Munich is not a movie about the slayings of Israeli athletes by Arab terrorists in Munich, Germany, during the 1972 Summer Olympics. Those very real historical murders serve only as a setup for director Steven Spielbergs exploration of something bigger, also based in fact: the story of what followed as a group of Mossad agents were sent to track down and assassinate the Black September members responsible, and in so doing very nearly became terrorists themselves.
Mossad, of course, is the Israeli version of the CIA. In Spielberg's film, Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) is a Mossad agent. After the events of Munich, he's given a mission: make the Arab terrorists pay. As far as the government is concerned, he no longer exists. But he has a mission, money, and a team of specialists to help carry it out. The rest is up to him.
This isn't a spy movie, however. To be sure, there is spying involved, and a couple of elements look as though they were plucked straight out of The Bourne Identity, but that's not the point. Spielberg's ambitions are loftier than that. Through Avner's story, Munich examines terrorism from every angle. The Munich attack resonates throughout the story -- though it's not just the impact of the Munich events we're looking at but the impact of all kinds of terrorism on all kinds of people, both the victims and the killers. Who then are the real killers? Avner is waging his own war of revenge-driven terror; is he that different from the men he's hunting?
The characters in Spielberg's film, both Muslim and Jew, have the breath of real people, not merely two-dimensional murderers or overly heroic soldiers. Each assassination carried about by Avner and his team is different, and each affects the team differently. With each successful operation, the dynamic between them shifts and they become different people. This concept is brilliantly developed by Spielberg, and the way each man deals with what he's doing is our window into what's happening. This is a film driven not by brutal action (of which there is plenty) but by the characters' reactions to what they're doing. Through that, it achieves a broader scope, asking audiences to accept a wider world of understanding about the terrorist problem as a whole, both then and now.
Don't think for a minute that I'm saying this is a political movie. Munich is doggedly apolitical. Instead, Tony Kushner's script tries something that for Michael Moore or Bill O'Reilly would probably be unimaginable: it's fair. Neither side is exactly clean, and whether their deeds are evil or not, often even the worst killers are motivated by the same things we all are. When under attack, they try to protect their wives and children. A dying assassin stops to say goodbye to her cat before collapsing in a gut-wrenching pool of blood. Some try to escape, some turn and sacrifice themselves to save their brethren. Every death in this movie hurts, not just the deaths of the "good" guys, but the apparently bad ones as well.
That leaves Munich as a unique and sometimes emotionally crushing experience. This is easily Spielberg's best film since Saving Private Ryan, and it's great to see him return to heavier, more exacting material. It helps that Spielberg gets so many amazing performances. We've been hearing for years now that Eric Bana was the next big thing, but I'm not sure I quite believed it until now. He's powerful, imposing, and yet warm, human, and fearful as Avner; he's the key to everything. This is a great movie, but not a friendly one. It asks a lot from its audience, and staying with it till the end demands a price. Munich is going to stick with you long after leaving the theatre.