dictated to Avner that he his on his own, and the Mossad knows nothing about Kaufmann, which makes his unique skills so viable. All are working in the shadows, and the shadows permits some mental downtime to consider…what? Who’s really the “bad guys?” Who’s the “avenging angels” of Israel (oh, yeah. For those non-partisan athletes who paid the ultimate cost)? Whose colluding with a very questionable informant giving up the intel for the next hit? Felt like a football’s field’s length away from Bond to me. Again, ugly and brilliant.

A great deal of this Spielbergian struggling empathy is channelled by our reluctant protag Avner. I’ll be the first guy in line to draw lots against Bana’s beheading, but after watching Munich, I quaver. Simply because I appreciate his steady, anti-slow descent invites him realizing anew a sense of purpose, if only his need to douse others’ sense of purpose, with booby-trapped phones and colluding with open secret crime families that market information. It’s established we don’t know who’s who, but Bana’s grim, renewed enthusiasm for being in the field again, fighting for Israel—his spiritual home—he begins to “enjoy” his job. It’s a fall from grace, and a grace from nothing else but equipped by a parachute of civic duty. And isn’t that what terrorists feel on the job? Yet again, ugly. Good work here, Dr Banner.

Munich is a spartan film, relentless in its self-examination yet we still never gauge who is who against what conflict. The whole nasty matter of the Israel olympians getting off is nothing more than an excuse to one-up one government against another claiming who has the bigger balls. Like what Israel claimed to Palestine here. Or what the US waggled to Iraq. Or maybe Iran. Maybe the Rothchilds. We all just don’t know, but there’s a “cause” out there we must fight for!

Finally, Munich is a film with many different shades, ultimately descending into charcoal. It’s very cynical, which attached to Spielberg might’ve led to its tepid response. Not to mention the insidious “terrorist sympathy.” Such stuff would’ve gotten the man on the blacklist back in the 50s. Fortunately today we only have to worry about the Tomatometer. Its shades makes one slowly scratch their head and maybe, just maybe peel away some scales. That might sound a big grand (and perhaps a bit sympathetic to the “other”), but the message squeaked through despite all the sociopolitical debris.

That is if you put aside this was a Spielberg film with no remorse as well as precious little hope.

It was satisfying, though. For all the post-viewing pondering.

So. To lighten things up, who’s ready for ET-X?

No? Okay. So will Tom Hanks work then?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a tough watch, but ultimately rewarding, Unlike other Spielberg’s “friendlier” flicks, you best watch this one by yourself, then come to your own reactionary conclusions. Go look in the mirror afterwards, then drain that lizard.


Stray Observations…

  • “I have the world’s most boring job.”
  • The period fashions (and haircuts) here are great. Not flashy, which is probably why the Academy snubbed that. Oscar likes shiny.
  • And that’s how you uncork a bottle.
  • “I’m proud of what you’re doing.” “You don’t know what I’m doing.”
  • Stalking terrorists is a risky business. Right…everyone?
  • “Everybody works for someone.”
  • Al Green makes everything okay.
  • You ever notice—barring the title card—almost all his movies never have any opening credits? Why is that? There must be a reason; I’m curious.
  • “It costs dearly, but home always does.”
  • “There is no medal or anything?”

Next Installment…

Part 2 of a 2 part study examining Spielberg’s missteps: Tom Hanks can’t fly home to his native land (since it don’t exist no more). Now he’s stuck on a layover from hell, his new home being The Terminal. Could be worse. He’s got Catherine Zeta-Jones to keep him company. We should all be so waylaid.


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