MUNICH directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner from the book Vengeance by George Jonas, with Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler. 160 minutes. A DreamWorks release. Opens December 23. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
One of the final shots in Munich, Steven Spielberg's gripping and intelligent political thriller, pans slowly across the Manhattan skyline as seen from Brooklyn. It's the 1970s, so of course the World Trade Center buildings stand erect and proud.
When we see the towers, along with a statistic that includes the numbers nine and eleven (obviously intentional), it's bone-chilling. Time contracts. The analogy is brought home. All the drama, bloodshed and ethical inquiry we've just witnessed feels disturbingly relevant today.
The film, which we're told is "inspired by real events," begins with a turning point in Israeli/Palestinian relations: the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It then focuses on a hit squad secretly hired by the Israeli government to assassinate the 11 Palestinian organizers of the atrocity.
Headed by former Mossad agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), the vengeance-seeking Israeli quintet travels the world in search of the names on the list. (It's hard not to think of that other Spielberg film about a list, but here his characters aren't saving lives, but taking them.)
The film is set up like a thriller and delivers plenty of cringe-inducing suspense and intrigue. The first hit is captured with as much visual and dramatic punch as anything in the Godfather movies. And the subsequent murders are filmed with escalating tension, as the assassins, increasingly suspicious of the names on the list and the secret informer who's providing them with information, become assassination targets themselves.
The screenplay, co-written by Eric Roth and the great Tony Kushner (Angels In America), sets the film apart from regular thrillers. Huge themes like vengeance and family work their way artfully throughout the script. The political arguments feel authentic, whether they're occurring in Golda Meir's office, around the hit men's dinner table (Kauffman, it turns out, is an amateur chef) or, in one of the film's quietest but most compelling scenes, between two strangers in an Athens stairwell.
If you're unconvinced of Spielberg's skill as an artist, look how a machine-gun massacre scene in Beirut echoes the Olympic murders. Or pay attention to how the sprawled-out naked body of one of the Israeli hit men mirrors that of a particularly grisly corpse later on.
The film's cleverest scene, captured with absurdity and suspense, finds the Israeli hit men holed up in an anonymous room, only to find a group of Arab men occupying (get it?) the same space.
The five assassins are beautifully cast, particularly Ciarán Hinds as the cleanup guy and Mathieu Kassovitz as a bomb expert. (Only Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, feels out of place.) Eric Bana (The Hulk) doesn't have the me-me-me charisma of someone like Tom Cruise, but he's appropriate here as the brooding, haunted thinker who can believably slip in and out of cities.
Shot in three months earlier this year, the film isn't perfect. Some sequences feel rushed. A few nightmare scenes feel forced.
Still, this is a major work in Spielberg's serious film mode, as good as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. But unlike those films, Munich refuses to offer any hope and release.