Near the beginning of “Munich,” an especially tender Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) holds his newborn daughter in his arms and tells his wife Daphna (Eyelet Zorer) that she’s the only home he has ever had. She rolls her eyes and laughs at such a weighty statement. “I married a sentimentalist,” she sighs.
This might seem a strange description for a Mossad assassin, a man whose duty consists of orchestrating the grisly deaths of Palestinians who are deemed “terrorists.” But for Avner, whose doleful eyes communicate intelligence intermingled with a deep sense of humanity, the description is not altogether inapt. Nor is it inappropriate to wonder, as the film unfolds and the death toll climbs, whether the sentimentalist in Avner must die as merciless a death as the men who fall victim to his bombs and silenced pistols.
“Munich” is Steven Spielberg’s latest directorial offering and a fictionalized account of the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, during which the Palestinian terror group Black September murdered 11 Israeli athletes while the world watched. The film is also a notable artistic triumph. The screenplay, co-written by Jewish (and avowedly socialist) playwright Tony Kushner, follows Avner and his five-man team across Europe and the Mediterranean as they attempt to track down the masterminds behind the Munich attack. Dispatched by the Israeli secret service but completely disavowed by them, Avner’s men receive a bottomless Swiss bank account, but no formal briefing — only the order to kill the men who planned the Munich Massacre.
Their mission takes them into a shadowy underworld of espionage and double dealing where danger lurks and ambiguity reigns. A friend is a friend so long as one is willing to pay him more than one’s enemy does. Avner and his team quickly discover that they, too, are being hunted by people eager to see them dead. The result is a sustained tension that never abates; at a hefty two hours and 40 minutes, “Munich” still seems too short.
Any film framed by historical events with such heavy political overtones must at least acknowledge that fact, but “Munich” is more concerned with the emotional and moral struggles of its characters than with taking political sides. This is one of the chief strengths of the film: it simply shows events as they happen, with disconcerting clarity, and shows the varied trajectories of its characters as they change, all the while cultivating an atmosphere of astonishing depth and complexity.
“Munich” never explicitly suggests that Israel is wrong to act as it does in the wake of the brutal events at the Olympic Games (events which are shown in horrifying detail at various points throughout the film), but it does not shrink from representing the physical, psychological and ethical hazards which accompany the treacherous business of assassination. In one sequence, Avner’s team rigs a terrorist’s home telephone with plastic explosive. Instead of the target himself answering the phone, the man’s young daughter picks it up just moments before its planned detonation. In another scene, Avner exchanges friendly chitchat with a man on a hotel balcony minutes before he gives the signal for the man’s hotel room to be bombed.
That said, there is a major difference between humanizing a criminal — which “Munich” certainly does to many of Avner’s victims — and succumbing to the temptation of moral relativism. “Munich” never comes close to excusing the Palestinian terrorists for their actions, but it offers a vivid evocation of the very same doubts and anxieties that begin to materialize in the minds of those who must pull the trigger again and again — especially when those minds have been raised in a liberal Western-style democracy. Avner descends from the bright domestic sunshine of the kibbutz into a dark paranoia where demons plague him from within and enemies stalk him from without.
Kushner’s screenplay, co-written with Eric Roth (who adapted “Forrest Gump”), is sensitive to the differences between individuals and their responses to a given situation. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the team’s demolitions expert and a quiet toymaker by trade, suffers a nervous breakdown after one particular killing. The burly Steve (Daniel Craig), on the other hand, scarcely ever wavers in his gung-ho dedication to the mission at hand. “The only blood that matters to me is Jew blood,” he mutters between his teeth.
Ultimately, “Munich” is about humanity more than anything else, for it is a brilliant study of fully three-dimensional characters evolving and reacting to a treacherously volatile set of circumstances. It is a film to be applauded for its startling verisimilitude, its raw intensity and its ability to pose worthy questions. Of all the films in Steven Spielberg’s mind-boggling canon, “Munich” ought to be placed among the very best.