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Avner (Eric Bana) sits with an older Mossad agent in a white shirt and glasses (Geoffrey Rush) while listening to a reel to reel tape recording in a spy headquarter basement in 2005’s Munich Image: Universal Pictures

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The polarizing greatness of Munich, Steven Spielberg’s answer to Bond

A post-9/11 drama about the Israel-Palestine conflict was a launchpad for Spielberg’s 007 dreams

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Steven Spielberg had a specific dream when he began his career in television. Between episodic gigs, he would figure out a way to make a little movie, gain some notoriety, and then James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli would offer him a job to make the next 007 picture. Though he later referred to this as “pie in the sky,” he also said it was “the only franchise [he] cared about.”

But even after his first feature-length project, Duel, garnered attention, Spielberg didn’t get the call. He even hit up actor Roger Moore, hoping the actor would put in a good word. But Broccoli was disinterested. Depending on which interview you read, it was either because Spielberg was still too green, or because he wanted profit sharing. (There are some accounts that the director approached Broccoli a second or even third time, but by this point Broccoli felt he was “too successful.”) Rejected by the property he loved, the director pivoted. “Instead I made the Indiana Jones series,” he’s said several times, arguably one of the bigger sour-grapes flexes of all time.

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But you never forget your first love. Decades later, Steven Spielberg finally made his globe-trotting, explosive spy caper, smuggled out under the umbrella of a prestige picture. 2005’s Munich is an Important Movie — a response to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent global war on terror, as well as an attempt to address the contours of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict — and one that courted controversy at the time. But don’t let that scare you off: It absolutely rips.

Munich begins at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where eight members of the Palestinian militant group Black September kidnapped and later killed 11 members of the Israeli national team. What follows is a never completely corroborated story (but based on some degree of truth) of how a group of men, financed by the Israeli national security agency Mossad, went to Western Europe with the goal of bumping off 11 selected people who were in some way connected to the initial killings.

Eric Bana (Hulk) plays the inexperienced but natural-born leader of the operation, Avner Kaufman. He’s a low-level operator in Mossad — it is implied he currently has a desk job, but was once a bodyguard for Prime Minister Golda Meir. She trusts him. But, perhaps more importantly, his father is a war hero. Sentiments about giving your all for your homeland resonate with him. When Meir and the generals dispatch Avner, they know it’s a one-way mission. Not that he’ll definitely be killed, but if and when he returns, he will be forever changed.

After being “fired” by the Mossad, Avner’s given two instructions: Go to Geneva to make a pickup from a bottomless safety box of cash, then find the guys on the list and kill them. Oh, and be sure to send receipts on all expenses. The screenplay, the first of now four collaborations between Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, hits the receipts gag hard. It’s a funny joke, one that nimbly plays with Jewish stereotypes about business, and soon grows into a grander symbol. Eventually, someone will pay for all this.

Steve (Daniel Craig) looking over his shoulder in a shadowy car in Munich Image: Universal Pictures

Avner meets his crew. There’s a forger, Hans (Hanns Zischler), a German based in London who is a little older and has seen it all; a cleaner, Carl (Ciarán Hinds), a former Israeli soldier who has sacrificed everything for his country; Belgian toy-maker and explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); and finally the muscle, Steve, a South African Jew played by future 007 Daniel Craig. Of them all, Steve is the one who seems the most paranoid (but he’s also someone who survives). Nobody really knows what they’re supposed to do, no one knows who is really in charge, and everything is absolutely top-secret. They soon become living examples of the common street vendor T-shirt found in Jerusalem tourist areas that reads, “Israeli Defense Forces Intelligence: My Job Is So Secret I Don’t Even Know What I’m Doing!”

Spielberg leans into this disorientation during the many action sequences. We do not get a Mission: Impossible-style walkthrough of what’s going to happen before it happens; it just happens. Suddenly our guys are scattered around a city, creeping up around corners, giving nods, and going in for the kill. Even when it works “well” it doesn’t work well — each takedown is coldblooded assassination. Trickier scenarios include renting hotel rooms (and meeting potential collateral damage) or sneaking into an apartment under false pretenses to sketch out the model of a telephone, which will later be replaced with a bomb.

Though a proud Sabra (native Israeli), Avner can pass for German, and after calling on some old friends engaged in political causes, he makes a connection to the high-priced world of international espionage. With enough money, and a pledge that you aren’t working for any government, Louis (Quantum of Solace baddie Mathieu Amalric) and Papa (Michael Lonsdale aka Hugo Drax in Moonraker, one of the best Bond villains) can find the location of anyone on the planet. Also, they can get you explosives and guns and secure you a safe house in whichever foreign city you are off to next.

As mentioned, Munich is a serious movie, and the dialogue is measured and weighty. These are men well aware that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” After their first kill they’re already wondering if their government has an endgame other than to “look strong.” The crew, however deadly, is not brainwashed by nationalism, and they are also well aware of the arguments from the other side. In a brilliant short sequence, Avner and his crew meet their Palestinian mirror images deep within the underground and deal with the human element of the conflict head-on. (I think Spielberg and Kushner impart some essential wisdom in Munich: When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, anyone taking either position and claiming with absolute certainty that there is one clear solution without an inch of daylight is someone not worth listening to.) But any misgivings Avner and his team have about murder, even a gruesome off-the-menu kill in Holland, are quickly tamped down. The mission comes first.

Israeli and Palestinian spies hold up guns in a standoff in a dimly lit room with debris on the ground in Munich Image: Universal Pictures

In 2005, Spielberg released two films. The first was the ripped-from-your-nightmares sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds. Then came Munich. (This mirrors, to a degree, 1993 — first came Jurassic Park, then Schindler’s List.) Both of the 2005 movies were reactions to the events of 9/11. In War of the Worlds, we see unimaginable destruction tearing apart an American landscape. Munich pumped the brakes a minute to ask, OK, what the heck is driving this terrorism thing?

That sounds more like an op-ed than a movie, which is why you need a genius like Spielberg directing. Despite a 160-minute run time, the spy thriller absolutely zooms, with numerous scenes of tremendous tension. The crew has a bomb in place; someone just needs to pick up the phone. But wait! A truck blocked the view, and now a little girl is back in the apartment — can Avner tell the others to abort in time?

There is a parade of such sensational moments with explosions, shootouts, silent weapons, plus the bit when Louis’ informant sets our team up at a safe house that he’s also promised to some Palestinians. Whoopsie! These sequences let Kushner really strut his stuff, crafting scenes of conversation that deftly skate around central issues where other writers would just hit us over the head. We’ll never quite know what Papa thinks about Avner’s mission (beyond it being a good source of revenue), but rather than just make him ominous, we get glimpses of a pained former idealist disappointed in his children and his current wealth. We do know that he offers Avner andouillette sausages, which famously smell like excrement.

The Mossad’s reprisals against Black September did not lead directly to 9/11. But it wasn’t not one of the ingredients in that particular stew. The last shot of Spielberg’s film is no accident — Avner and his Mossad handler, played by Geoffrey Rush, come to a philosophical impasse while the agent is laying low in Brooklyn. The camera pans, and off in the distance are the still-standing twin towers of the World Trade Center. Where will all this madness end? Still unknown, but it’s clear what it will hit along the way.

Passengers carrying suitcases walk alongside a train in a station lit with bright blown out window lights, casting each person in silhouette in Munich Image: Universal Pictures

Munich was a success, but not a monster hit upon its release in 2005, earning $131 million at the worldwide box office. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won none of them. Young readers may not realize just how tense things were around the issue of terrorism at the time. Take the controversies of COVID-19, QAnon, and gun control, then put ’em on a plane with explosives in its shoes and you’ll have some idea. Many felt that “both sides” was an inappropriate theme for anything with a connection to the 9/11 attacks; New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that the movie denied reality for the sake of a palatable morality lesson. “In Spielberg’s Middle East,” he wrote, “the only way to achieve peace is by renouncing violence. But in the real Middle East the only way to achieve peace is through military victory over the fanatics, accompanied by compromise between the reasonable elements on each side.”

Early screenings in the U.S. and Israel brought an array of opinions from leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities, with many surprised at its degree of ambiguity. An executive director at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, called it “balanced,” especially impressive “coming from him — a Hollywood director with a presumably pro-Israel orientation.” In the same LA Times feature, an editor at the Jewish Journal called the project “a choice with consequences” for Spielberg, and added that for the Schindler’s List director and creator of the Shoah Foundation “it was brave of him to step down from his pedestal and wade into this muck.” A movie this intentionally at odds with itself was difficult to turn into an object of propaganda or of scorn. I think a lot of people were just eager to let it go away.

Which is, I feel, a great shame. As entertainment, Munich really is splendid. As a meditation on complicated issues, it’s even better. Watching it for the first time in years, I was struck by how well everything clicked together.

Munich is also a time capsule. Eighteen years later, a movie that presents “Israel’s side” with the default sympathy of the audience (even if it is to be later muddied) is something that would not happen today in Hollywood. Israeli good guys were once fairly common in American film (see John Frankenheimer’s 1977 film Black Sunday, for example), but reactions to the casting of Shira Haas as Sabra in Marvel Studios’ upcoming Captain America: New World Order feel telling. One arena in which Israel is clearly losing the battle is in public relations.

There’s a parallel universe where, in 1974, Steven Spielberg made The Man With the Golden Gun instead of The Sugarland Express. How that would have changed the history of cinema is unknown. It’s possible that would have scratched the director’s spycraft itch and we never would have gotten Munich. If everything else was the same, I’m sure his reputation would still be secure. But I’m more convinced than ever that the spy film he eventually made is one of his finest works.