Munich is the anti-James Bond movie. It has a classic set-up for espionage, intrigue and globetrotting assassinations, and then quickly eschews those tropes to show the viewer an uncompromised vision of what revenge truly looks like: It looks like complete and utter madness, with no end in sight. The moral, if the film has one, is uncharacteristically cynical, offering no real glimpse at hope or progress, but rather tells us that the situation in the Middle East is in need of a remedy that at this point does not yet exist.
In 1972 during the Summer Olympics in Munich, Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped eleven Jewish athletes from Israel and then murdered them. In retaliation, Israel sent a team of Mossad agents to find and kill the people responsible for the massacre.
Enter Avner, played by Eric Bana and his team of experts. Of course, everyone on the team has that one thing they’re good at. There’s a bomb expert. There’s the guy who can scrub scenes and make evidence disappear. There’s a documents guy who can forge whatever they need to gain entrance to classified areas. The supporting cast of the team includes Mathieu Kassovitz, coincidentally pre-Bond Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds, every one of them giving it their all.
Things begin simply enough for the team. They follow a trail of clues and pay off people until they get a good lead on someone who was involved with the Munich Massacre, and then they swiftly execute that person. But even on their first kill, things don’t go quite as planned. This old man, returning home from shopping, is shot through his grocery bags, milk and wine mingling with his blood on the ground.
Revenge is never clean. The price of vengeance has a heavy toll on someone. And then, from there, things only get worse. In a scene that would have made even Hitchcock himself shift uncomfortably in his seat, a bomb is placed onto someone’s phone, set to detonate when they answer it. The suspect’s daughter unexpectedly runs home and Avner must sprint wildly across a busy Parisian street to stop it from killing an innocent young girl. In another scene, a suspected person involved with the massacre killed in a too-powerful explosion that leaves Avner half-deaf and a young couple badly injured, half of a hotel building nearly destroyed.
It becomes clear that the people in charge of Avner’s operation care little about justice, only bloodthirsty revenge. Many of those who had been killed in connection with the massacre at the Olympics have a tenuous connection to the event at best. Evidence comes through shady sources who have ulterior motives.
Munich works as a powerful message against violence. The violence portrayed in the film is not glamorous. No one is smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis and celebrating a job well done. Instead, when someone is shot, it’s shown realistically as it would be in life. A bullet doesn’t simply dispatch a bad guy. A bullet, instead, tears through a human being. And often, they won’t die right away. They’ll suffer. They’ll struggle to breathe. They’ll try to bargain their way out of death, even when it’s too late and they’re slipping away. When Avner and one of his partners kill a woman who may have been responsible for the death of someone on their team, her death is hard to watch. It’s shown as realistically and awfully as possible. What you’re watching isn’t a cause for celebration. It’s murder.
I always like to compare a movie to a meal, the filmmakers being the chefs and cooks required to pull it off. Munich has the same basic ingredients of a James Bond film—beautiful locations, intrigue, double-crosses, plot twists—but how it was all prepared makes all the difference. Munich is not a fun movie. If it were a meal compared to James Bond’s desire to please as many people as possible, it would be a chef’s special you’d never heard of and the chef wouldn’t give a shit if you liked it or not. It’s a meditation on war and peace with a thesis that seems to be saying, “There’s a problem here, and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t even know if we can fix it.” The Israel-Palestine conflict is much too complicated to distill down to a moral about love or the human condition of kindness. No, it needs a movie like Munich to say that there may not be any real movie villains in this situation, but there sure as hell aren’t any heroes involved in it, either.