Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier said, “I can forgive them for killing my children. I cannot forgive them for forcing my children to kill theirs.”
At the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, there was very little security because the Germans were hoping to counter memories of the Nazi-run 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In what later became known as the Black September attack, terrorists broke into the athletes’ living quarters and took members of the Israeli team hostage. They killed two of the team members and released a list of demands. They wanted the release of 234 Arab and German prisoners held in Israel and West Germany. And they demanded that three planes be fueled and made ready for takeoff. At the airport, a failed effort to rescue the hostages led to disaster. All of the hostages and five of the eight terrorists were dead. The three terrorists who were captured were released a few months later in an airplane hijacking that was later acknowledged to be engineered by the German authorities.
This movie is the story of what happened next.
And it is the story of what we face today. Thousands of years of history have given us no roadmap for responding to terrorism. All of the options are unthinkable.
Meier (Lynn Cohen), criticized for refusing to negotiate with the terrorists, authorizes an attack by air on guerrilla targets in Lebanon and Syria. And she directs that the organizers and perpetrators of the Black Sunday attack be hunted down and killed. Not captured, not tried in court. Killed.
The leader of this off-the-books venture is Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), an officer in Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) with a wife who is seven months pregnant. Israel will have no official knowledge of their activities, but will support them with cash and resources.
Like a real-life Mission Impossible, Avner has a team of experts. One knows bombs. One knows how to forge documents. One “worries” — he’s the guy who makes sure they don’t leave any clues behind.
They have thousands of American dollars to give to those who can help them find their targets. And very quickly, they find their first target. He is not in hiding. In fact, he is due to appear at a promotional event for his new book, a translation of the Arabian Nights into Italian.
They follow him as he stops to pick up groceries and has a pleasant exchange with the shopkeeper. They confront him in the stairwell of his apartment building. They shoot him, and his blood mingles with the spilled milk from the shattered bottle.
Avner makes contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric) a man who explains that he is “ideologically promiscuous” and will do anything except do business with any government. Avner assures him he is working for “rich Americans” and Louis begins to give him names and provide support for the operation. But how do you trust someone who is (apparently) honest about his untrustworthiness, especially when you’re lying to him? Louis (possibly a reference to the initially amoral Louis in Casablanca) makes no promises that he will protect Avner if another client is looking for him. But Louis has what Avner will not find from an upstanding citizen — the names and locations of the people Avner is looking for and the means to help Avner and his team kill them.
It would have been natural, even easy, for the Steven Spielberg of 20 years ago to make this into a sort of “Indiana Jones and the Terrorist Assassins” story, with Avner as something between a cowboy and a comic book hero specializing in do-it-yourself justice. Revenge is a narrative propulsion engine that always works well in movies and Spielberg is a master of pacing and storytelling. All of that is brilliantly applied here. But he does not let us get caught up in the good guys vs. the bad guys shoot-em-up. The first hit is not just excruciatingly tense; it is excruciatingly difficult. We want them to shoot, but we also don’t want them to.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) do not just show us all sides; they show Avner and his team all sides, and let the characters and the audience agonize over what they and we have become. In one scene, Louis has unintentionally (or intentionally) double-booked two teams of assassins into a room in an ironically-termed “safe house.” After an all-guns-drawn stand-off, Avner persuades the other group they are not there to hurt them, and everyone lies down to try to get some sleep. There’s a bit of a struggle over the radio until they find a station everyone can agree on — American R&B. Meanwhile, Avner and the leader of the other group talk about the future of Israel and Palestine. The next time they meet, talking is not on the agenda.
Spielberg is a master of point of view, making us care about and root for the movie’s “hero.” We happily root for the good guys when it’s three guys against a shark or some scientists and kids against the dinosaurs or Indiana Jones (or Schindler or the soldiers looking for Private Ryan) against the Nazis. Here, he uses that skill to tell Avner’s story, making it clear that he is the hero, and yet keep us off-balance as he and Kushner add layers of heart-wrenching detail and complexity.
Like most Spielberg movies, the theme of this story is home, and what makes it heartbreaking is the way each of the characters is just trying to do the best he can to protect his home and his family. What makes it even more heartbreaking is the way that all of them, in their own way, end up as exiles. Avner can no longer live in the land for which he sacrificed so much, including his time with his family and his peace of mind. Others lose the home they thought they had as a part of a culture committed to righteousness, not revenge.
Like Avner, we get numb to the killing. The first one is heart-breaking; after the fourth (or is it the fifth?), you’re just thinking about the logistics.
How do you kill a monster without becoming one yourself? How do you look in the eyes of a monster without seeing his humanity? The first of Avner’s targets explains that the Arabian Nights stories are enduring because of the power of narrative. Each of the characters in the story (as well as Spielberg, Kushner, and the real-life Avner who cooperated with a book about what happened) have a story to tell. The movie ends, but the story goes on.
Parents should know that this is an extremely violent movie with constant peril and many injuries and deaths and a child in peril. This is not a mindless Hollywood shoot-em-up; it is a real-life story and Spielberg and Kushner make you feel how agonizing each encounter really is. There are also explicit sexual situations (some nudity). The language is less strong than in most R-rated films; someone gives the finger.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the options are for preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. How does each of the people in this movie define the “home” he or she is protecting? How do each of them decide what the limits are — what they will and will not do? How do you decide what your own defition of home and limits are? Black September and the Israeli response (which they called “Wrath of God”) were both in large part intended to affect the public perception of the righteousness of the causes of their organizers. How effective were they? How do you decide who is in your “us” and who is in your “them?” What does Meier’s quotation mean?
Families who appreciate this movie should see the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September about the capture and killing of the Israeli Olympic athletes, which makes clear the devastation of the loss of the Israeli team members and explores the ineptitude of the German officals and the callousness of the Olympic community. More information about the Black September attack and its aftermath can be found here, here, and here. A Woman Called Golda has Ingrid Bergman as Golda Meier, the Milwaukee schoolteacher who became the second Prime Minister of Israel.