The stigma of 1938, when Munich was the site of the “peace in our time” conference that helped pave the way for further Nazi aggression, might have been fading somewhat when the Palestinian terror organization Black September revitalized the bad associations during the 1972 Olympic Games.
Easily infiltrating the compound during the second week of an event basking in the exploits of Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut, the terrorists forced their way into a dorm occupied by Israeli athletes, killing two and taking 11 others hostage. About 24 hours later, an attempted rescue by German police at a military airport went awry, resulting in the deaths of the remaining Israelis and several of their captors.
A few months later, the Germans freed three imprisoned terrorists as part of a hostage exchange that remains infamous. By Black September calculations, the gambit had paid off handsomely, forcing the terrorists’ agenda onto an international stage, especially a media stage, brutally but effectively manipulated for televised shock and apprehension.
This outrage is the starting point of “Munich,” an earnestly equivocal saga of retribution and disillusion contrived by director Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner. Concentrating on an aftermath — the deadly mission of a five-member Israeli espionage unit authorized to assassinate Palestinians in Europe who are considered part of the terrorist brain trust — the filmmakers have largely fictionalized the hunters and their prey.
Second thoughts and regrets are meant to trump the close sense of identification with the Israeli agents that is sustained during the most exciting, harrowing and haunting sequences of the film. There are several, as the team moves from Rome to Paris to Cyprus to Beirut to Athens to London to Amsterdam, bagging many of their targets in the course of a year but jeopardizing their own nerves and lives with each mission, always subject to miscalculations and close calls.
Like the mercenaries in “The Guns of Navarone” or “The Professionals,” the “Munich” team is a diverting cross section, led by Eric Bana as Avner, a young Israeli who looks vulnerable to a fault and has a wife about to give birth weighing on his sense of obligations.
Daniel Craig gets a timely warm-up for his tenure as James Bond in the role of Steve, a South African Jew whose conscience remains defiantly untroubled in a context designed to prefer stricken consciences.
Ciaran Hinds and Hanns Zischler contribute Irish and German flavoring, respectively, along with pensive and middle-aged personalities. Mathieu Kassovitz is the shakiest specialist, a Belgian toy maker named Robert whose expertise with explosives is haphazard.
Avner is given a possibly treacherous sounding board in a supercilious contact named Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who sets the stage for an oddly effective expedition to visit his father, played by French actor Michel Lonsdale (“The Day of the Jackal,” “Ronan”). Here he’s cast as a paterfamilias who finances seclusion and serenity by cutting deals with mutual antagonists in the world of power politics, which he professes to scorn.
The conception is more rhetorical than persuasive, but the movie definitely needs a father figure. Avner’s is conspicuously missing, and his Mossad supervisor, played by Geoffrey Rush, is a poor substitute.
Eventually, the filmmakers maneuver Avner into a paranoid corner that echoes the surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman in “The Conversation.” This strikes me as a dubious conclusion for this morality tale, which starts by reminding us where modern terrorism got a foothold but ultimately suggests that resistance may exact too high a price in peace of mind.
At the same time, “Munich” could prove a fascinating touchstone for current attitudes about the war on terror. Its sensitive agonizing about reprisals and self-defense in general barely conceals a justifiable sense of gratitude for men willing to act ruthlessly in the national interest. Call it the Jack Bauer factor, backdated to 1972-73.
RATING: R (Frequent graphic violence, linked to a thematic preoccupation with terrorism; occasional profanity, nudity and sexual candor, including a fleeting simulation of intercourse)
CREDITS: Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book “Vengeance” by George Jonas. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski. Production design by Rick Carter. Costume design by Joanna Johnston. Editing by Michael Kahn. Music by John Williams
RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes
WEB SITE: www.munichmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS