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The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team
The book on which "Munich" is based

. "Munich"

If you're Steven Spielberg, and under your belt is the highly successful film about a German who saved thousands of Jews from Hitler's Holocaust ("Schindler's List"), you might well feel the imperative to consider the righting of a wrong against Israel in physical as well as political and moral terms. Mr. Spielberg raises all these issues as he takes us through the stratagems Israel put in place to achieve justice against the Arab-Palestinian murderers who assassinated their team in the 1972 Olympics at Munich.

The introduction is brief, suggesting, perhaps from the evidence, how the heavily armed terrists gained entrance to the fenced and guarded Olympics compound and into the apartment of the Israeli athletes, taking them hostage, brutally murdering them when a rescue attempt went bad, and escaping. But the main story, here, is how the Israeli government exacted their revenge.

Mossad bodyguard Avner (Eric Bana) is asked by no less than Golda Meir (an exemplary Lynn Cohen) to lead an anti-terrorist team to track down the assassins one by one and destroy them in a demonstration of Israel's justice and strength. Avner is called upon, if he accepts, to leave his pregnant wife for an unspecified time but also to go completely off the books-- unknown, unattached, uninsured. He'll have access to all the money he'll need, to be provided in safe deposit boxes. He'll also operate only in Europe--Arab countries are outside his area of responsibility.

While he wonders why he, an agent with no field experience, has been chosen, he sees it as an obligation to the nation he loves, and accepts the mission. Comfortingly, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) his adoring wife, understands his need to leave her for a time and agrees to the sacrifice.

Under the guidance of case officer Ephraim (a "take-no-prisoners" Geoffrey Rush), Avner meets his team in Europe--four men with little attention-getting accomplishments. They each, however, have something to add to the enterprise. Steve (Daniel Craig) is a tough and ready assailant; Carl (Ciaran Hinds) is a professorial, dapper cleanup man; Hans (Hanns Zischler), the relatively quiet one, is an expert document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) is the less than inspiring bomb maker who will be called upon to use aged explosive material.

With all the Munich terrorists having dispersed, the currency here is information on current whereabouts and identities. For this, Avner makes contact with informants Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and his country-baron, mastermind father (Michael Lonsdale). With the intel they provide, the team's tracking takes place in apartments, alleyways, restaurants and streets of Europe, including London, Athens, Beirut, Paris, Geneva. As the targets change so, too, does the methodology and the dangers, including the dire need to avoid collateral victims--key to preserving the moral basis of their undertaking.

The bombings and shootings are detailed, one by one. Some executions go smoothly as planned, some are complicated by unforeseen factors. Spielberg does his best to vary the style but, given the plot, the impression of a by-the-numbers accounting is hard to escape.

After a few hits, the Palestinians understand what's under way and the Israeli revenge team soon become targets as much as the men on their list. In one such sequence, Avner is picked up by Jeannette (Marie-Josee Croze, one of our favorite barely-known talents whom we last saw in "The Barbarian Invasions"), a truly gorgeous woman sitting alone at the hotel bar. We presume that it's his love for his wife that leads him to reject her quite clear invitation to join her in her room, but that doesn't preclude Carl from falling for her charms when he goes into the bar for a late night drink.

While sympathy for the mission of reprisal is unquestioned, expectations for a hightened sense of gut-level anxiety over its difficulties and dangers to our team is somewhat dissipated by length and overstatement, as well as Spielberg's zeal for balance. The issue that the filmmaker correctly identifies as central to the story, the moral question, and whether morality applies in this specific circumstance, is more than duly represented by central figure Avner's self-doubts and the affect it has on the subsequent direction of his life.

Whether it's because Avner grapples with the morality of his job too much or because Spielberg is so consciencious about the humanity of the terrorists, Avner doesn't quite hold us with a visceral grip, despite Bana's gift for sensitivity. It's as though the identifiable side of the man's personality is held at the distance of clandestine obscurity reserved for spies. The mind and heart of the assassin remains in a "need-to-know" limbo. This is no way to ignite the spark of involvement.

Let the original author tell us what he thinks:
"Munich" follows the letter of my book closely enough. The spirit is almost the opposite. "Vengeance" holds there is a difference between trerrorism and counterterrorism; "Munich" suggests there isn't. The book has no trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film find it difficult. Spielberg's movie worries about the moral trap of resistng terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it."

~ George Jonas, author of the book, "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team" on which the film is based.
Quoted from the L.A. Times, 1/13/06

Dramatic tension commensurate with the undertaking, therefore, never quite achieves its full throttle potentials, which we'd lay on the doorstep of a rather workmanlike script by writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (adapted from the book "Vengeance" by George Jonas--see sidebar). Devotion to country and being an instrument of retribution aren't enough, apparently, to warm us to the cold calculation that the lethal work demands and the affect it has on its workers.

This isn't Spielberg with cinematic art and scale ("The War of the Worlds") but, rather, Spielberg uncharacteristically using raw visual darkness and hand held camera to convey a feel for the murk of secrecy and intrigue, which works well. Camerawork by Janusz Kaminski is resourceful and atmospheric, providing the right feel for the tensions. John Williams ("Memoirs of a Geisha") provides a suitably laid back score, not attempting to generate more excitement than the mildly diluted story itself provides.

If this is a valid detailing of how the Israelis actually operate, then it's primary virtue is in that revelation--the value being in the degree of accuracy it provides. But one is loath to assume as much, that country needing to be as secretive about its actual methods as their realities demand. One might also say that this is a story that had to be told and that someone had to tell it. Who better than Spielberg? But, he didn't prove that need to me. In fact, his film takes some luster off Bana's capacity for adding uncliched humanity to stereotypical warrior roles, as he so warmly fulfilled as Hector in "Troy." Would that he could have captured our concern as much in "Munich."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Comments from readers:
Well written

Not having seen the movie, I cannot evaluate the review other than to say that it seems to be very comprehensive and it definitely is very well written.

                                                           ~~ Bill G. 
Well written
I've seen the movie and: I disagree with the review
Site rating: 5

For me, the primary point of this movie is that violence begets violence, but nothing else, especially with nationalism as its impetus. This movie contains only as much entertainment, or even humanity, as it has to because it must.

                                                           ~~ Shane 

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