|'a grubby spy film, a look at espionage as rooted in potential reality as much as James Bond is rooted in carefully-iced Martinis and invisible cars'|
Steven Spielberg's Munich, despite and perhaps because of its flaws, which are numerous, remains one of the most debated of his entire canon. Perhaps this is down to the recognisable reality of the setting. Munich is a grubby spy film, a look at espionage as rooted in potential reality as much as James Bond is rooted in carefully-iced Martinis and invisible cars. When you tread this close to 'truth', you are always likely to inspire open debate.
That very debate, in fact, is something that always seemed likely and a discussion of the film's context is an important step to understanding its problems. In a New York Times article from 2005, well before the film's release, David Halbfinger suggests that Speilberg was seeking advice from crisis management professionals, even before the film had started filming, such was the perceived incendiary nature of his material.
Certainly the source behind the film, George Jonas' book Vengeance, proves a difficult read. Told as a third person narrative, based on the non-fiction account of Avner, an Israeli spy, Jonas writes as if he is writing fiction. With his only source being anonymous, hidden by a pseudonym and unknown to the rest of the world, Vengeance's authenticity was in doubt long before Spielberg latched on to it as something to bring to the big screen, and is in fact mentioned by Halbfinger in the same piece as above.
In Spielberg's portrayal of the story there is, of course, little doubt cast on its authenticity. Avner is real, played by Eric Bana, and so is his Israeli hit squad, out to avenge the killing of athletes at the Olympics held in the titular German town.
Cross-referencing Vengeance and Munich to two other texts, One Day In September by Simon Reeve and the film of the same name by Kevin Macdonald, sees many similarities but plenty of holes too. Understandably, Spielberg takes dramatic licence with the subjects' personalities, and favours the details presented in Vengeance when they add to the drama of Bana's on-screen predicament.
Perhaps, ultimately, the problem with Munich though is that, whilst it attempts to balance the 'truth' which One Day In September searches for, with the thrills Jonas clearly seeks to present, it forgets which side it wants to come down on. Avner is clearly harried and haunted - Bana does a good job at bringing him to life - but the tense assassination scenes are often thrilling. Does the film condone terrorist assassination - or at least the passive enjoyment of - as practised by Israel in the 70s and 80s and since, or does it condemn it, through the psychological pressure Avner clearly undergoes? It doesn't seem like it is ever sure and it ends up as neither a wholly competent Thriller nor an arthouse-friendly treatise on the policy of the world's secret agencies.
On face value then, perhaps a discussion of authenticity is a clinical way to analyse a film but, actually, in Munich's case, it is of paramount importance in order to engage with its failures and successes. Clearly torn and concerned by the material he is handling, the director fumbles it, throwing hot stones in the air to avoid burning his hands. Munich is a difficult story to tell - neither Vengeance nor the film version of One Day In September do it any better - and labyrinth in its insinuations, moral quandaries and knock-on effects. Even by giving himself an extended one-hundred and sixty-four minutes, Spielberg can't quite pull all of the elements together, leaving the debate, and the film, in some level of discord.