Watching movies is what I do — for decades as a film critic and for even longer than that, before and since, as a regular human. As a critic, I’m trained to study and coolly interpret the language of filmmakers. Off the clock, I watch to be diverted or to be dazzled, to be comforted or to escape, to be challenged or to try to better understand the world, filtered through someone else’s art. Sometimes this habit has helped me feel well equipped to deal with what’s going on in the world, sometimes less so.
Since Oct. 7, I have felt underequipped. That date has become shorthand for a monstrosity perpetrated against Israelis — and in the months that have followed, Israel has retaliated by killing Palestinians, including countless children, in numbers more awful than the heart can hold. In these past months, despair has hung on my doorpost alongside my mezuza, and moviegoing has felt like thin solace. Still, I look.
There have been a number of memorable movies this year that speak to historical atrocities and tragedies. “Oppenheimer,” for one, does a pretty stunning job of conveying our human capacity to blow up the planet. “The Zone of Interest,” about the life of a concentration camp commandant and his wife living next door to Auschwitz makes the sickness that Hannah Arendt identified as the banality of evil impossible to ignore.
But as I’ve been looking to better comprehend the current moment in the Middle East, the best film I have found is one that came out on Dec. 23, 2005. I’m talking about “Munich,” one of Steven Spielberg’s bleakest, most adult dramas, which — despite five Oscar nominations — was largely considered a misfire when it was released. Today, though, “Munich” reverberates with deep meaning and gravitas. Rewatching the film in this moment reminds us that art can sometimes prick the conscience where hours of political commentary only deaden and that historically based movies are never only about the period in which the story is set or even when the work was made. Movies morph and shift constantly, offering new insights and solaces in relation to the time in which we watch them.
The city that lends itself to the title of the film is shorthand for another monstrosity: an attack by Palestinian terrorists that resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games. The film, adapted from a 1984 nonfiction book, “Vengeance,” by George Jonas, follows an Israeli counterterrorist team assembled to track down and assassinate the individuals involved in the athletes’ murders.
I remember those events; in 1972, I was a studious daughter of New York Jewish suburbia, Hebrew school trained and settling in for the start of the fall semester. I recall hearing the haunting words of the ABC sportscaster Jim McKay on live TV: “They’re all gone.” I attended an on-campus vigil. I recited the Kaddish by heart.
When the film version was released, I praised it, along with many other critics at the time. The action is masterly, signature Spielberg, and the casting is also reflexively Hollywood, with all those handsome movie-star gentiles playing Jews — including the Australian actor Eric Bana as the lead agent, code-named Avner — and with Ciaran Hinds and a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig as Mossadoperatives. The screenplay is credited to Eric Roth and the eminent Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner. It was Mr. Kushner’s first screenplay for Mr. Spielberg and the beginning of a collaboration with the director that continues. The result: During pauses between sleek action sequences, the tough agents ruminate with Kushnerian eloquence on the toll that this cycle of historically entrenched violence and revenge is taking on their souls.
In the movie’s most resonant scene — a gorgeously controlled climax of tension and blackest comedy — Avner and his team find themselves accidentally sharing a safe house with their Palestinian enemies, led by a man named Ali. In the quiet of a night’s cease-fire, the two men share an exchange that feels chillingly relevant today:
In this brief conversation, these sworn enemies encapsulate nearly everything essential that we have ever said about this conflict, everything we might say and see now and everything we may well say and see forever if we don’t find another way for the world to spin forward.
The film’s most dissatisfied critics at the time were political columnists and commentators, who criticized everything from the suggestion that elite Mossad agents would have such qualms about their duties to the implication of a moral equivalence between the goals of Palestinian terrorists and Israeli avengers. The most open-minded viewers were (I’m proud to say) movie critics, who took pains to describe the jolting power of the way the film grappled with moral ambiguity in the context of a typically propulsive Spielberg production.
“Munich” did poorly at the box office, especially by the standards of a Spielberg film, but then, what did the number crunchers expect? It was released in the anxious, skittery years of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, when America was just over four raw years away from the attacks of Sept. 11, and here was a film giving airtime to the viewpoints of terrorists. Mr. Kushner was attacked at the time for perceived Palestinian sympathies. Reflecting on the film’s reception, he has said that movie critics helped save the film by steering the conversation, again and again, back to the value of art.
The value of art is always what I recognized in “Munich.” But when I revisit the film now, I am not seeking assurance; I don’t believe there is any to be had. I don’t look for hope either. If that’s available, I haven’t yet found it, either on the movie screen or in the headlines or from the mouths of commentators. What I’m looking for — what I think many of us are looking for — is a keenness of insight and an understanding of the pain of living with moral grayness that the best art can provide. And that’s what I find now in “Munich.”
I no longer have the movie-critic words to describe the haunting effects of the film. But there’s a moment at the end that was considered, oh, I don’t know, possibly tacky at the time and certainly shocking. Avner, having successfully completed his vengeful mission and now living in Brooklyn with his wife and child and still reeling from the toll his assassination assignment has taken on his soul, meets up with his Mossad handler, Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush, on a stretch of Queens waterfront. The two men talk. Despite their differences about the place of Israel in their hearts, Avner invites Ephraim, a fellow Jew, to dinner in his home. Ephraim declines. And as Avner walks away, the camera pans matter-of-factly across the skyline, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center still stand.
In 2005, with memories of Sept. 11 still fresh and just a year after images of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were made public, the image cut like a knife of grief. The message was unmissable: Violence begets vengeance begets violence, and the road to further tragedy stretches to the horizon. That road leads to right now: Israeli hostages who are still in mortal danger and untold thousands of Palestinians dead.
At first sight, the glimpse at the end of “Munich” of a skyline that no longer existed reopened a raw wound. It was supposed to. It still does.
So I watch it again. And recite the Kaddish by heart.
Lisa Schwarzbaum is a former film critic for Entertainment Weekly.
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