I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.


-- W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939

Steven Spielberg's Munich begins at the 1972 Olympics, where a group of men hesitate at the locked gates of the Olympic Village. A group of American athletes also approaching the gates laugh – should have gotten back from the beer garden earlier, guys – and then help the men over the gate so they can get into the compound. Once inside, the men take off their athletic jackets, put on ski masks, take AK-47 rifles from their bags, enter the building where Israel's athletes are housed … and enter history.

Munich is not the story of what happened that day – although Spielberg captures the tension and terror of the subsequent siege and deaths like the master craftsman he is. That story has been told – and told superbly – in the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September. Munich is the story of what happened after: how Israel determined that such an affront could not go unpunished, and created a group – a hit squad – to find, and kill, the men responsible. Driven by recent history, many filmmakers and films  – including Spielberg's too-swiftly dismissed War of the Worlds – are trying to construct allegories for the realities we now face. With Munich, Spielberg's trying something far riskier, and far more audacious: Turning the real into an allegory. Spielberg doesn't attain greatness here, but the attempt is fascinating to watch.

Newsweek has already slugged Munich with the headline "Catch Them and Kill Them if You Can," and the fact is that a lot of Spielberg's capacity for teasing audiences with tension is in play here, even if it hasn't been put to so grim a purpose in years. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) approves the creation of the squad, even though she seems to find it distasteful. But, then again, as she notes, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." The squad will be headed by Avner (Eric Bana), who was one of Meir's bodyguards for a time; the group will also, as the affably sinister spymaster Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) explains, not exist. They'll be paid cash; there will be no record they work for Israel. Avner will be working with Steve (Daniel Craig), a driver and shooter; Robert (Matthieu Kassovitz), a gentle bomb-maker; Hans (Hanns Zichler), who's skilled with forged documents, and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), a bookish, bespectacled man who's skilled at tying up loose ends.

It seems almost banal to say out loud, but the one film Munich reminded me of – at least structurally – is Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. A group is put together to do an ugly job; for a while, things go well; then, they don't; in the end, the question of what it all was for hangs in the air. Of course, Munich wants to be much more than a mere suspense thriller. But when Munich plays as a suspense thriller, it's impressive. Spielberg's shot his '70s movie like a '70s movie, with fluid-but-funky camerawork and blown-out film stock to convey the cut-and-thrust of the team's kill-or-be killed work.

Co-written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America, SLAVS!), Munich intercuts the team's dirty work with Avner trying to connect with his wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) and his newborn daughter despite the constant geographic –and moral – distance between them. Munich is based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas, and there have been reams of articles and think-pieces written disputing some of the claims in Jonas's book. Much of Munich feels too good – or, rather, too dramatically satisfying -- to be true; then again, much of it does not.

Much of the film dips into John LeCarre territory – the whiskey-and-overcoat cynicism of people who've lived with death for so long that they're bored with their own exhaustion. Avner's off-the-books group doesn't have access to any real intelligence, so they have to purchase the whereabouts of their targets from a middleman information-broker, Louis (Matthieu Amalric). (It's a coincidence – or perhaps it isn't – but the film's '70s feel is substantially enhanced by the fact that Amalric is a dead ringer for the Chinatown-era Roman Polanski.) Louis wouldn't sell to Avner if Avner worked for a government, but Louis is willing to put his doubts aside in the name of profit: "I trust you. You carry cash and you don't make speeches. These days, everybody makes speeches."

And, in his way, so does Spielberg: At 165 minutes, Munich feels strained and overlong. The last half-hour of the film is spent making sure Avner's emotional journey is completely wrapped up with every last detail checked off. You could cut that last half-hour off Munich and not only would you not hurt the film's effect, you'd improve it considerably.

But when Munich is happening, it rivets you. When the team's unofficially sanctioned mission takes an even more unsanctioned diversion to Amsterdam to deal with an assassin, the resulting scene – less an action sequence than an execution – is hideous, gut-wrenching filmmaking as the victim pleads with all their might, a murderer begging to not face murder, and Avner and his team slowly, methodically, each deliver a single shot as their target stumbles through their houseboat dying in agony. Spielberg's always seemed more comfortable with murder in the abstract – at the hands of a giant shark, or en masse on the beaches of Normandy – and this kind of up-close-and-impersonal violence, from Spielberg, is shocking: Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

There are fine performances in Munich, even though it's not a performance-driven film. Hinds is a careful scene-stealer; watch him sitting and 'relaxing' with a glass of wine and you can how see the wary intelligence he brings to his work has permeated all of his life. Marie-Josée Croze has a few brief but memorable scenes as a seductive traveler; Amalric and Michael Londsdale play a son-father, operative-spymaster relationship where geopolitics has the venom of family feuds and the family disputes play out with global ramifications. Rush's work seems a bit surface, though, and as the film heads into it's final act, Bana's put in haggard makeup and lit like a corpse in a way that seals his performance inside a look.

Many are contending that Munich bends over backwards to be reasonable, to show all sides of the conflict, to craft scenes where Palestinian characters and grievances are given room to express themselves as if there were a dramatic equivalent of the Federal Election Commission's "Equal Time" provisions. But as Sam Harris points out in his book The End of Faith, only rational, tolerant societies agonize about how they should deal with irrational, intolerant societies and groups that would extinguish them in an eye blink if they could. In Munich, Spielberg seems to argue that that capacity for doubt and self-questioning isn't the weak point of rational tolerant societies, or their citizens; it's their greatest strength. George Orwell knew that "… We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm." Spielberg's Munich wants us to think about how those men -- and women – will sleep after their work is done. Munich isn't perfect, and it may be fair where we want it to be fierce, and overly-long because it's overly emotional. It's also a film very much worth seeing so you can think about how each dramatically-crafted, fictional '70s-era gunshot and bomb blast rippling through the theater in Dolby sound has very real echoes in our lives right now.
CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical