The Daily Stream: Steven Spielberg's 'Munich' Remains As Relevant As Ever

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Munich

Where You Can Stream It: FuboTV

The Pitch: The movie that helped mark a significant turning point in Steven Spielberg's storied career. In 2005, Munich (which completed a certain one-two punch along with War of the Worlds earlier that year) represented something of a reality check for those who expected Spielberg to remain steadfastly within his sentimentalist, nostalgic, and largely crowd-pleasing lane. Instead, audiences received one of his darkest, angriest, and most politically charged features with a gut-punch of a final shot that echoes through the years and, sadly, remains just as relevant today as it did then.

Why It's Essential Viewing: If you've been anywhere near a screen these days, it's been hard to miss the turmoil engulfing Afghanistan. The United States military remains committed to ending its decades-long occupation at the same time that the Taliban — yes, the very same Taliban that American leadership vowed to swiftly eradicate back in 2001 — has regained control of significant parts of the region. The resulting twenty years have been an endless cycle of wheel-spinning, instability, and senseless death...all in the name of a so-called war against terror.

This is the volatile political arena Spielberg willfully enters with Munich, which depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that erupted during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. In one of Spielberg's most deceptively tense and horrific sequences, we can only sit by and watch as terrorists storm the complex hosting Israeli athletes, a situation that inevitably turns bloody, setting off an international crisis and reignition of hostilities in the Middle East. Working from a tightly-wound screenplay by Eric Roth and longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, Spielberg displays an almost radical mindset by avoiding the temptation to moralize an impossibly complicated geopolitical quagmire. Munich doesn't take a galling "Both sides are wrong" approach, but instead dives deep into the psychology of revenge-driven motivation and questioning the idea of what constitutes "home."

Spielberg doesn't offer viewers any easy answers as we watch Mossad agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) lead a specialized group of agents and carry out precision strikes against the dozen or so Palestinians supposedly responsible for the massacre. The improvised group of Israeli assassins, made up of the driver, Steve (Daniel Craig), bombmaker, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), "cleaner," Carl (Ciarán Hinds), and the forger, Hans (Hanns Zischler), are subsequently put through the wringer of espionage and paranoia as every member of the team must decide whether to confront the ethics of their win-at-all-costs orders or ignore their own misgivings in the service of their country. Seemingly nothing goes according to plan, adding a pervasive sense of hopelessness to the proceedings as each man is either killed during the course of events or driven further and further into the steel jaws of never-ending war.

One show-stopping sequence, in particular, marries the absolute best of Spielberg's abilities as a technical filmmaker with his unparalleled instincts as a storyteller. The team's Paris-set assassination attempt of a Palestinian target (which this Nerdwriter video essay breaks down in incredible detail) builds tension largely without dialogue or music. The geography of the setting is painstakingly laid out for us, the potential obstacles (chiefly in the form of civilian casualties) are made distressingly clear, and it all adds up to one of the most effective moments of Spielberg's career. Summarizing it as a sequence where a bombing attempt by the "good" guys is thrown into chaos when the target's daughter unexpectedly returns to the targeted apartment simply doesn't do it any justice. Tragedy is narrowly avoided, but we're never allowed to forget the cost of these actions.

The events of 9/11 hang heavy over Munich, a controversial parallel that makes more and more sense as the denial of a clear-cut victory becomes apparent to the film's main characters. Spielberg finds time for quiet and subtextually-loaded conversations, like one between Avner and a Palestinian man where they debate the nature of a homeland and the lengths they're willing to go to protect what they perceive as theirs. The man is later shot and killed by Avner in a firefight with hardly a second thought, though the death (along with the rest of his actions) is not so easily shaken off.

That's the best way to describe the film, which takes this entertaining but grueling story to its most painfully logical conclusion. Upon completing his mission (as much as it ever could be, at least) and finally being sent home to his new house in New York City while plagued with PTSD and regret, Avner meets his original recruiter, Ephraim (a menacing Geoffrey Rush), for one last conversation. Ephraim begs Avner to return to Israel and the agency to finish what they've started, but Avner refuses. He extends one last olive branch by inviting him to dinner, but the final, brutal word of the entire film is a simple, "No."

The final shot resting on the Twin Towers and silently drawing connections between cycles of pointless violence is hardly subtle. Indeed, Munich invited plenty of controversy upon release and was harshly dismissed by many who felt that the film didn't do enough to condemn one side or the other. But that's never where Spielberg's interests or intentions resided. What remains tragically clear amid all the murkiness of Munich is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.