Now, he has brought us an Israeli superspy with a conscience in the controversial “Munich.” In fact, the new film strikes such deep chords in the Mid-East crisis that Spielberg has done few interviews and has foregone a press junket, possibly sacrificing his shot at an Academy Award nomination for what has been called, “his secret masterpiece.”
As was “Schlinder’s List,” “Munich” is a movie that the great director had to make…his soul couldn’t ignore it. Based on the George Jonas book, “Vengeance,” Spielberg’s film starts with real and staged footage of the PLO kidnapping and execution of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. The horror and brutality of that incident also plays in dream sequences throughout the movie. The dreams are in the mind of Avner (brilliantly portrayed by Eric Bana), a former bodyguard of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen). Meir and her cabinet ask Avner to form a revenge squad to kill 11 PLO members of Black September responsible for the atrocity. “Forget peace for now,” says Meir.
Although Avner is about to become a first-time father, he reluctantly agrees to become a non-entity. After connecting with Israeli go-between Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), Avner gathers a secret group of four teammates to methodically kill the terrorist leaders. His team consists of Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker turned bomb maker; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the remover of evidence; triggerman Steve (Daniel Craig, who ironically just signed on as the new James Bond); and Hans (Hanns Zischler), forger of letters and documents.
Avner receives his leads from mysterious Frenchman Louis (Mathieu Amalric), whose information doesn’t come cheap. At one point, the blind-folded Israeli hitman meets Louis’ father, Papa (Michael Lonsdale), and his family at a countryside chateau. A former French resistance fighter, Papa is a duplicitous character with strong anti-government leanings and a stronger belief in the family unit. It seems surprising that Papa buys Avner’s story that he’s working for private American interests and not the Israeli government. Most likely, Papa just goes to the highest bidder.
“Munich” basically works as a spy thriller as the squad members stage each assassination, either by bombs or by bullets. Spielberg sets up Hitchcockian suspense sequences as when a little girl answers an about-to-be detonated explosive phone. However, Avner’s paranoia escalates when his teammates keep meeting their deaths.
Ever the humanist, Spielberg stops the movie mid-stream with a philosophical discussion between Avner and PLO member, at a “safe house” which they strangely share thanks to Louis. It is scenes like these that have caused Spielberg to be criticized as “no friend of Israel,” while other moments in the movie appear to be “an attack on Palestinians.” But, the director’s own feelings are probably best expressed when Meir says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
Although Spielberg has in many ways made a powerful movie, he is clearly trying to walk a middle road in the Mid-East mess. It’s probably the only path to peace.
See “Munich” and make up your own mind.