"Munich" is about grief, vengeance, and questions about whether vengeance is appropriate and what remains on a man's conscience after taking a life.
It takes two-and-a-half-hours, tracking the actions of a fictionalized, illicit assassination squad hunting down men identified as complicit in the infamous September 7 massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics. Much of the world saw the events through coverage from ABC Sports, and much of the opening scenes of "Munich" are narrated by two dead men--Howard Cosell, Peter Jennings--and by Jim McKay, the host of "Wide World of Sports," whose baritone does not convey his trademark intonation of "The thrill of victory...and the agony of defeat!" but, eventually, the terrible sentence, "They're all gone."
Then, Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), a Mossad officer who was a bodyguard for Golda Meir, is dispatched to lead a band of mercenaries, played by Kasosovitz, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds and Hans Zischler.
[There are many spoilers in this review.] "Munich" is about political differences, and also uses historical events as a parable for contemporary discussions. In some ways, "Munich," shot by Steven Spielberg starting in late June of this year, is the closest thing on screens now to a large-picture parable of our times, weighing the pain of terrorism with fiction loosely based on a supposedly nonfiction book called "Vengeance." "Munich"'s thoughtful yet shamelessly speechy script, co-credited to "Angels in America" playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), is filled with moments like Israel's premier, Meir, saying "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Obviously, that has painful parallels in the headlines torn from today's events in the War in Iraq and the war against dissent in America, even more so with this week's revelation of the President's authorization and proud admission of unilaterally authorizing spying against American citizens. Sounding like a politician invoking 9/11, "Munich"'s Meir intones, "What happened in Munich changes everything."
Formally, "Munich" is Spielberg at his brisk, brusque best. The 1970s Euro-thriller form is economically evoked, the script is effortlessly, unapologetically multilingual, the production design worldly, and the casting of contemporary Continental actors is astute, ranging from turning "Amelie"'s handsome Mathieu Kassovitz into a pissed-off, bearded Horshack, to Mathieu Almaric bringing some of the delicious dance of gaze, the most silken of furtive gestures he has developed in movies by Arnaud Desplechin ("Kings and Queen") and Olivier Assayas ("Late August, Early September").
"Munich" is an utterly compelling political thriller in the fashion of Costa-Gavras ("Z," "State of Siege"). But there is also a canny use of doubling throughout. In the news coverage of the events, which the US perspective is shown by ABC's coverage, the same footage in seen in Israel, subtitled in Hebrew, intercut with cafes where the footage is subtitled in Arabic. There's a breathtaking scene early on, a brilliant coup de theatre, when Spielberg's camera is on a figure inside the athlete's apartment, with balcony door ajar to the right and a television set to the left. The muted colors, the figure's tan jacket, we see move to the balcony and in perfect synchronization, the most famous image of the massacre--a single killer on the angled balcony comes to stark black-and-white life on the TV--the man who has just stepped out.
The most hopeful subtext comes from some of the most explicit sexual content in Spielberg's work to date. Avner, with his pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer) early on, engages in tender, sweaty, freckled, sustained fucking that may be the most authentic depiction of sex in movies this year. They tease and talk, and the scene ends with a heart-stopping slow-motion shot of a sheet being pulled over the couple. The last ten minutes are filled with bolder gestures than that. We are shown the ultimate slaughter of the captives and captors on the Munich tarmac, as experienced through Avner's tormented imagination. And how do Spielberg, Kushner and Roth indicate that that's what haunts Avner? By intercutting the horrible, explicit events with him atop his wife (also book-ending the sweaty, gentle sex). It's like the murder montage at the end of "The Godfather," except Moe Green doesn't die and "Munich's protagonist has a torturous orgasm, making the discussions of "family" as primal as they come. The enormous vitality of this crazy notion, to intercut these events, seems at once both profound and risible, something so shocking to most sensibilities that it would likely be the last impression audiences take from this lengthy, daring, exciting, thoughtful thriller, that is, if it were not for the final shot, which, once at rest, the first set of final credits roll atop. Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), Avner's Mossad controller, tries to convince him that he is Sabra, he is native-born Israeli, he ought to return with his family. Avner says Ephraim should instead break bread at his Brooklyn apartment. Ephraim says no. The camera pans left. Avner walks out of frame. Across New York's skyline, we are left with the mute, tall World Trade Center towers, only just completed at that point of history. Roll credits.
"Munich" opens Friday.