Even before its release, Steven Spielberg's newest film, Munich, generated a storm of media interest. Many of the critics have called the film hollow, or worse yet, Hollywood. They have accused the film of being boring -- it's not -- and Spielberg of pandering, by which they seem to mean not taking sides. Yet beneath it all, there seems to be a level of resentment generated by the mere fact that Spielberg, perhaps not the most politically astute of directors, would attempt to examine the complexities, moral and logistical, of what has probably become the single most important issue of our times: terrorism and its concomitant response.
The film begins at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, when 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were captured by the Palestinian group Black September. The resulting hostage crisis is handled skillfully by Spielberg as a barrage of media coverage, obscuring the human detail of the tragedy and replacing it with the everyday language of televised terror we have come to know so well.
From there, Munich moves on to its real subjects, the Israeli agents assigned to kill the 11 men believed to have been responsible for planning the Olympic kidnapping. Their leader, Avner, played by the surprisingly good Eric Bana, is the young son of an Army hero and a member of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. He is married, and his young wife, who soon moves to Brooklyn, is pregnant.
Spielberg delves into politics during this early phase of the movie, prominently featuring Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromise with its own values," she tells a reluctant Avner. At a time when the United States has torture chambers of its own spread around the world to deal with terror, this statement is powerful if a bit oblique. The discussions among the Israeli leadership about the necessity of protecting the Jewish state lays the groundwork for the real substance of the film, which examines how far political ideals can be translated and at what cost.
Which of course brings us to the counter-terrorists themselves. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed the film so much is that it does not hesitate to revel in its ostensible shape as an A-Team-style action picture. The six members of the assassination squad break down as always into their useful skills. There is charismatic leader Avner, toy tinkerer turned bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), fatherly watchdog (Ciarán Hinds), Hebrew Steve McQueen (Daniel Craig), document specialist (Hanns Zischler), and agency man (Geoffrey Rush).
The actions of the unit are adapted from George Jonas' 1984 book Vengeance, an account of a Mossad hit squad provided by the unit's leader, Avner. The team severs all official ties from the Israeli government, leaving them in a tactical and moral vacuum. As their work unfolds, the killings become essentially episodic; one hit leads to the next. The continuing tension is created by the group's growing doubts about the efficacy of their work.
The Palestinian targets are never shown as ruthless killers. In fact, sometimes it feels as though Spielberg is straining to humanize them. The team never catches them engaged in some conspiratorial pow-wow or hunched over bomb preparations. Instead they meet their demise among scenes of domesticity that parallel the family Avner misses so dearly.
At times this can feel a bit hokey. For example, when the team shares an evening with a PLO group in a safe house, they listen to Al Green and trade sound bites on their respective rights to the Holy Land. For me, however, this quotidian drama between the agents was an effective way of inviting the viewer into the political morass that surrounds the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian agent warns Avner, "We will never stop fighting," and the generations that have followed him highlight this.
There are some bizarre sidetracks in the film, most notably the French family that becomes the team's number-one source of information. Avner's visit to their country mansion introduces him to their sage patriarch, who becomes something of a deadly father figure for him. These scenes felt like a bit of an indulgence, the sunny life of the armed gentry bearing more resemblance to The Godfather than anything in this film.
Spielberg does not have a clear-cut answer for what the team was able to accomplish. When one terrorist dies, another springs up in his place, and by the end of the film the group has failed utterly to terminate all their intended targets. But this mission fades into the background as Spielberg focuses instead on the gradual disintegration, both physical and moral, of the squad.
As the film draws to a close, Avner returns to the foreground. Increasingly paranoid and disillusioned with his mission, he travels to America to be with his family. It was here that I most respected Spielberg, who has become perhaps the most prominent Jewish-American filmmaker of our day. Munich does not use Israel as an allegorical template for America, but it forces us to see that the war on terror has been waged before. The Munich crisis forced Israel to confront many of the issues that have sprung up in America post-9/11, and this film forces us to examine ourselves in the light of itshh tactics and failures.