Shades of Grey

During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Munich chronicles the retaliatory efforts and descent into madness of five Israelis who are secretly commissioned by their government to assassinate the men responsible for the attacks. With no prior experience, and very little stomach for such personalized killing, the team begins to work their way through the list they have been given. But before long things don’t seem nearly so black and white as they did at the beginning.

Your country and your countrymen have been under attack for years. After several citizens are slaughtered at a global event, your government decides it has had enough. They ask you to do something about it. How far would you be willing to go to protect your family and your home? The quick and easy answer for most people would probably be, “As far as it takes.” However, Munich asks viewers to step back and truly consider where that course of action might lead.

Avner (Eric Bana), a bodyguard for the Prime Minister, accepts the job to hunt down and kill the 11 men responsible for Munich. When he encounters the first man, he can not even be the first to shoot. By the time he reaches his last target, though, he has almost become a machine. He suffers from paranoia, and he is certain that he will soon feel no remorse from his actions. Avner is put in charge of a five-man team. Robert, a toymaker, constructs bombs. Hans, an antique shop owner, forges official documents. Carl ensures that the team does not leave evidence at the murder scene. Steve serves as a lookout and driver.

Each of these men brings a different perspective to the task they have been given, and each contributes to Avner’s journey. Steve dedicates himself fully to the job, occasionally wishing to defy orders in order to kill their targets. Hans, on the other hand, starts out dedicated and begins to doubt along the way whether they are accomplishing anything. Robert questions the righteousness of their actions. Carl worries that they have all become desensitized.

The movie plays like the cinematic equivalent of a Leon Uris novel. It is thick with names, places, and events, rich with detail. It powerfully evoking the early 1970s as the main characters travel all over the western world. Fashion, popular culture, and the international tensions of the Cold War are all displayed vividly, sometimes obviously and sometimes almost hiding in the background to heighten the feel of authenticity. It treats important events in the history of modern Israel. And it makes no concessions to the sensibilities of the viewer. The violent aspects associated with terrorism and assassination are almost overwhelming. As bombings, shootings, and stabbings exact their grisly toll, the camera continues to roll. If the characters cannot shut out the bloody images, then the audience will not be allowed to either.

This is Spielberg’s first historical epic about the Jewish people since Schindler’s List, and he brings the same skill, attention, and passion for his subject to this project. However, there are significant differences in Spielberg’s angle of approach. First, Munich is a movie with far less hope than Spielberg’s film about the Holocaust. That may sound strange, but in Schindler’s List the horrors of the Holocaust come to a definite end and there is a hope for the future. Munich chronicles one short chapter in a long history of escalating conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples which still continues today with no end in sight.

The second significant difference between Munich and Schindler’s List is that the latter is shot in black and white, while the former is in color. No joke. In Schindler’s List the situation is as black and white as the film. The Nazis are evil. The Holocaust is evil. The List is good. One of the characters even calls it “an absolute good.” The Jews are good. However, by introducing color in “Munich,” Spielberg has also introduced a world where we cannot make such distinctions. It becomes increasingly clear that the categorization of “good” and “bad” guys in this sort of conflict is completely a matter of perspective.

In the final shot of the movie, the camera pulls back from two of the characters to reveal part of the New York skyline, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center clearly visible left of center, before fading to black. In a movie about terrorism, retaliation, and counter-retaliation set more than thirty years ago, it is no accident that the World Trade Center is prominently placed in the closing scene. The sight is sobering for two reasons: First, because it reminds us that our world is still plagued by the horrors of terrorism, and second, because we have just seen the terrifying personal and spiritual consequences of sinking to the level of responding in kind.

  • Co-reviewed with Randy

~ by Jared on February 24, 2006.

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