Saturday, 26 September 2009


I can still remember the unfolding tragedy of the hostage taking at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the disastrous conclusion to the siege when the Israeli captives lost their lives. The events of the attack and the ensuing slaughter are powerfully told in the documentary One Day In September. A few years later I read a book recounting Israel’s response, sending out Mossad agents to hunt down and kill those involved in the atrocity. Munich is Steven Spielberg's film portraying the activities of the assassination squad as they worked their way around Europe picking off the terrorists. Although the characters and the events are fictional the film claims that they are ‘inspired by real events’.

Munich is a long film, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours but it maintains an intensity and pace that holds the attention throughout. The unofficial assassination squad are a complicated group reflected in the casting; Eric Bana and Daniel Craig look like what I expect of secret agents, but the others including Ciaran Hinds are disarmingly ordinary. The group are far from the accomplished hit men of Bond films or the Bourne adventures and their first kill is a nervous, halting execution; the celebrations betraying their relief and exhilaration at success.

The film presents state sanctioned murder as messy, incompetent, questioning, depressing and ultimately futile. For every assassination of a terrorist the enemy hits back with the devastating slaughter of hundreds of Israelis. It’s a cycle of violence which reflects the tit for tat retaliations that characterise so much of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The agents question the morality of their actions and become the targets of other assassins; several are killed before the operation is concluded. The central character is left haunted not only by the Munich massacre but by the murders he has participated in and the fear that his own government is seeking to silence him.

Spielberg does risk accusations of propaganda in his depiction of the hit squad and one example is the way the film suggests that only the guilty were targeted. In reality the agents were not so discerning and at least one of their victims was an entirely innocent Moroccan waiter shot in Norway. This murder was one of the most shocking incidents I remember from the book and I can’t understand why it is omitted unless Spielberg didn’t want to sully the reputations of the Mossad agents.

Munich’s closing shot is a pan of the Manhattan skyline finishing with the Twin Towers in the background. The scene poignantly sums up a question raised by the whole film: ‘Is anything gained by the war on terrorism?’

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