Narratively speaking, Munich is, literally, the oldest story in the book.  A handsome young man is called upon to protect his homeland from a monster.  He ventures out into the world to slay the monster, thus saving his homeland, but once he returns home he find that the experience he’s gathered in the world leaves him incapable of remaining there.

Thematically, complex questions of nationalism, tribalism, religion and ideology ping-pong and ricochet all over the place.  But they all keep circling back to the prime Spielbergian themes of “Family” and “Home.”

Eric Bana leaves one family (his wife and child, but also his mother and father) to join another family, one of assassins (the many scenes of cooking and housework underscore the “assassin team as family” aspect).  His new family is beset by another family, a literal French family who also happens to be in the international espionage business and whose badge of honor is their unwillingness to ally themselves with a nation or ideology.  As his assassin family falls apart, Eric yearns to get back to his first family.

And then there’s the question of “Home.”  The Jews want a home, but so do the Palestinians.  The espionage family has a wonderful, warm home in the French countryside.  Everywhere Eric turns, people are falling in love, having children, setting up housekeeping, making plans.  The terrorists targeted for assassination are shown bickering with their wives and doting on their children, going on dates and having parties.  There isn’t an inhuman one in the bunch and they all seem to have nice homes and good families.

In terms of genre, something of a head-scratcher.  It’s structured like an espionage thriller, like Three Days of the Condor, and certainly is as suspensful and gripping as that movie, but tonally it feels closer a historical drama like Schindler’s List

Spielberg works very hard to keep things real and cliche-free and mostly succeeds (some cliches do slip through, such as the cold-blooded assassin cooly walking up a darkened staircase while slipping on his black leather gloves, or the espionage guys talking about assassinations and terror plots while slicing vegetables or tinkering with toys).  The assassination sequences don’t look or feel like anything ever shown before.  The assassins are human and prone to mistakes and improvisation.  Nothing feels planned or flawless (unlikethe assassinations in Three Days of the Condor).  For every cute Spielbergism that slips through, there are a dozen scenes of stunning originality, like the assassination of the woman in Holland.  Not a pleasant film by any means, I had to take a break in the middle of watching it — not because of its unpleasantness, but to catch my breath, which I had been holding rather too much without realizing it. hit counter html code


9 Responses to “Munich”
  1. gazblow says:

    I saw this in the theater. It was a while ago, during that period between Xmas and New Years when one generally tries to see all the Oscar-bait. I recall the originality with which the assisinations are done. And your observation about the role of family in the film is, as usual, amazingly astute. But I also remember feeling like the ending was unsatisfying. His family of assassins has been sacrificed for his new family. He’s all pissed and paranoid. His boss just shrugs. Aside from a red herring about someone following his family, nothing happens at the end except he moves to Brooklyn.

    • Todd says:

      I…remember feeling like the ending was unsatisfying.

      Perhaps intentionally so. In many ways it’s a deeply unsatisfying movie. I think what Spielberg is trying to “say” in the last scene is “Okay, we did this, and no one is avenged, and we ended up making the problem a lot worse.” And the characters walk away from each other and we pan the New York skyline until we come to the World Trade Center, tying Eric Bana’s story to our own.

      His family of assassins has not been sacrificed for his new family but for his old family. His “old family” (Israel, his mom) is very pleased with what he’s done and can’t understand why he’s so upset. His new family (his wife and child) has been made homeless by his actions. If anything, his “new family” has been sacrificed along with his “assassin family” for the sake of his “old family.”

      And I should have mentioned that “loyalty” is another big issue in the movie. Who should one be loyal to? What are one’s priorities? Are you loyal first to your family, your nation, your religion, your political ideology, or the men fighting alongside you? It seems like every choice the protagonist makes turns out to be the wrong one for one reason or another.

      And “he moves to Brooklyn” is hardly “nothing happens” if the whole point of the narrative is that he’s doing this so that Jews will have a place to live in the Mideast. If we adopt the fairy-tale version of the narrative again, we see that the story goes “The handsome prince leaves home to slay the dragon, and he slays a dragon, but he’s not really sure it’s the right dragon, but everyone back home seems to feel that he slayed enough dragons to satisfy them, but now the real dragon might still be out there somewhere, pissed off even more and hunting for him.”

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I also saw this in the theaters, and I was also thinking it was intentionally unsatisfying.

    One thing that bugged, although I don’t know that it can count as cliche, is that end scene. Once I figured out where they were geographically and in time, I spent that entire scene justwaiting for that pan to the towers.

    But maybe some of the audience who hadn’t already made that connection wouldn’t have that problem. Sadly, those are both the ones least likely to watch this and those that would most benefit from it.

    • Todd says:

      Once I figured out where they were geographically and in time, I spent that entire scene justwaiting for that pan to the towers.

      Yeah, me too. It was almost as though I couldn’t really listen to what the actors were saying because I was just waiting for the pan to the World Trade Center.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Totally distracting. I think I expected that scene to be a fraction of its length and was also tuning out what they were saying. Which is almost appropriate. It’d be a pretty deft turn if Spielberg meant that as well… but I doubt it.

        Speaking of cliches — the scene of them discussing international assassinations while strolling in the crowded park bugged me (so to speak). I can understand the principle of using the noise to foil listening devices, but what if someone overheard enough to be curious, or even dangerous?

        • Todd says:

          All through the movie people discuss international assassinations in parks, in restaurants, at outdoor cafes, at produce markets, etc. I have no idea if that’s how it’s done in the real-life international espionage biz, but it comes off like a cliche in movies these days.

          It didn’t help that Michel Lonsdale, who plays the big-daddy espionage guy in Munich, also played the retired operative with the safe-house in Ronin. There, he talked about international assassinations while painting tiny little toys, here he does the same thing while preparing gourmet treats. Espionage guys, they just have to tinker.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As per usual…

    Todd Alcott + nail + head = thwack.

    Great review.

    • Todd says:

      Re: As per usual…

      Oh. You startled me there for a second, I thought you wanted to pound a nail into my head.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: As per usual…

        Sorry – it does kind of read that way, doesn’t it! So much for a lame attempt at pithiness.