Rapidly overtaking the "Cinema of Revenge" is the "Cinema of Revenge with a Guilty Conscience"—i.e., "My people got even and all I got was this dumb hair shirt."
What's the reason for this post-9/11, self-critical twist on the thriller genre's beloved scenarios of injury and retaliation? Maybe it's that the recent consequences of such thinking have been so catastrophic: that despite invading two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), quickly overthrowing their governments, and inflicting massive casualties on their populations, the enemy's resistance has, if anything, grown more tenacious; and that our ally Israel, among the world's most reflexively vindictive nations, hasn't managed with its instantaneous reprisals to stanch the flow of blood. At this juncture, to make the movies we always have, the ones that revel in righteous brutality, would not only be socially irresponsible. It would be delusional.
And so comes Steven Spielberg's Munich (Universal), from a script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. Grim and tightly wound, the movie's tension unrelieved by warmth or humor, it turns on the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games, and on the Israeli government's alleged response, which was off the books, hush-hush: to bankroll a squad of covert operatives to assassinate the Palestinians believed to be behind the killings.
It's hard to imagine a better motive for vengeance than the killing of national heroes (and civilians) on a world stage. And, like any good thriller, the first part of Munich catches you up in the Mission: Impossible, nuts-and-bolts, "procedural" aspect of bringing the bad guys down: surveillance followed by shootings and colossal bomb blasts. Take that, terrorist vermin! Afterward, the team celebrates with buoyant back-patting over brewskis; you can almost hear them say, "And now, it's Miller time."
Even in the midst of the assassins' exultation, there are dissonances. The protagonist, Avner (played by Eric Bana, tall and mild-mannered, with no trace of the Hulk), doesn't know what role the people he kills actually played in the Munich massacre. He didn't want this assignment, which will take him away from his family for years. He has a new baby and a demanding spouse. (The script gives her a line that's a little too self-conscious: "I'm not the hero's nice wife.") But he obeys the call because he's a child of Israel—almost literally.
Avner's estranged father (omnipresent in his influence but never shown) was a hero in the war for Israeli independence. And when Avner was at an impressionable age, his mother packed him off to be raised at a kibbutz—one of those secular, socialized collectives that for so long was a point of nationalist pride. Avner is prevailed upon by no less than the Great Mother herself—Golda Meir. Having outraged many Israelis by negotiating with the Munich terrorists, she has now embraced a different philosophy. "These people want to destroy us," she declares. "To get peace, we must show them we're strong." And it falls to Avner to write that message in blood.
Spielberg's movies often turn, subtly, on the absence of stable fathers and the resulting emotional vacuum. In Munich, that vacuum is also a moral one. Avner's surrogate father, a Mossad higher-up called Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), is cold and withholding—of both information and spiritual affirmation. Far more affectionate is Munich's third father figure, known only as "Papa" (Michael Lonsdale): the patriarch of a French family that deals in supersecret intelligence, providing Avner (for vast sums of money) with intelligence on the comings and goings of his targets. Papa is seen only in the context of his family—hordes of golden-haired grandchildren frolicking in bright sunlight on a country estate. He says, wistfully, that Avner could be his son. But he adds, ever amoral and pragmatic, that Avner is not his son and is therefore completely expendable.
The coldness of this universe is reinforced by Spielberg's uninflected storytelling. His tone is flat and his visual texture rough; the film is full of unobtrusive hand-held camerawork and quick zooms. The exceptions are the flashbacks to the Munich murders, the events revealed gradually, in fragments, through Avner's daydreams and nightmares. Those flashbacks accelerate—hurtling toward the actual Munich bloodbath—as ambivalence and then revulsion seep into the present action. The men Avner kills don't seem like monsters. They're presented as cranky poets and loving fathers and fierce idealists, and they regard their cause as righteous. (It is a powerful irony that the Palestinian who is said to be the Munich mastermind, who looks and acts like your garden-variety terrorist scumbag, is forever evading assassination.)
Is Munich an apology for Palestinian terrorists—for men and women who barbarously murder civilians? I don't consider a movie that assigns motives more complicated than pure evil to constitute an apology. The Israeli government and many conservative and pro-Israeli commentators have lambasted the film for naiveté, for implying that governments should never retaliate. But an expression of uncertainty and disgust is not the same as one of outright denunciation. What Munich does say—and what I find irrefutable—is that this shortsighted tit-for-tat can produce a kind of insanity, both individual and collective. As members of Avner's own team (played by a blond Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Hanns Zischler) are picked off in chilling ways, his escalating paranoia—and his hunger for absolutes, for a "world of our fathers" that is long gone—transcends his time and place.
There are sequences in Munich that make you sick with fear, that are impossible to shake off—among them one in which a Palestinian professor's little daughter is on the verge of answering a booby-trapped telephone. Most horrible of all is the movie's one pure vengeance killing, which is among the most appalling things I've ever seen. We want that revenge—we want it fiercely. But it's staged with such ugliness—as a sexual violation—that we choke on it.
Munich reinforces the idea that—great Miltonian allegories notwithstanding—the notion of evil has become profoundly maladaptive. Today, saying our enemy is "evil" is like saying a preventable tragedy is "God's will": It's a way of letting ourselves off the hook for crimes committed in our name. Not incidentally, it's also a way for our enemies to let themselves off the hook.
Munich has been regarded in some quarters as an affront: How does Spielberg have the audacity to make a commercial thriller that questions the very concept of retaliation? And while we're on the subject, how does he have the audacity to make a sci-fi picture like War of the Worlds, which uses a Martian invasion to evoke the trauma of 9/11?
Well, it's too bad we don't have more mainstream narrative filmmakers with that kind of audacity. Munich is the most potent, the most vital, the best movie of the year.