2005-12-29 / Arts & Entertainment

‘Munich’ Makes “Morally Complex Story...Into A Balanced Film”

By David Germain AP Movie Writer

By David GermainAP Movie Writer

A meeting of Israeli officials in a scene from “Munich,” the story of the secret Israeli squad assigned to track down and assassinate 11 Palestinians believed to have planned the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.                                                                                    ©2005 Universal PicturesA meeting of Israeli officials in a scene from “Munich,” the story of the secret Israeli squad assigned to track down and assassinate 11 Palestinians believed to have planned the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. ©2005 Universal Pictures

A wise, old, crusty newspaper editor once told a young reporter, if you’re not ticking someone off each time you write a story, you’re not doing your job.

The same probably is true for filmmakers, at least those who want to do anything remotely outside the safe, homogenized zones of Big Hollywood when it seeks to placate every member of the audience with inoffensive pap.

With “Munich,’’ Steven Spielberg will please plenty of people who worried he would sanitize the story of the 1972 Olympics massacre and the reprisals Israel would take over the slayings of its athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists.

He’ll tick off a whole lot of other people for different reasons.

Spielberg is in “Schindler’s List” mode here, harsh and merciless in his desire to tell an uncompromising story light years removed from the happy fantasy land of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

Those who want him to make more theme-park rides such as “Jurassic Park” and “War of the Worlds” won’t be too mad, figuring he’s already done one of those in 2005 and is entitled to go slumming in a serious film.

Arabs won’t be thrilled to have a chapter of Palestinian extremism laid open to painful dramatization.

Some Jews already are branding “Munich” a be-trayal of Israel for what they call its sympathetic treatment of Arab extremists and its depiction of Mossad assassins hunting the perpetrators as bloodthirsty avenging angels.

Certainly, there is enough sympathy, as well as condemnation, to go around for virtually all of Spiel-berg’s characters, Arab and Jew. This is a morally complex story about morally agonizing matters, so the fact that the characters evoke both compassion and repugnance is a sign of a balanced film whose creator is considering all sides.

And there is a degree of bloodthirstiness to the Israelis’ demand for retribution, as there was bloodthirstiness to Americans’ desire for Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike after the Sept. 11 attacks. They’re only human, as Spielberg makes admirably clear, and a sense of righteous vengeance is in our blood.

“Munich’’ opens in frantic docudrama style, mixing vintage news coverage with Spielberg’s re-creation as members of the Palestinian terror group Black September infiltrate the Olympic Village, be-ginning a hostage standoff that would result in the deaths of 11 Israelis.

Israel responds from behind closed doors, tapping intelligence officer Avner (Eric Bana) to lead an undercover team to assassinate Black September figures suspected of plotting the Munich massacre.

The shadowy Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) becomes the group’s handler and cheerleader, trying to keep Avner in the fold as the covert hunt and bloody retribution take an emotional toll.

Avner has been hand-picked by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) as a true devotee, yet the film presents an absorbing study of how people of zealous faith come to doubt their cause, turn paranoid, begin to question the motives of superiors.

Those familiar with Australian actor Bana mainly from his lead role as the scientist who becomes the angry brute in “Hulk’’ are in for discovery of a great talent. As he previously proved in the independent hit “Chopper,’’ Bana can be a riveting figure, with fathomless eyes that register both boyish earnestness and world-weary anguish.

Along with the magnificently inscrutable Rush, Bana is surrounded by a marvelous ensemble in Avner’s assassin cadre: Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, as a dogged South African recruit; Ciaran Hinds as the group’s shrewd, calculating mother hen; Mathieu Kassovitz as a Belgian toymaker turned explosives expert; and Hanns Zischler as a German antiques dealer with a flair for forgery.

In a matter of minutes in the group’s first gathering over dinner, Spielberg and the actors forge a fascinating bond among the five assassins, all immediately asserting themselves as full-blooded individuals with secrets, passions, doubts and even disarming whimsy as they discuss the tasks ahead.

Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer offers excellent support as Avner’s wife, whom he must leave behind as she prepares for the birth of their first child.

With George Jonas’ book ``Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team’’ as the basis, Eric Roth took a first pass at the screenplay before playwright Tony Kushner (``Angels in America’’) took over. Spielberg notes he decided to move ahead with the film only after reading Kushner’s version.

Working with his frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg deftly recreates the gritty, menacing look of 1970s thrillers, the camera stalking the characters with restless zooms and pans.

Spielberg’s intent is to chronicle how decades of reciprocal hate and violence continue to escalate unless someone pulls back and says, “Enough.” He succeeds in creating a film very much rooted in the political turmoil of its time, yet which resonates powerfully amid today’s ongoing strife.

“Munich,” a Universal release, is rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 164 minutes.

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