(United States, 2005)

One could argue that Munich is Steven Spielberg's most acccomplished film to-date, but I don't think it's his best. Of his "serious" endeavors, Schindler's List delivers a more powerful message in a more emotionally draining way. And I would rank Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Close Encounters as more complete "entertainment" packages. But Munich is without question a potent and thought-provoking film that is at times chilling and at times nail-biting. With this picture, Spielberg raises controversial questions, none of which can be easily answered. At what point does vengeance become counter-productive? Can a man, who begins a mission of assassination with the best reasons at heart, lose his soul in the process? And can a war against terrorism be won? It's no wonder that Spielberg has come under fire for producing a movie that questions things many viewers don't want questioned. And some Jewish leaders have condemned the movie because (a) it presents an element of moral ambiguity in Israel's struggle, and (b) it refuses to demonize the Palestinians. These are risky things for a Jewish American filmmaker to do, but Munich is all the more powerful for them. The movie is nearly three hours long, but it doesn't seem close to that. Munich was one of the last films I saw during 2005, and the only one from the year to which I gave four stars. It had been 18 months since my last assignment of that rating, and I was beginning to despair whether I would see another masterpiece (or near-masterpiece). Spielberg rewarded my patience and redeemed an otherwise mediocre year at the movies.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Avner (Eric Bana) is the leader of a five-man team of covert, ex-Mossad operatives who have been given unofficial status by the government of Israel so they can track down and assassinate the 11 Palestinians responsible for planning the attack against Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. Their lone contact is their handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who provides them with information about how they can obtain money to fund their operation. Avner accepts the job despite having a seven-month pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer) waiting for him in Jerusalem. For Avner, nothing is more important than patriotism - at least when the ordeal begins. The group consists of Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African hothead who is eager - almost too eager - to shed blood; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), an unnaturally cool and collected "cleaner"; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker-turned-bombmaker; and Hans (Hanns Zischler), an expert forger. After making contact with an information collector named Louis (Mathiew Amalrac), Avner begins learning the locations of his targets. His mission takes him around the globe - from Paris to Düsseldorf to Beirut to Athens to London to New York City - as his pursuit of his goal becomes single-minded. Tragic near-misses, an erosion of conscience, and the realization that the hunters may have become the hunted turn Avner's assignment into a nightmare. And the most dangerous target - who may be allied with the CIA - remains elusive.

A film of uncommon depth, intelligence, and sensitivity, Munich defies easy labeling. Watching the movie is like reading a top-notch espionage thriller by Le Carre or Deighton. Yet, at the same time, this is a visual experience. The moral and ethical elements, layered atop a story that is ripe with suspense, put to shame Hollywood's typical ventures into this genre. Munich is an eye-opener - a motion picture that asks difficult questions, presents well-developed characters, and keeps us white-knuckled throughout. This is a serious, adult motion picture. The ending is not as bleak as it could be, but it will send audiences away in a reflective mood, pondering not only the events of the film, but how close Spielberg's fictionalized world of the early '70s is to our real world in the 2000s.

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