Munich is a freight train of a film: it's sluggish and clunky to start, but gradually builds to a frightening, impressive speed on tracks that blast right through the final shot and into our daily, War on Terror-haunted lives.
The movie tells the story of the top-secret, Israeli-sponsored program of assassination enacted in response to the infamous Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympic games, in which 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and ultimately murdered by a Palestinian group calling itself Black September. With historical news footage from Munich to set the stage, the story quickly shifts to Avner (Eric Bana), a young, untested Mossad agent. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), steeled by memories of Jewish inaction during the holocaust, sends Avner and four other agents on a mission of vengeance that doesn't officially exist and won't ever be publicly acknowledged. What follows is a sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes melodramatic, but ultimately well-written meditation on revenge, filled with a compelling moral ambiguity that's welcome and unfamiliar territory for Spielberg (who, in his "big idea" films, often directs with strident and righteous authority).
After some truly cringe-inducing, over-directed moments at the beginning ("I want receipts," shouts the stereotyped Israeli government accountant, slamming his big book shut for comic emphasis), the film's quality improves noticeably in the second act, when it focuses on the assassinations and what those assassinations mean for the men who carry them out, for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for the world.
The small group of agents make idealistic but timid murderers (Avner fumbles for his weapon and nearly loses the nerve to use it on their first target); they are assured of their righteousness even as they are clumsy in operation. But, as the men become more efficient in their mission, they grow less and less certain of its methods. The weight of their bloody deeds begins to hang on them. Spielberg takes care to show many of the members of Black September with families, with normal jobs, as men who have identities beyond "terrorist." The Mossad is assassinating people, not on a field of battle, not engaged in planning an attack, but in bed with their wives or walking home with sacks of groceries. "We Jews are supposed to be righteous!" says boyish Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the squad's bomb-maker. "If I lose my soul, I lose everything!" In a wonderful metaphor for Israel's transition from safe haven to war machine, we discover that Robert was trained to disarm bombs, not to make them. Only flint-eyed David (Daniel Craig) remains unconflicted as the team crosses more and more names of its grim list: "The only blood I care about is Jewish blood."
The film - and Tony Kushner's thoughful screenplay - really finds its voice here, as Avner and his team begin to wrestle with the justifications for, and implications of, the assasinations. And, beyond moral objections, the men can't be sure the murders are bringing them any closer to their ultimate objective: elimination of all violent threats to their homeland. That objective, much like the stated objective in the Iraq War, is predicated on the flawed idea that there are a finite number of "terrorists" to eliminate; once they are eliminated, mission accomplished and everybody can go home. But as Munich demonstrates quite brilliantly - by contrasting each successful assasination with a news clip of a retalitory Palistinian terrorist attack - there is no finite number of bad guys to kill. Black September's leadership changes and grows as quickly as the Mossad can kill them; each new member is more brutal than his predecessor. Soon, Avner's squad is killing the replacements of the men on their original list. They are chopping at the heads of a hydra. And of course, each Palistinian killed in the name of vengeance creates a corresponding debt to be repayed with Israeli blood, another fatherless son determined to take arms against the Jews, as the cycle of revenge and retaliation builds to a hysterical, unstoppable pitch. The similarities to America's War on Terror - and specifically the Iraq War - are unmistakable and intentional. I was reminded of the now-famous leaked Rumsfield memo that wondered: "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror ... Are we killing more terrorists than we're creating in Iraq?"
Munich demonstrates how dangerous vengeance becomes when it's adopted as foreign policy, because it is such an easy emotion to manipulate. Much as an understandably furious and wounded American public was manipulated to support a war that had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks, Avner is manipulated into assasinating men whom, he's led to believe, orchestrated the Munich massacre. But by the end of the film, (slight spoiler) Avner realizes he has murdered strictly on his government's say-so, with no evidence to confirm the guilt of the accused. When he demands to see such evidence, Mossad spook Ephraim (chameleon Geoffrey Rush) shrugs him off: "What does it matter?"
The heart of the film is an almost unbelievable but thrilling scene in which the Mossad agents and a PLO group, both acting on information from a contact that sells to any ideology with cash, are forced to spend the night together in the same safe house. Avner (masquarading as a German) and a young Palistinian state their rigid positions on the Israel-Palistine situation. They are absolute mirror images of each other: uncompromising, unforgiving, each convinced of his uprightness. There is no room for negotiation on either side. When Avner scoffs that the Palistians will never get the land back, the young PLO member replies: "How long did it take Israel to become a country?"
Munich is an arresting portrait of a struggle that continues to ensnare the West and the East in an idealogical and viscous net. The cast is solid; Eric Bana anchors the story with quiet power and suprising emotional dexterity (Marie-Josee Croze is particularly memorable, in two short scenes, as femme fatale Jeannette). But, the the star of the film is really Tony Kushner's many-layered script, which, at every turn, makes the political personal through Avner's journey from idealism to cripplying paranoia, from hunter to hunted, from soldier to father who must live in a world where a stranger with a bomb might pay his family a visit in retaliation for things done, years ago, in the name of God and country.