Munich of Fact and Fiction
Yacowar, Maurice, Queen's Quarterly
STEVEN SPIELBERG'S Munich (2005) confirms that the director is an expert filmmaker, especially deft at the sentimental pot boiler. This is a suspenseful tale about a small Israeli team dispatched to kill eleven Black September terrorists who have played key roles in the slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. The characters are off-beat and intriguing and the backdrops convincingly detailed, right down to the Hebrew Coca Cola sign in Israel and the Pepsi sign over the wan disco in Beirut. Beautifully crafted, this film has the feel of history.
But a filmmaker is not a historian, on three counts. One, any source holds only one among many perspectives--hence the axiom that "a history" is only the fiction that one chooses to believe. Two, any "fact" can resonate as a metaphor once it appears in a work of art. Those Coke and Pepsi signs become partner emblems of American influence--or of a global war that only the mother of all takeovers can resolve. Finally, those new metaphors make any period film not only about the time in which it is set, but about the time in which it is made. The profound film will also be about the time (and culture) in which it is viewed. For in Aristotle's distinction history deals merely with what happened once, while poetry (i.e. fiction) tunes into universal patterns. Medea, c'est moi.
Spielberg nicely blends explosions with moral philosophizing and weaves an atmosphere of cynicism and betrayal familiar to those who love the work of John le Carre. But Munich falls apart as history, both as a reflection upon the Middle East in 1972 and upon the situation there today. Anticipating this problem, he early declares that the film is only "inspired by real events," then identifies its source as George Jonas's book, Vengeance (1984). Jonas (in "The Spielberg Massacre," Maclean's, 9 January 2006) has defined Spielberg's divagation:
Vengeance holds there is a difference between terrorism and counter-terrorism; Munich suggests there isn't. The book has no trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film finds it difficult. Spielberg's movie worries about the moral trap of resisting terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it.
The problem is not that Spielberg's "history" rewrote Jonas's "history" but that his film inadequately meets the present situation. Had Spielberg instead showed Ptomania avenging their team's slaughter at the Freedonia Olympics, his fiction could have preserved the artful explosions and wistful philosophy without spreading such dangerous naivete about today's Middle East. But this is about more than just fiction.
THE OPENING title expresses today's sensibilities much more than those of 1972. The name "Munich" emerges from a screenful of international cities, as if the ensuing drama could have happened in any one of them. But at the time, Munich was a solitary target/opportunity. The terrorists, of course, have since gone global. We are reminded of this in the film's closing frames when we see the (digitally recreated) twin towers of the World Trade Center dominating the Manhattan skyline, behind the avenging hero Avner (Eric Bana), a ghost-elect. And this cosmopolitan scene further reminds us of Avner's globetrotting before he finally took refuge in New York--we remember the bank accounts he has accessed in Geneva and the targets he has accessed in Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and Athens.
The cynicism emphasizes the film's genre roots over reality. For all the Israeli particulars, Avner becomes just another spy who tries to come in from the cold. His key source--the mysterious Frenchman Louis (Mathieu Amalric)--at one point tells him, "You have no idea who you work for. Trust me." Avner adopts this murky cloak himself when it suits his purpose: "Everyone works for someone." The monetary intelligence ethic is brought home by the cranky Mossad accountant (Oded Teomi), who testily insists that his killing squad "bring me receipts"--a bit of stereotyping only a Jewish director could get away with. …