For the most part it's a revenge story, a based-on-actual-events tale about the actions taken by the Israeli government under Golda Meir in response to the kidnapping and massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. But it's also a tenuous apology for that massacre, a step in the direction of explaining its motives, and offering reasons why it might, at least in the minds of the terrorists, be justified. One thing is certain: Moral ambiguity is not something we associate with the director of "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park." Perhaps that's why when people are chasing each other around the screen and creeping behind doorways, our interest in "Munich" is at its highest. And why it lags whenever we are forced to stop and contemplate the meaning of it all.
Spielberg chooses the very likeable Avner (Eric Bana) as his lead hit man. Avner is living a beautiful, easy life in the bountiful land of Israel when he's abruptly summoned into the intrigue his director sets before him. Avner, as embodied by Bana and Spielberg, is duty-bound yet compassionate, reasonable yet able to kill when called upon. He even carries a dose of postmodern angst. Sure, he'll blow up the foreign minister, but he wants to know why, damn it! That we only get a hint of who he is and why he was chosen before the plot is set in motion seems of no consequence. Avner is not a real person, or even a real investigator, but rather a vehicle for our own investigation into the motives, morality and politics surrounding this plot.
Avner's mission is to lead a team of nonexpert killers around Europe looking for Palestinian terrorist leaders who don't seem to be hiding out as much as doing paperwork. The work gets off to an intriguing start with the killing of a Palestinian poet. Avner has been assured that the poet is one of the cold-blooded planners responsible for Munich, and yet here he is conducting a reading and book-signing of his work in front of a small audience at a bookshop. Confronting the poet in a hallway, Avner asks him repeatedly if he knows why he is about to die. There is no answer and someone pulls the trigger. It's now too late to find out.
"Munich" never again reaches this zenith of intrigue, but the fact that Spielberg continues to tease out the questions it presents is one of the best things about the movie. If you can get past the schmaltz the stock characters, scenes and motives there is a lot going on in "Munich" that may surprise anyone who relies on mainstream news for their view of the world. That Spielberg acknowledges there is a completely opposing point of view regarding terrorism is a surprise, especially from a Jewish director, one that goes a long way to apologize for any shortcomings of subtlety or lack of firm opinions.
Yes, the squad we follow is more Kosher A-Team than Dirty Dozen. And yes, Spielberg smoothes over the real history so much he slips at times. "Munich" shies away from offering evidence or condemnation, from actually taking a stance, even a moralistic or humanistic one, just as it shies away from presenting the Palestinian side as anything more than a point of view. By not taking sides, Spielberg risks confirming his reputation as a bet-hedger, someone who doesn't want to risk continued box office success by saying what he really thinks, if he thinks anything at all. As it is, he stops at posing a question, the one asked rhetorically in an interview with a top Israeli general said to have overseen the operation:
"I approach these problems not from a moral point of view, but, hard as it may sound, from a cost-benefit point of view. in the case of Black September we had no other choice and it worked. Is it morally acceptable? One can debate that question. Is it politically vital? It was."
Whether it worked is an answer left out of the film, but one we are learning over and over again. (R) 164 min. **** S
For Wayne Melton's summary of the movies of 2005, go to www.styleweekly.com/arts.asp.
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