21st Century Spielberg Podcast: With 'War Of The Worlds' And 'Munich', Steven Spielberg Confronted The War On Terror

(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: War of the Worlds and Munich.)In 1993, Steven Spielberg reached the pinnacle of his career. The perfect encapsulation of his considerable talents. In June of that year, he released Jurassic Park, one of the biggest blockbusters to ever roar its way out of Hollywood. Blending Spielberg's gift for visual storytelling with cutting-edge technology, Jurassic Park confirmed Spielberg as an unstoppable movie-making master – a man who could make the impossible possible. By December of that same year, the filmmaker would release something altogether different – Schindler's List. A searing, wrenching drama rooted in the Holocaust, it would go on to win Spielberg his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. It was the biggest artistic triumph of his métier. The fact that one filmmaker delivered Jurassic Park and Schindler's List in the same year is often remarked upon, and marveled over. But perhaps more remarkable is the fact that in 2005, Steven Spielberg did it again.In June of 2005, the director would release War of the Worlds, a churning, pulse-pounding, often horrifying blockbuster about an alien invasion. Then in December came Munich, based on the true story of the aftermath of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics. These two films aren't mentioned in the same breath as Jurassic and Schindler, and yet, they should be. With War of the Worlds, Spielberg turned his camera lens towards the September 11th attacks, and brought back the perfect blend of his blockbuster sensibilities and his artistic integrity. With Munich, he may have made his masterpiece.The similarities in release years of these four films are obvious – popcorn entertainment in the summer, deep reflective drama in the winter. But War of the Worlds and Munich share a more common throughway than Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Because ultimately, War and Munich are about the same thing: the war on terror. A war that might be impossible to win, and yet, mankind keeps fighting it anyway. And the bodies keep piling up.

Part 3: The War On Terror – War of the Worlds and Munich

War of the Worlds tripod

Is It The Terrorists?

"Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us."On September 11, 2001, real life became a disaster movie, with images splashed across TV that previously only existed in big blockbusters – buildings toppled as people fled through the streets in terror, chased by tidal-waves of smoke. Art always holds a mirror up to reality, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood started reflecting these events. Filmmakers would directly tackle that infamous day with titles like United 93 and World Trade Center, and the first Cloverfield would essentially be 9/11: The Monster Movie.But as is often the case in show-business, Steven Spielberg got there first. While the marketing for Spielberg's War of the Worlds sold it as another Spielbergian piece of entertainment, complete with Tom Cruise front and center, the end result was something altogether different.The director would tell the Daily Express: "9/11 changed a lot for me. It changed a lot for everybody in the world. And my films did grow darker after 9/11. Minority Report was a very dark look at the future, and certainly War of the Worlds, which was a very direct reference to 9/11. It was a real post-9/11 story. Not intended that way, but that's the way it turned out.""Would you have made the film if September 11 had not happened?" an interviewer from Spiegel asked Spielberg around the time of the film's release. Spielberg's reply:

"Probably not. [H.G] Wells' novel has been made into a film several times, notably always in times of international crisis: World War II had just begun when Orson Welles terrified millions of Americans with his legendary radio play version, the headlines were dominated by reports on Hitler's invasion of Poland and Hungary. When the first screen version came into the movie theatres in 1953, the Americans were very afraid of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. And our version also comes at a time when Americans feel deeply vulnerable."

The 9/11 parallels are impossible to ignore, and rather than get subtle, Spielberg leans into them. It's telling that when the alien attack kicks off, Dakota Fanning, playing Cruise's character's daughter Rachel, immediately yells, "Is it the terrorists?!""I thought, 'Shouldn't we take that out?'," screenwriter David Koepp later said, "because you know, it's a little direct. And Steven said, 'No, she's 11; it's 2005, she's going to say that. That's what an 11-year-old would say, that would be her fear.' And once we decided to neither deliberately remove or deliberately add anything relating to 9/11 or Iraq, or the world we live in today, then it just was itself because we all live in the same world, same year, so it should look like that."war of the worlds behind the scenes

E.T. Gone Bad

None of this is to say War of the Worlds is nothing but a dour reflection on the September 11th attacks. At its heart, it's a blockbuster, loaded with big action beats, awe-inducing Spielbegian camerawork, and of course, Tom Cruise."This is E.T. gone bad," Cruise said in press notes for the film, riffing on an earlier, friendlier Spielberg alien flick. Tom Cruise is not a normal man, so Spielberg casting him as one – a working-class schlub who lives in a messy house and passes out as soon as he gets home from work – might seem a little questionable. But the actor makes it work, mostly through body language.Cruise doesn't get as much credit as an actor as he deserves – people tend to think of him only as a "movie star." But beneath that way-too-perfect grin is a versatile performer. Sure, Cruise has matinee idol looks, but he seems surprisingly, well, average in War of the Worlds. The actor is often shot in close-up to disguise his relatively short stature (he's 5' 7"), but Spielberg subverts that by bringing the camera back. Cruise looks sleight here, especially when interacting with his children, played by Fanning and Justin Chatwin. In many ways, he's just a big kid, with no real idea how to act like an adult. He awkwardly and clumsily tries to play catch with his son, Robbie, but the boy could care less. Later in the film, after the aliens have invaded, Cruise's character Ray Ferrier frantically tries to make his children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and it becomes painfully clear that Cruise has never had to make a sandwich once in his life. He fucks it up, and in a rage, he throws the sandwich at a window, where it comically sticks like a work of abstract art.As War of the Worlds opens, big kid Ray is tasked with watching over his kids, sullen teenager Robbie and whip-smart 11-year-old Rachel. Ray's ex-wife (Miranda Otto) drops the children off at Ray's New Jersey home on her way to visit her parents in Boston, and while Ray and his ex seem amicable, and even friendly, it's clear why they split – Ray is kind of a prick. He's the type of adult stuck in a teenage mindset – the type of person who still thinks high school was the best time of his life. Robbie clearly loathes him. Rachel is more understanding, but she also knows her father well enough to realize she has to take care of herself while Ray passes out after working a long shift as a crane operating longshoreman.It's during this weekend with his kids that the world as we know it comes to a swift end. Aliens invade, beaming down into monstrous tripods that have been buried in the earth for thousands of years. At first, Ray thinks all of this is kind of cool. A freak electrical storm signals the alien arrival, and Ray tries to play it off as being akin to fireworks, before a lighting bolt seems to crash directly down into one specific spot in the neighborhood. Here, Ray is so frightened he darts back inside to hide under a table.What follows is one of the most effective, and terrifying, sequences in Spielberg's filmography. Ray wanders over to the street where the lighting struck multiple times. He's not the only one there – people from all over the neighborhood have gathered, muttering and looking down at the smoking crack in the street – the exact spot the lighting hit. It's from here the tripods rise – huge, insectoid machines that emit a dread-inducing fog-horn sound. At first, everyone stares up at them in a mixture of horror and awe. And then the destruction starts: a beam shoots from the machine, literally obliterating anyone it touches – reducing them to dust.Spielberg and longtime DOP Janusz Kaminski shoot all of this from the ground level, with the camera tilted up – an image that immediately calls to mind the countless amateur videos shot on the ground during 9/11, with terrified New Yorkers pointing cameras up at the sky. Ray runs, and Spielberg runs with him, as all around, screaming people go up in smoke.To underline the horror of this all, Spielberg counters the loud mayhem with a chilling quiet moment. Back at his house, Ray runs into the bathroom to wash his face. He's covered from head to toe in dust, and horror sinks in as he realizes this is no ordinary dust – it's the disintegrated remains of his neighbors. This progression of scenes sets the tone for the film to come: big, special-effects laden spectacle punctuated with beats of unimaginable horror.war of the worlds fanning

The Basic Elements of Human Nature

After its initial set-up, War of the Worlds turns into a road movie, with Ray and his kids frantically moving from one location to the next, always trying to stay ahead of the aliens – and often failing. Spielberg does a remarkable job creating a never-relenting sense of panic – the landscape is often wet, and dark, and harsh. People huddle together like cattle, shuffling forward, unable to truly run.A thrilling scene unfolds with a ferry – Ray, his kids, and thousands of others are trying to escape via the boat when tripods crest the hill, looming over, bleating their horrible horns. It's chilling in its simplicity – there's nowhere to run. Sooner or later, the monsters will find you."This is a very simple story," Spielberg said, "it's a story about survival, about a father trying to keep his children safe. It's about the basic elements of human nature set against an extraordinarily unnatural event."As the film unfolds, Ray attempts to be more of an adult to his children, but his kids aren't buying it. Robbie wants to join up with the military to fight – another element plucked from the aftermath of 9/11, when so many felt the need to immediately enlist to fight a war for payback. To underline how pathetic Ray's children find him, Robbie's attempts to flee are chastised to Rachel. "Who's going to take care of me if you leave!?" she sobs to her brother, with Ray standing right there, a defeated look on his face.Amidst all the chaos, the family unit is what Spielberg is most interested in here. And despite what some may think, he's not always striving for a happy ending. Much was made of the film's ending moments, in which it's revealed Robbie, thought dead, is alive and well. Some accused Spielberg of copping out. But Robbie being there at the end is essential to Ray's character growth. He has to learn to both protect his children, and let them go.War of the Worlds underlines this with two distinct moments. One has Robbie finally breaking away – not in rage, or disgust, with Ray, but rather because he thinks it's what he has to do. "You have to let me go," he tells his father during a bombastic battle scene, in which the military is engaged in combat with the tripods. "I want to fight." Try as he might, Ray can't hold on to Robbie – and the teenager slips away, vanishing just as a fireball engulfs a hillside."We can be as persuasive as we can," said Koepp. "And we can put all our armament against it, but you can't stop this. It's your worst nightmare you're facing. You can feel that happening to anyone in America."With this scene, Spielberg and Koepp are highlighting a cold, hard fact that became all the more apparent after 9/11 – we can't always keep our loved ones safe. Of course, we all already knew this on some primordial level. But it was as if the country was living with a collected delusion – we were untouchable. Nothing could really hurt us.The second moment to highlight Ray's growth as a father, and as a person, is the complete opposite of the Robbie departure scene. Having failed to be able to keep his son safe, Ray is hellbent on holding onto Rachel, no matter what. Here, Spielberg grinds War of the Worlds to a complete halt. All the forward momentum is violently stopped as Ray and Rachel end up in the basement of a ruined house with a gun-toting nutjob.This is Ogilvy, played with a bit too much craziness by Tim Robbins. Robbins goes overboard giving the character a distracting accent, but his performance – all wide-eyes and licked-lips – gets the job done."Ogilvy is a guy who has lost his entire family, as so many people have," said Spielberg. "He has been hiding out in the basement of this farmhouse. He has a plan, but that plan is deranged. You forgive him some of his derangement because he has suffered such a great loss and he's not thinking clearly, but he becomes as much a danger to Ray's and Rachel's survival as the invaders."Ogilvy is a reminder that aliens aren't the only thing Ray has to worry about. Humans are just as dangerous, often foolishly so. Ogilvy rants and raves, and makes somewhat disturbing advances towards Rachel – "If anything happens to your daddy, I'll take care of you," he tells her at one point, unprovoked.During this sequence, Spielberg creates more nightmarish imagery – a landscape run red with blood, as if the Martians, in an attempt to make a new red planet, are watering the earth with our plasma. This development understandably freaks Ogilvy out, but his frantic antics are too much to handle – he's bound to attract attention. So Ray takes matters into his own hands, literally. So determined is he to protect Rachel after losing Robbie that he murders Ogilvy, more or less in cold blood. It's a shockingly dark moment, and by no means the work of a heroic character. And it's moments like this that elevate War of the Worlds above simple summer blockbuster material.Spielberg is willing to go to dangerously dark places, ask unsettling questions, and wind up with alarming answers. More often than not, when someone is making a movie about characters dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, a narrative of hope is put in place. Oliver Stone's clunky World Trade Center ends with Nicolas Cage's character bluntly narrating, "9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of. The evil, yeah, sure. But it also brought out the goodness we forgot could exist."But Spielberg isn't interested in the "goodness we forgot could exist." Instead, he's saying that tragedy can force humans to commit terrible things, all in the name of survival.Why then does Spielberg end things on a slightly positive note, by having Robbie show up alive and well in Boston at the very end? Perhaps it was instinct. Perhaps after over two hours of unrelenting darkness, he felt he needed to give Ray, and the audience, a little bit of a break. Even so, Spielberg doesn't stage in the ending in a sappy way. Robbie and Ray don't run towards each other and embrace. In fact, the scene cuts away before they're ever truly united. Ray simply spots Robbie at a distance, and the two share a knowing look. There's no love in that look, but there is understanding. Robbie may be back, but in many ways, the Robbie Ray knew – his dopey teenage son – is gone. He died during the journey, replaced with someone new. The same can be said for Ray, too. Just as the same could be said for us all after September 11th. The past has gone up in smoke. The future is uncertain.spielberg munich

No Easy Answers

"Home is everything."

One of the best scenes of Steven Spielberg's entire filmography comes midway through Munich, the other movie the legendary director released in 2005. It's not the flashiest scene he's ever composed. It's not full of special effects. It doesn't even have swelling John Williams music. Instead, it involves two men talking. A quiet conversation, weighed down by thousands of years of history.

One of these men is Ali (Omar Metwally), a Palestinian. The other is Avner (Eric Bana), a Jew. Ali doesn't know Avner's true identity – he's posing as a German. And by hiding his Israeli heritage, Avner is able to converse calmly with Ali. It's a conversation about land. About home. Spielberg starts the scene from above, as if it were God himself looking down on these two men of different faiths as they stand in a stairwell. And then he moves closer. Ali stands on a higher step – he has the higher ground. Avner is slightly lower, looking up. There is a considerable distance between the two individuals – you could park a car in this gap. You could fill that gap in with millennia of hostility.

"You people have nothing to bargain with," Avner says. "You'll never get the land back. You'll die old men in refugee camps waiting for Palestine."

"We have a lot of children," Ali counters. "They'll have children. So we can wait forever. And if we need to, we can make the whole planet unsafe for Jews."

"You kill Jews and the world feels bad for them," Avner shoots back, "and thinks you animals."

Ali: "Yes. But then the world will see how they've made us into animals. They'll start to ask questions about the conditions in our cages."

Avner: "You are Arabs. There are lots of places for Arabs."

Avner's reasoning is simplistic, almost childish. He can't grasp why Ali, and his people, are dead-set on trying to get that land back.

"Tell me something, Ali," he says. "Do you really miss your father's olive trees? Do you honestly think you have to get back all that... that nothing? that chalky soil and stone huts? Is that what you really want for your children?"

Ali doesn't hesitate with his reply: "It absolutely is. It will take a hundred years...but we'll win."

There's no middle ground here. No reconciliation. No solution. And then, the scene ends with a moment of clarity.

"You don't know what it is not to have a home," Ali says. "We want to be nations. Home is everything."

With Munich, Spielberg is tackling an incredibly difficult topic, and viewing it through the lens of a spy-thriller. The end result is the perfect blend of his blockbuster sensibilities with his 21st-century quest for heavier, weightier, and important subject matter. "I look at the world in which my children are growing up, and when I see darkness I can't make funny films about it," he said when asked about the ultra-dark one-two-punch if War of the Worlds and Munich. "As I get older I feel the burden of responsibility that comes along with such a powerful tool as filmmaking. Now I want to tell stories that really mean something. On the other hand, providing good entertainment for a large audience is also very nice. I have often and willingly made movies by popular demand. There is a distinction between moviemaking and filmmaking — but both are attractive and I want to do both."

Munich does both in the same film, balancing entertainment and meaning on the thin edge of a knife. The end result is a film that very well may be Spielberg's masterpiece. But it's not without its detractors, who were primarily unhappy with Spielberg's approach to the touchy subject matter. The filmmaker knew what he was getting into. "I did not approach the subject naively," he said in an interview with Spiegel around the time of Munich's release. "I am an American Jew and aware of the sensitivities involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Yet even though Spielberg was cognizant of the potential minefield he was stepping in, he still seemed taken aback to the criticism Munich received – particularly from some Jewish audiences. Munich, which deals with the assassination of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and the mission afterward in which Mossad agents hunted down potential terrorist for revenge, was lambasted in some corners for being too critical of Israel, and too sympathetic to Palestinian terrorists.

Spielberg didn't agree. Yes, he presented the terrorists as real flesh and blood individuals, some even with families. But that's not the same as excusing their actions. "Probing the motives of those responsible and showing that they are also individuals with families and have their own story does not excuse what they did," the director countered. "Wanting to understand the background to a murder doesn't mean you accept it. To understand does not mean to forgive. Understanding has nothing to do with being soft; it is a brave and very robust attitude to take."

"I try not to demonize them," Spielberg said of the film's terrorist characters. "Again, this has absolutely nothing to with relativizing their acts or sympathizing with them. But I do believe that it sullies the memory of the victims if we do not ask questions about the reasons, about the roots of terror. My film is not supposed to be a pamphlet, not a caricature, not a one-dimensional view of things. I refuse to give simple answers to complicated questions."

Why then was Munich viewed in such a harsh light by some? The answer lies in Spielberg's approach to this material. While Munich is told entirely from the point of view of Avner and his fellow Jewish Mossad agents, the script – masterfully written by Tony Kushner – never treats their actions as heroic. You never get the sense that Spielberg is rooting for these characters. And in the course of their mission, each man grows more and more haunted by the violence they're inflicting. It's a complex, complicated approach to this material – and feels all the more complex due to the spy movie lens Spielberg is filtering the story through. Munich moves like a pulse-pounding action film – but action movies don't tend to stop to reflect on the violence happening on screen. Munich does.

"It would make people more comfortable if I made a film that said all targeted assassination is bad, or good, but the movie doesn't take either of those positions," Spielberg told Roger Ebert. "[Munich] refuses to. Many of those pundits on the left and right would love the film to land somewhere definite. It puts a real burden on the audience to figure out for themselves how they feel about these issues. There are no easy answers to the most complex story of the last 50 years." 

Spielberg is right, of course. There are no easy answers. And yet, I keep going back to that conversation in the stairwell between Avner and Ali. To that final line. Perhaps that is the easiest answer of all: home is everything.

munich avner

We're Supposed to Be Righteous

Munich is a movie about revenge. It's also a movie about the cost of revenge – and the question of whether revenge is ultimately ever worth it. "A response to a response is a never-ending cycle that doesn't really solve anything," Spielberg said. "It just creates a perpetual-motion machine. I never tried to answer the question of Israeli policy. That's not up to me. I'm not a diplomat. I'm not a politician. I'm a filmmaker, not a policymaker, so I didn't give answers. But I think the movie has a searching spirit and it asks a lot of questions."

At the same time, Spielberg has gone on record saying he felt the Israeli response to Munich was the correct one. "This movie is not an argument for non-response," the director said. "On the contrary, what this movie is showing is that what may be the right response is still one that confronts you with very serious issues. And when we have to respond to terror today, what's relevant is the need to go through a careful process. Not to paralyze ourselves; not to prevent us from acting, but to try to ensure that the results that we produce are the ones that we attend. It's the unintended results that are probably some of the worst, and are ultimately going to bedevil us."

The question lingers: will it do any good? And at what cost?

Munich opens with the early stages of the capture of a group of Israeli athletes and their coach at the 1972 Olympics. We don't see how things turn out – but we hear about it on the news: slaughter. Mass casualties. All the hostages end up dead. Spielberg deliberately leaves their deaths off screen at first, but he'll return to them again and again throughout the narrative, as they haunt the main character, Avner. The deaths of the athletes hang over his head, a constant reminder of why he's doing what he's doing.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) wants a swift, bloody response to Munich – even if it conflicts with her own morals. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," she says. Enter Avner and his team, recruited by the pithy Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who seems to never take anything very seriously – even when ordering people killed.

Avner's team consists of the handsome, no-nonsense soldier Steve (pre-Bond Daniel Craig); fastidious Carl (Ciarán Hinds); twitchy bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); and the older, more hardened Hans (Hanns Zischler). This team of off-the-books assassins is tasked with tracking and killing 11 Palestinians that were supposedly involved in the Munich massacre in some capacity – although none of the targets were actually on the ground at Munich.

The mission is cut and dry at first, and all the men seem a-okay with their task. "Don't fuck with the Jews," Steve quips, adding that the only blood he cares about is Jewish blood. But when they arrive at their first kill – an elderly poet living in Rome – it's clear that these men aren't cold-blooded killers. They waiver. They hesitate. They stammer their words.

This gives way to a more complicated second killing, involving a bomb planted in a man's apartment. This entire scene is masterful, building towards terrifying tension. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner take the time to show that this particular target is a family man – Robert even comes face to face with the man's young, smiling daughter. The team knows they must kill this man, but they don't want his family to be collateral damage. They wait until it appears the family has left the apartment for the day, and come nail-bitingly close to detonating the bomb. But at the last minute, the daughter returns to grab something she forgot – sending the team scrambling. A pattern emerges: none of their missions go smoothly.

And as the bodies pile up, our main characters change, considerably. Growing more haunted, more mournful. "We're supposed to be righteous," Robert says at one point. "That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish. And we're losing it. If I lose that, that's everything. That's my soul."

Munich presents these statements, but adds a depressing sense of inevitability. Avner and his team feel conflicted – and yet they can't stop. They have to keep killing. They have to finish the mission. It's all they have now – even if it means losing their souls in the process.

And their lives.

As the story progresses, several members of Avner's team are bumped-off, leading to one of the ugliest sequences in the film. After an alluring female assassin (Marie-Josée Croze) has killed one of their own, Avner and the guys track her down at her home. She's lounging about, nude beneath a silk robe, when the men invade her residence. She tries to stall them with sexual come-ons, but they're cold to her charms, and promptly, and brutally, murder her. Her dead body lies slumped, her robe spilled open, her breasts exposed. One of the men attempts to cover her up, at which point Hans interrupts, hissing, "Leave it."

Later, though, Hans feels some semblance of remorse. He doesn't feel bad that they killed the woman – but he does regret not allowing her dead, nude body to be covered up. Hans is clinging to some attempt at normalcy – sure, he's a killer, but he wishes he were a decent killer. A killer with a soul. But he can't have it both ways. None of them can. And as Munich draws to a close, Avner is haunted and paranoid – a man who has to sleep in his closet out of fear that there's a bomb planted under his bed.

"A campaign of vengeance, even though it may contribute towards deterrence and preventing terror, can also have unintended consequences," Spielberg said. "It can change people, burden them, brutalize them, lead to their ethical decline. And even Mossad agents do not have ice water flowing through their veins."

munich spielberg set

A Prayer for Peace

The visual palette of Munich, courtesy of frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, is washed-out and faded; a vintage vibe prevails, invoking '70s thrillers. "I certainly tried to bring an early-'70s Hollywood style," Spielberg said, "a cinéma-vérité style with zoom lenses and a lot of the tools that were used to make movies in the '70s—one of my favorites being The Day of the Jackal."

But one cannot talk about the visuals of Munich without addressing a scene that many cite as flawed. These viewers seem perfectly fine with Munich up until one specific point: a climactic sex scene. Spielberg's films are often chaste, sexless affairs. But with Munich, he bookends the film with intercourse. Near the opening, we see Avner making love to his pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer). It's a sensual moment – about as erotic as a Spielberg film gets, with the lovers panting and sweaty, passionately embracing. Avner the lover in this scene is carefree and playful.

Near the end of the film, however, after Avner has undergone his mission, he and his wife have sex again, and it's a completely different experience. It borders on the surreal, with Spielberg shooting up into Avner's face as he thrusts away at his wife, a look of horror and sorrow slowly dawning on him. "It's almost over-the-top to some degree, right?" Kaminski said of the scene. "It's not a delicate little scene. It is what it is, and [Spielberg] wanted to take this chance because it reflected the  movie: his anger, his primal fear, his primal desire to be alive." As Avner orgasms, he has a vision of the Olympic athletes being gunned down, and we see the muzzle flash of machine guns lighting his face. "To be with a woman allows you to be who you are, and [Avner's orgasm] reflects the state of Israel and how sometimes it feels like it wants to scream and yell," Kaminski said. "That's how I understood the scene, at least."

Yes, the scene is awkward, but it's supposed to be awkward. And painful. And shocking. The man who climaxes here, with a fierce scream, is in no way similar to the man we saw passionately embracing his wife at the start of the film. So much has changed.

And yet, nothing has changed.

"Did we accomplish anything at all? Every man we killed has been replaced by worse," Avner complains to Ephraim during the film's haunting final scene, set by the Brooklyn waterfront. Avner now lives in the United States with his family, and refuses to return to Israel.

"Why cut my fingernails? They'll grow back," Ephraim replies to Avner's question.

"Did we kill to replace the terrorist leadership or the Palestinian leadership?" Avner barks. "You tell me what we've done!"

"You killed them for the sake of a country you now choose to abandon," Ephraim quietly replies. "The country your mother and father built, that you were born into. You killed them for Munich, for the future, for peace."

Peace. That word lingers in the air just as the word "home" does from earlier in the film.

"The movie offers a forum – there are some people in the Jewish community who don't think it was appropriate to have given a position on, or even a scene to explore, the Palestinian character," Spielberg said. "But Tony and I thought it was very, very important. There's been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in the region. And where does it end? How does it end? This movie is a prayer for peace."

Spielberg means this, and believes this. But he still ends the film in doubt.

"There's no peace at the end of this no matter what you believe," Avner tells Ephraim. "You know this is true."

And looming in the background across the water, as the camera pans back, is the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers jutting into the skyline. Munich longs for an end to terror. But it also acknowledges that there's no end in sight.


In the next edition of 21st Century Spielberg, Part 4: The Return of the Great Adventure – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull & The Adventures of Tintin.