In 1972, Palestinian terrorists broke into the Munich Olympic grounds and took 11 Israeli athletes hostage. After a lengthy tense standoff, slaughter ensued, leaving all of the hostages dead, and the peace of the games shattered. "Munich" (IMDB listing) tells the story of Avner (Eric Bana, "Hulk"), an Israeli Mossad officer who is given a mission to assemble a team and travel throughout Europe hunting down Palestinian "Black September" agents and sympathizers who helped plan the massacre. As the team (including Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds) embarks on their assignment, Avner begins to realize the duty of revenge might eventually take its greatest toll on his own life.
Steven Spielberg, still in "serious Spielberg mode" after his summer smash "War of the Worlds," joins the recent trend of hard-charging political pictures with "Munich." While unexpectedly distant, "Munich" is unforgettable in its detailing of revenge and paranoia in the international theater.
Opening with a booming, fearlessly violent recreation of the 1972 Olympic siege, it's evident that "Munich" is Spielberg firing on all his creative and historical engines, permitting the viewer a glimpse of the hell that greeted the Israeli athletes in those dark hours of the night. Gruesome and harrowing, the opening sequence sets a nail-biting tone that only Spielberg could bring to a film this politically tricky and ambitious.
Once Avner is given his orders for retaliation and his team is assembled, "Munich" starts to resemble an R-rated sequel to "Mission: Impossible." Showcasing their sketchy efficiency carrying out the assassinations, through their camaraderie and teamwork, Spielberg sets out to get the audience on the side of the hit squad early, so their eventual fall from grace has much more dramatic weight. However, there's no joy to their mission; Spielberg gives the moments of murder a palpable feeling of nervous energy, which quickly carries over into guilt -- an emotion Avner is always struggling with. Through gunplay, explosives, and espionage, the team globetrots their way to ultimate revenge, but what are the real costs for these actions?
Spielberg and the script, by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") and Eric Roth, explore the devastating consequences of the Israeli reaction through the cyclical nature of violence and terrorism. Especially in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the back and forth destruction appears endless, trapping the characters between the victory they celebrate and the reprisals they anticipate. The toll of the bloodshed is captured strikingly in Eric Bana's performance, which balances Avner's proud duty for his country with the sinking horror that the outcome of this retaliation will never truly end the nightmare of violence. As Avner gets deeper into the thick of the hunt, even befriending his morally questionable French informants (including Michael Londsdale), Bana's desperation is carefully performed, sold with golden Spielberg moments of intricate shot construction, some reaching Hitchcockian heights in their complexity and flair.
"Munich," for the 160 minute running time, is concrete filmmaking, mixing history and dramatic license wonderfully. My only real question mark is in a sequence that intercuts the final flashback slaughter of the Israeli athletes with Avner and his wife in the throes of sexual intercourse. Presumably, Spielberg is trying to show emotional catharsis through the force of sexual climax, but it comes off as the one lone indulgent moment (too Tony Scott for me) in a picture filled with efficiency and hard-fought, cautiously planned integrity.
Filmfodder Grade: B+