Since 1985's The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg has directed a series of serious entertainments—on race (Amistad), war (Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan), and the Holocaust (Schindler's List)—but they've all professed values that all but the most bigoted monster can embrace. He's gifted at bringing history to life, but less inclined to make connections with the turbulent present; no matter how awful the events in his films, they're safely filed in the past, which in a way makes them as reassuring as any Spielberg blockbuster. Capping a year when political features finally caught up to their documentary counterparts, Spielberg's electrifying Munich also reaches back to the past, but it can't be accused of not speaking to the turbulent times. This isn't a sober memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but a clear and powerful elucidation of the current cycle of violence in the Middle East, echoing acts of retribution through the ages.
Adapted from George Jonas' book Vengeance, with a screenplay by Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner, Munich opens with the early-morning siege on the Olympic Village by members of a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September. The standoff between the terrorists and police unfolded on international television, and the tragic ineptitude of the German response, which ended in a chaotic melee on the airport tarmac, has been well-covered by other sources, most notably the documentary One Day In September. Though Spielberg and Kushner occasionally punctuate Munich's action with a recreation of those events, they focus on the aftermath, when Israel sought justice by sanctioning the assassinations of those involved, with Golda Meir's blessing. (Here, she justifies her decision with the line, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.") This long, costly venture falls to Mossad agent Eric Bana and team of four specialized operatives, including a South African hit man (Daniel Craig), a clean-up man (Ciarán Hinds), a reluctant bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), and a document forger (Hanns Zischler). They begin their mission with righteous zeal, believing wholly in the rightness of their cause, but as time and casualties mount, they sink further into a dangerous morass.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians respond with bombings and hijackings of their own as their fallen leaders are replaced by ever more rigid ideologues. This is what's called "a dialogue," to quote one especially potent line; the sum of that dialogue is death, and the sides are still having an animated discussion to this day. Breaking from the Spielberg oeuvre, Munich isn't a particularly hopeful movie, but it's a fair and morally dignified one: In spite of the pre-emptive criticism that Spielberg would be too pro-Israel, he comes down against all nations and groups that perpetuate violence in an effort to repress it. It almost goes without saying that he recreates these events with his usual technical bravura, evoking the period precisely while giving each operation its own special tension and significance. And in Bana's face, the face of Israel, the film channels the paranoia and dread of a soul so deeply compromised, it can never go home again.