Germany hosted the summer Olympics twice in the 20th century, and both times, things didn't quite turn out the way the Germans had hoped.
In 1936 Berlin, with a rising Führer's Aryan master race on display for the world, Jesse Owens, a fleet black American, showed them a thing or two. And in 1972 Munich, with all having been forgiven and forgotten, a group of Arab terrorists broke into the Israeli compound, a worst-nightmare scenario that ended in the deaths of 11 Jewish athletes.
The irony was thick and bitter: In a nation where millions of Jews perished, nearly to the point of extinction, now more Jews were dead in a pogrom carried out by a new exterminator. Not long afterward, terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane and demanded the release of their brethren captured in the Munich attack. Germany acquiesced, and the world watched scenes of Palestinians rejoicing at the return of their brave freedom fighters.
This was all more than Israel could countenance. During the next seven years, Mossad operatives succeeded in killing nine of the 11 people whom they believed masterminded the Olympic siege. Their mission was beyond clandestine, which makes it excellent grist for a movie like Munich, Steven Spielberg's intense and effective globe-trotting espionage thriller that imagines how it all might have gone down.
Munich revolves dramatically around Avner (Eric Bana), a young Mossad agent with a pregnant wife who's called upon to "disappear" so he can head a five-member team with unlimited resources (in U.S. dollars) to find the Arab men behind the massacre. Their boss (Geoffrey Rush) is a committed loner working closely with Prime Minister Golda Meir. Avner's soldiers, all Jewish, are a raffish South African (Daniel Craig) who's elated to be involved, a gentle young toymaker (Mathieu Kassovitz) trained to disarm bombs (and now to make them), and two older men, who provide a chorus of views about whether they're conducting acts of patriotism or murder.
One by one they find their targets with the help of Louis, a mercenary Frenchman who seems to know the whereabouts of everyone in the world. Louis works for Papa, a contemplative and largely apolitical gourmet, living with his big family on a French country estate, who survived the war and his nation's collaboration, and who now mistrusts all governments, which is why he'll help a putative free agent such as Avner.
While Munich is always absorbing to watch, nothing about it -- not its procedural plot, and certainly not its message -- is anything particularly new or stimulating. (Perhaps its most incendiary claim is that the CIA paid terrorists not to target Americans.) It's intricate but not complex: Spielberg is too adept a storyteller, and too long a Hollywood filmmaker, to confuse us. It also approaches three hours in length, and at the 40-minute mark, I began to wonder whether Spielberg needed to make a thriller at all. Could Munich have been half this length and twice as compelling as an intimate character study of conscience and consequence, rather than one whose themes pop up, like ardent coffeehouse debates, merely to remind us of why it's all happening?
The dialogue in Munich -- by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and the playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), adapting a nonfiction book by the Canadian journalist George Jonas -- is unusually sharp for a Hollywood movie. The script offers multiple points of view, but not in equal measure. The Palestinian characters never take on full dimension, so it's nearly impossible to feel any sense of empathy for their own impassioned cause.
As a message movie, Munich will probably strike you more with the aphoristic wisdom of individual lines than with the cumulative effect of a profound moral and historical dilemma. "Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong," says Robert, questioning the cause. Avner's mother, who lives contentedly in Israel, provides the rejoinder: "Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on Earth, at last." To balance all of this, we get, from Ali, the only Arab allowed to speak at length (before he dies), the assertion that the people of the world "want to be nations," and that "home is everything."
Rather than presenting the Olympic killings all at once, as a powerhouse prologue to what follows, Spielberg cuts back to them several times, showing us some of the bloodshed we didn't see up front. He does this in the guise of entering Avner's thoughts when his commitment begins to wane. But the technique effectively inflames the movie's audience into staying with these sometimes-irresolute heroes, and Spielberg doesn't balance it with equally compelling reminders of why the Palestinians perceive themselves to be fighting for their lives.
Munich unfolds in a shadowy world of "intersecting secrecies." As Louis puts it most sardonically: "Europe hasn't been this interesting since Napoleon marched to Moscow." But the best line comes when we learn that the terrorists have started to retaliate for the executions of their Olympic masterminds. "They're talking to us," someone tells Avner, "we're in dialogue."
The remark passes without contemplation, and Spielberg leaves it to us to provide the subtext: Namely, that this all happened more than a quarter century ago, and it's still happening today. At its most reflective, Munich makes you wonder when everyone will finally, at long last, shut up. In English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew, with occasional subtitles.