In the past, even when Steven Spielberg has concluded a film with a robot boy cuddling up to a corpse, he has pretended to offer a happy ending. He has set his goodbyes in cemeteries–in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan–only to strike a note of fellowship and reconciliation. Just this past summer, he treated the incineration of the entire world as mere prelude to a family hug.
So we might pay attention to Spielberg’s Munich just because it ends on the word “no,” spoken as former colleagues abandon each other on a deserted playground. A chill seems to rise from the choppy river that runs nearby, separating the men from the backdrop of a quietly ominous Manhattan. Their work has cut them off from common humanity, leaving them friendless amid rusted jungle gyms and bare trees, in a place that children have forgotten.
This is some ending for a Spielberg movie, or for that matter any spy thriller, the genre to which Munich contributes a crackling example. Outwardly a movie of hardware and logistics, Munich takes you step by step through Israel’s reprisals for the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics. As you would expect from Spielberg, the scale is large, the pace unflagging, the details hypnotically fascinating. But Munich is also about the reprisals for the reprisals. (“We’re in dialogue now,” comments a Mossad officer, with evident satisfaction, after a Palestinian bombing in London answers an Israeli bombing in Paris.) As the spiral of violence swirls downward, Munich becomes more and more a movie not of how-to but of loss, sorrow, futility and trepidation–which is to say, it’s a first-rate spy thriller with a soul. The unhappy ending is striking for Spielberg, but it flows into the last scene as inevitably as the river itself.
The screenplay, credited to Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, moves quickly from re-creation to dramatization: first the hostage-taking and slaughter in Munich, then the recruitment of young Avner (Eric Bana) to lead a team of Israeli assassins. But “recruitment” may be the wrong word. Although Avner is a grown man, with a regular job and pregnant wife, his elders summon him like a boy. They remind him continually that they knew his father; they demand that he accept an assignment on the basis of blind obedience; they casually strip him of all professional status, so he’s reduced to the condition of a kid just starting out in the world; they pay him and his undercover team as if doling out an allowance, and insist on getting receipts: “Whatever you’re doing, someone else is paying for it.”
Avner is so much in shock at the events in Munich–or, perhaps, is so used to being patronized–that he scarcely registers this treatment. In fact, he seems to think his new assignment confirms him as a paterfamilias. He believes he’s acting to protect his wife and unborn child; he also behaves like a parent to his assassination team, briefing them over big meals he has cooked himself. But as the shootings and bombings multiply, along with their collateral carnage–Spielberg’s direction is meticulous, but the assassins’ operations are not–Avner comes to doubt not only the purpose of his mission but also the nature of his most basic relationships, with his elders, his family, his country.