Sunday, July 17, 2016

Mission: Impossible--Jerusalem Branch

Films: Munich
Format: DVD from Sycamore Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I knew going in to Munich that it was about what happened with the Israeli Olympic team in the 1972 Olympics. I’m not quite old enough to remember this when it happened, but I new about it soon enough. I assumed that this was about that event, the Palestinian terrorists, the taking of the Israeli team as hostages, and the eventual, terrible conclusion. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Aside from a few imagined sequences that operate as flashbacks, the entire kidnapping of the Israeli team occupies only the first few minutes of the film. No, this is about the terrible retribution that came afterward.

The death of the Olympic athletes and coaches left Israel in a terrible situation. While Germany had nothing to do with what happened, it had to resonate that the terrorism took place on German soil. What the Golda Meir’s government wanted was swift retribution, a message that the targeting of Israelis and Jews in general would not be tolerated. To head that retribution, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent, is recruited. His contact Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) tells him that he will be heading a team of four other operatives tasked with the job of hunting down the men responsible for planning and carrying out the deaths of the Israeli Olympic team.

The team is an international one. In addition to Avner, the members are Steve (Daniel Craig), a driver and more or less secondary assassin from South Africa; antique dealer and forger Hans (Hanns Zischler); Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toy maker-turned bomb maker; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the cleaner whose job it is to keep the team from being caught or detected. To avoid any international problems, Avner gives up his Mossad position and officially no longer exists. Communication between him and Ephraim is spotty at best, with money simply being placed in safe deposit boxes for the team to use as it sees fit.

Slowly, the team begins tracking down the list of names they have for the men responsible for the crimes against Israel. Their primary contact is Louis (Mathieu Amalric), a French information dealer who happily sells what he knows to anyone who can pay, but also refuses to work with anyone officially working for any government, making Avner’s Mossad connection something he needs to continue to keep secret. The team has some early success, but finds themselves wondering about the moral implications of their actions. Their first assassination target, while likely guilty of crimes against Israel, is also working to translate Middle Eastern literature into Italian. Their second target is man with a young daughter. In many cases, the political ideology that separates these men from their targets seems to be the operative problem, because the men themselves seem completely normal and without the inclinations their terrorist associations would suggest.

That’s one of the most interesting aspects of the film, in fact. In a number of places, Spielberg gives the Palestinian terrorists or masterminds a chance to speak their own side of the problem. It would be convenient, almost expected for the film to simply treat these men as they would be handled in a typical action movie. While clearly guilty of a number of crimes, there are moments where these men attempt to justify the positions they hold. While not morally ambiguous, we’re put into a position that is far more morally gray, something frequently expressed by Carl.

Eventually, the team realizes that while they are actively hunting the Palestinian terrorists, the Palestinians themselves aren’t simply sitting back and waiting to die. It soon becomes evident that they are being hunted as well, and members of Avner’s team start dying as well. Suspicions fall on Louis, who has remarked that he doesn’t really care who he sells his information to as long as they are not government officials. In fact, Louis is additionally suspected when he becomes very upset that information on three of the people on Avner’s list is used by Mossad to take out those three men in Beirut.

And then, well, Munich more or less peters out. There are two failed attempts to take out Ali Hassan Salameh, the architect of the Munich massacre, one of which appears to have been foiled by CIA agents. Avner returns to Israel to a muted hero’s welcome and then goes to Brooklyn to be with his wife and daughter, who was born during his absence. Avner feels as if he is now being targeted, and is also being pressured to return to Israel and Mossad. And it feels like there’s not a great deal of resolution to come.

Perhaps, and almost certainly, this is a realistic ending. We get used to the ideas that in movies, the heroes get to the end battered and bruised, but victorious with all of the loose ends neatly tied up and the world back on its keel. In reality, of course, this rarely happens. While real and likely accurate, it doesn’t stop this from being frustrating for the viewer. A great deal is simply left hanging.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. In a film where the son of Russian Jewish immigrants is willing to give space for Palestinians to vent their frustrations and grievances, perhaps the right ending is to not have everything wrapped up with a neat vengeance bow by the end. It’s noteworthy that Spielberg, who loves to play emotional strings as much as he can, uses emotion and sentimentality sparingly here, and always appropriately. It’s the story that is king here, the beginning filled with that white-hot desire for vengeance that slowly cools into something more akin to moral quandary.

It’s a bit long at 164 minutes. I understand why it is, but it does feel a bit bloated despite moving quickly. Still, it’s a film that was very much a worthy watch.

Why to watch Munich: Spies, action, revenge…what more do you want?
Why not to watch: The ending feels unsatisfying.


  1. I agree. From a movie-viewer's point of view the ending is anything but satisfying. But its is a nod to the complexity of reality that what seem clearly black and white in reality usually end up in the grey. The attack in Munich was clearly a hideous crime, but what was the appropriate answer? Vengeance is like peeing in your pants. It feels good at the time but leaves you feeling soiled. In a day and age where terror attacks happen with scary frequency you cannot help wondering about the satisfaction of striking back, yet we bitterly know difficult is for it to actually help anything.
    This is not my favorite Spielberg ever.

    1. Ironically, it's one of the lessons learned from horror movies. If you look at the typical revenge/action thriller, the hero has something terrible happen to him/her (family killed or some such), so he/she goes on a rampage and kills everyone responsible and everything is fine at the end.

      Contrast that with many a horror movie with a similar plot. By the end, the hero may have exacted revenge, but frequently is left empty, knowing that the revenge did nothing to bring those lost people back.

      It's unsatisfying in this case within the context of the movie, but that doesn't make it an improper ending.

    2. With the exception of the unsatisfying ending, it sounds like you described I Saw the Devil, lol.

    3. Not so much. I Saw the Devil is a revenge film, of course, but it's about one man's extended revenge on someone else. This is about a small group of men taking on the task of revenging their entire nation. There's no playing with their victims. It's business-like. Target spotted, target killed.

  2. I was more satisfied with the endings to similar films, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Zero Dark Thirty," than I was to either "Munich" or "I Saw the Devil" even though I did enjoy those two films.

    I can only imagine the current vengeance/retribution in the works for recent acts of terror around the globe and the films that will be based on them.

    1. I shudder to think. It wouldn't surprise me if we're down for a half decade of all action movie baddies being brown-skinned, though.

  3. Thoughtful review, thanks. Almost 50 years after the events in Munich, the situation in the Middle East remains unresolved, violent, morally ambiguous, bogged down, with plenty of blame to go around. From that perspective, I found the film's emotionally tortured ending quite perfect. Whatever solutions have been tried, everything has so far failed, and I think this was Spielberg's principle message.

    1. It might be. I don't know if there is a solution. The truth is that there's probably enough room there for both Israel and a Palestinian state, but both sides think they've got the deeds to the property directly from the almighty.