Wrath of God

Moral questions in a violent world

MUNICH: Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, Colin Wilson. Cinematography, Janusz Kaminski. Editor, Michael Kahn. Music, John Willimas. Production design, Rick Carter. Costumes, Joanna Johnston. Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Geoffrey Rush. With Ayelet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale, Mathier Amalric, Gila Almagor, Lynn Cohen. Universal Pictures. DreamWorks Pictures, 2005. R. 164 minutes.

The ongoing bloodbath between Israelis and Palestinians didn’t begin with the 1972 Olympics, where hooded Palestinians calling themselves Black September held 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage and then murdered them, but it was a pivotal moment in their shared history.

Cinematic master Steven Spielberg begins with cinema verité sequences and archival footage of the slaughter. Sequences show the hooded Palestinians climbing over the Olympic Village fence, entering the athletes’ dormitory, rounding up the hostages, killing some of them in their rooms, gunning others to death later. No attempt is made to label or separate newsreel footage from dramatizations. The film opens with this cataclysmic event, and the film’s main character, Avner (Eric Bana), dreams the ordeal in graphic, frightening detail throughout the film.

Maybe as an Israeli intelligence officer, Avner has to keep his patriotism in sight so he can carry out his mission to find and kill the Palestinians who masterminded Munich. This mission is given him by no less a personage than the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meier (Lynn Cohen), and her top generals and spies.

Despite personal reservations, Avner accepts, and his duty is outlined to him by an intelligence case officer, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). Avner no longer works for Mossad, Ephraim tells him. If he is exposed or the mission fails, no one will admit to planning it. Avner is to gather four other members for his team. They may travel in Europe but cannot go to Arab countries or return to Israel. Ample funds will be available. Get receipts for expenses.

The whole enterprise has this curious combination of high-level spyfare with mundane details about money, legitimacy and deniability. Avner can’t tell his pregnant wife or his mother about his mission. Nevertheless, he manages to see Daphna (Ayelet Zurer). his newborn daughter, and his mother (Gila Almagor). And Avner cooks gourmet meals for his team, which he learned from his kibbutz days.

Avner’s assistants are interesting. They include the gung-ho South African Jew with blue eyes, Steve (Daniel Craig); the quiet, clever toy maker from Belgium who now makes bombs, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); a mysterious, efficient Israeli in tweed coat and hat, Carl (Ciaran Hinds, recently Gaius Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome); and the sophisticated antiques dealer Hans (Hanns Zischler) from Germany. The team sets about its business in a business-like manner, finding and assassinating an academic living in Rome. But a close call in the case has the team talking about who is or is not a civilian worth calling off a strike. Morality and murder make bad fellow travelers, and soon the stress takes its toll.

One of the weirdest set pieces has the team arriving at a seedy safe house for a couple of days, when another team — Arabs — arrives, also intending to sleep in the house. It takes a bit of coaxing, but eventually they all realize their source overbooked the room. Strange.

In another scene, Avner is taken (blindfolded) to meet the top man from whom he gets his leads: Papa (Michael Londsale). Now you feel you are surely in the wrong movie: the lush countryside, the open-hearted hospitality, the affectionate children, the food, the wine. The connection between this affable old veteran dealmaker and the young Israeli is one of the film’s intriguing, unresolved stories.

Like its nearest counterpart, Syriana, Spielberg’s Munich is episodic — a series of violent encounters in a variety of locations creates an ever-increasing inability on the viewer’s part to tell the good guys from the bad. Moral relativism is a sticky issue, and in Munich, the audience suffers from ignorance. Avner’s doubts come when he realizes he doesn’t hold all the cards. As The Constant Gardener and Syriana remind us, others with hidden agendas have used him for their own aims. And there’s nothing he can do about it.

Munich is now playing at Cinemark. Very highest recommendations.

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