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By JACK GARNER
Gannett News Service
Steven Spielberg's Munich artfully underscores one of the tragedies of terrorism — that the need for a response can challenge good people to do bad things.
In this tense and thought-provoking film, Spielberg details Israel's deadly response to the murder of 11 members of its Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Two were killed and nine were kidnapped and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September, as the whole world watched.
Israel — with Prime Minister Golda Meir's full endorsement — then dispatched assassination squads to kill anyone known to have helped plan or support Black September. Munich is based on a true story.
In the film, the determined Meir (Lynn Cohen) argues — in a line that sums up the film — "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner project that painful compromise on the often-anguished face of Avner Kauffman — the fictionalized Israeli assassin superbly played by Eric Bana.
Kauffman is a former Meir security guard of little consequence who is elevated to a leadership role after the Munich events. He's recruited to head a squad of five men who'll work together to kill as many men as possible from a list they're given. (Israel apparently sent out several such squads.)
The men are told to use explosives, whenever possible, to give the murders the highest possible profile. The assassins are given ex-officio status, which means no real passports, no real identity and no official status in the Israeli military or government. Their mission takes them away from families for months on end as they pursue targets or travel to Paris, Beirut, Spain, Brooklyn and elsewhere.
But while the setup of Munich may suggest a James Bond or Mission: Impossible flick, the filmmakers delve much deeper, portraying a shades-of-gray world, with no characters of firm black-or-white definition. Spielberg here makes welcome strides into the realistic, complex and morally ambivalent territory of novelist John Le Carre or filmmaker Costa-Gavras, the director of several classic political thrillers.
The Israeli assassins and their Palestinian targets are all complex humans, their actions cause pain and the deaths have consequences. To underscore the point, Spielberg stages several riveting sequences. In one, a little girl innocently answers a phone that's been bugged to explode. In another, Kauffman inadvertently bumps into one of his targets, and the two men have a surprisingly amiable conversation about the conflicting rights of Palestinians and Israelis in the land they share.
Too bad the conversation couldn't continue until everything is solved. But why should the characters in this brilliant film offer solutions when nobody else seems to have any in this troubled age of anxiety