Munich

Directed by Steven Spielberg | Universal | 164 minutes
Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ciaran Hinds, Brian Goodman

I can understand why numerous Jewish voices have been raised against Munich, the latest film from Stephen Spielberg. Generically, it is a political thriller, but unlike Syriana, it does not round up the usual suspects: the CIA and corporate America. Instead it vividly portrays the tragic consequences of eye-for-an-eye, death-dealing justice. In so doing it questions both the wisdom and morality of Israel’s revenge on the Palestinian terrorists who planned the assassination of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Implicitly it subscribes to the questionable theory that the “root cause” of terrorism is injustice, not Machiavellian aggression and ethnic and religious hatred.

Almost three hours long, the film never flags. We expect such skill from Spielberg. But at the end, we hardly know what to think. Eric Bana, the Australian actor who plays the lead, Avner Kaufman, does not triumph over evil like Indiana Jones, nor is he justified like Oscar Schindler. Instead he is a tormented man, now living in permanent exile from the country of his birth, the country he undertook to avenge. At the outset, like most heroes, he reluctantly accepts the seemingly noble task of tracking down the evil Black September terrorists. We listen in sympathy as Lynn Cohen, playing Golda Meir, explains that “every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromise with its own values”.

After a tender love scene with his seven-months pregnant wife, he sets out on his quest.

But from the outset he, no cold-blooded contract killer, encounters difficulties. His targets are kindly men, elderly family types, or genial neighbours. Innocent bystanders suffer, and then he starts losing members of his own team, one of whom, by the way, is Daniel Craig, the future James Bond. Starting as a hunter, he ends up being hunted, possibly by Israelis themselves. And along the way we hear eloquent Palestinian justifications for their behaviour, and the lethal consequences of the Arab response to his successes.

So the film raises more questions than it gives answers. Wallace Baine, the accomplished film reviewer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, wrote that “It’s like a spy thriller written by a roomful of rabbis.”

Each assassination provokes a discussion. Does revenge act as a deterrent, or does it just further a cycle of calamity? Which is more important, Israel or one’s family? Can Israel survive if it does not respond in kind? Can a Jew be “righteous” if he kills others even to avenge the spilling of Jewish blood? Can a country be civilised that engages in terrorism, even as counter-terrorism? All this of course relates to America and 9/11, as the final image in the film reminds us.

The film is beautifully wrought, the alternating between planning and violence, flashbacks and the present, documentary footage and re-enactment blend perfectly together. The acting could not be better: Bana as the vessel of consciousness, a domestic man. longing for the perfect kitchen, sacrificing himself for what at first seems a higher cause; Geoffrey Rush as his Mossad case officer: one would think he too was an Israeli, not another Australian (the premier actors of our time).

One could object to the improbable French interlude in which Bana experiences a family banquet in the green world of his highly-paid informers. That they can find the whereabouts of anyone in the world stretches belief. But as in a play by Shakespeare, this seemingly interpolated scene comments on the main action. Whereas Bana has sacrificed his family for his country, these French operatives have denied their country — all countries in fact — for the sake of their family. To them, countries only betray. In keeping with the outlook of the film, these professional cynics who doublecross their own clients are the only characters in the film who express any allegiance to religion, Catholicism of course.

Munich, then, as a coherent artistic unity stands on the shaky ground of our own confusions and dilemmas about violence and civilisation, of responding or not responding, of sacrificing values to save them or of just muddling along hoping for the best from people who wish to destroy us. It also illustrates, though not intentionally, the inadequacy of a merely natural perspective.

William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.