Not unlike a terrorist, Munich is trying to slip into town under cover of darkness, make its point before most of us have even realized it's here. Director Steven Spielberg, who was all over the place, hustling like a carnival barker, for the release of War of the Worlds, is keeping a low profile this time ' no press junket, no world premiere, no Oscar campaign. He may be trying to avoid controversy; the film takes on a touchy subject. Or he may, in some reverse-psychological way, be trying to fuel controversy. As with a terrorist, it's hard to tell exactly what he's thinking.
It's less hard to tell what the film itself is thinking. In one of his rare interviews, Spielberg has called it "a prayer for peace." In another interview ' hmm, maybe they're not so rare after all ' he called it "a discussion, like the Talmud is a series of discussions." What he's neglected to mention, as far as I can tell, is that it's also, even primarily, a thriller, a Jewish Mission: Impossible. After Palestinian terrorists kidnapped, then murdered, 11 members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir decided it was time for some Old Testament payback.
Thus began a years-long campaign ' a secret even within Israel's secret service ' to track down and assassinate anybody who was directly or indirectly involved in the Munich affair. Some regard this as the birth of counterterrorism. Spielberg regards it as the birth of an endless cycle of violence, terrorism breeding counterterrorism breeding more terrorism. Luckily, it also happens to be a fitting subject for a good old-fashioned international spy-versus-spy tale involving the CIA, the KGB and every shadowy organization in between. Though often as serious as a heart attack, Munich is also thoroughly entertaining.
Eric Bana shines in Munich as the head of the hit squad, a former Mossad agent who's increasingly uncomfortable with how messy and downright dirty the missions become. And although he doesn't hold the screen the way Tom Cruise would have, that may be the point: These men were chosen because they didn't stick out. As far as the Israeli government is concerned, they don't exist, and Spielberg, along with scriptwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, does a good job of bringing out the existential limbo they slide into as they work their way down the list, Agatha Christie-style.
Harking back to such Costa-Gavras thrillers as Z and State of Siege, Munich is rather cold and detached. And Spielberg, who dreams in camera moves, seems to be holding back on purpose, refusing to milk the action scenes for all they're worth. His restaging of the hostage crisis and massacre is uncannily real, and he uses it, via flashbacks, as a not-so-gentle reminder of what led to the formation of Israel's very own Murder, Incorporated. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," Meir says early on. True? Not true? Either way, Munich is about the toll such decisions take over time.