Sunday, July 08, 2007

The final frame of Munich – the image of the Twin Towers – rather than being pat or overly simplistic, as some people would suggest, is a wonderfully economic way of summarising the film's message – for every action there's a reaction; none of us are as innocent as we'd like to think and all of us are responsible for the unholy mess we're in.

Munich's main strength is its refusal to glorify or condemn the actions of its protagonists. Nothing they do is heroic, but at the same time, their brutal response to the central atrocity is understandable – if your people are murdered, it's only natural to want to kill the people responsible. The only problem is that revenge begets more revenge, and eventually it's impossible to tell who's good and who's bad.

Of course, it's a bit of a cliché these days to have the tortured assassin – the man who's haunted by his actions – but in Munich it never feels like it's done purely for effect. Instead it's a natural by-product of (fairly) ordinary men doing things that most people in 'civilised' society never do – take the lives of other people. And so, therefore, unlike quite a lot of the film-going public, I think the final sex scene between Avner and his wife works tremendously well. It shows how everything has been ruined for him. He's not even capable of enjoying the physical act of love. And remember, this is what he was supposed to be protecting – the men, women and children of his homeland, and their way of life; he was supposed to be making their lives safer. Instead he's just helped things get worse.

And Avner's demand for evidence in the final scene is directly related to where we are at the present. All too often our desire for wrongs to be righted is exploited by governments and regimes. Just take Iraq – we've committed massive wrongs to try and right a barbaric act. And then you have the Israeli's justifying their actions in the name of the Holocaust and other more recent acts of brutalism they've suffered. Same goes for the Palestinians – they try and justify bombs and mayhem by saying that the other guys have killed their people. What they say is true, but no one can claim to be righteous – we're all as bad as each other.

The film realises this and, even though the protagonists are Israeli, it does a pretty good job of presenting both sides of the argument. Just take the scene in the safe house in Athens. Beneath all the political mumbo jumbo what both sides want is a home. Both want somewhere they can call their own. But by using violence to claim this home both are corrupting their dream – if, by some miracle, one side wins, what's going to be left?

And the idea of home is probably the film's main theme – the lengths we go to in order to protect it. It's certainly the reason why these men embark on this mission. But when Avner's mother tells him that he did what he did for their people, and that finally they have a place on Earth, you can only wonder whether it was worth it.

For me, one of the best scenes in the film is the bombing at the hotel. Without being heavy handed, it shows how difficult it is to kill somebody. And I don't mean difficult in the same way as the first killing, which is more about the physical difficulty, but instead the moral dilemma. How can you kill somebody in cold blood when you've had a perfectly pleasant conversation with them? And you can see Avner debating it in his mind as he stares at the light. For the first time doubt is creeping into his mind. He's realising that everything isn't clear cut. But still he condemns the man to death – for whatever reason, even when alarm bells are ringing in our head, we're still more than willing to close our eyes and ignore good sense.

But even though there's a lot of meat to sink your teeth into, Munich also works as a thriller. The first murder, for instance, is very Hitchcockian. You've got the music, the shadowy figures, the shots of the lift, the terrified killers and the macabre detail of the man falling on the milk bottle. It's very cinematic. And then you have the Munich siege itself. The killings are grim and bloody (and the stabbing in the head is shocking in the way that it comes out of nowhere) but it also gets the blood pumping. It helps you understand the outrage the Israeli's must have felt and how easy it is to let emotions get the better of you.

Another excellent scene is the killing of the female assassin. Again the film shows murder as messy and clumsy – the blood squirting out of the woman's throat is a great detail. And then you have the telephone bombing. It's quite conventional in the way it frames it with the little girl – will or won't she get killed? – but Spielberg builds the tension expertly and you're never entirely sure what's going to happen.

But to view the film entirely as a thriller would be to miss the point. The film, quite rightly, is more concerned with the way violence corrupts. It's certainly at the root of all our problems today. But as the film points out, for every person that's killed there's another person willing to step into their shoes – the group even has to kill the replacement of a person they assassinate. So what does the group really achieve? The answer is that they achieve nothing. Some people die and things carry on as they did before. They've only fanned the flames.

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