To paraphrase Mickey Rourke in Body Heat, any time you try to make a film based on the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, there are a million ways you can screw up. The appearance of rank exploitation is going to dog your every step Steven Spielberg, who has made Munich, had to weather such charges even over his widely praised Schindler's List and the entire undertaking runs the risk of superfluousness. Because if you really had anything substantial to contribute to the debate over Middle East violence, you'd be speaking from the dais at the United Nations, not pleading your case in the nation's multiplexes.
Actress Lynn Cohen, playing Golda Meir, admits as much in a wonderful scene early in Munich. In a clandestine session with her closest advisers, Cohen's Meir enumerates the pros and cons to hunting down and exterminating the planners of the Munich attack. (We've already seen that bloody siege dramatized at the outset of the film.) Yes, the prime minister allows, adopting terrorist tactics means sinking to their level; still, the world must see that Israel will not suffer in silence. A decision is made: Off with their heads.
One gets the feeling that this is the deepest, most conclusive deliberation the movie will get up to in its 160 minutes, and that turns out to be correct. Subsequent attempts at political discussion prove extraneous, with Spielberg instead positioning the movie as something unexpected and thrilling in its borderline blasphemy: an espionage procedural. The technical details of assassination are up front and center as a team of deep-cover Mossad operatives follows the Munich masterminds around Europe, bumping them off with bombs wired into phones or hidden under mattresses and triggered by remote control. In inviting us to get off on the technicalities of state-sponsored murder, the movie speaks volumes about the undying allure of revenge, and why peace will always be fated to play the underdog: It isn't nearly as much fun as the alternative.
The hit squad's leader is a Sabra of German extraction; though he's the son of a military hero, his chief qualification for the job is his very innocuousness. (Eric Bana invests the character, Avner Kauffman, with an Everyman vulnerability that works far better than it did for him in The Hulk.) Other team members display varying levels of personal commitment, with the bloodthirstiest end of the spectrum represented by a Zionist zealot (Daniel Craig, the next 007) who will do anything to advance the message that Jews are not to be trifled with.
As the mission marches forward and the bodies accrue, the less strident operatives start to suffer guilty consciences. The look in Bana's eyes when a bombing nearly claims an innocent child or pair of lovebirds says more about the ability of reality to intrude on partisan resolve than words ever could. Unfortunately, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (the Pulitzer-winning author of Broadway's Angels in America) feel a need to underline the point, force-feeding their characters a handful of unwieldy exchanges among the assassins, and between Kauffman and a Palestinian counterpart that spell out the implications of the Middle East conflict (both then and now) in concrete terms. We don't really need dialogue to explain that the region is locked in an apparently irresolvable struggle for home and identity; the exploding squibs accomplish that quite nicely.
Yet despite its excesses (which also include some facile sex/death juxtapositions and an ill-advised shot of the Twin Towers), the film displays a ballsy willingness to offend everybody from Muslims who will cringe at the bell-bottomed sexiness of retro killers Bana and Craig, to pro-Israel apologists who will brook no suggestion that the country's ends may not always justify its means. Most engagingly, almost every character's actions are in some way determined by economics. The Mossad men are always paying for information about the whereabouts of their prey, but these and other expenses have to be kept at a price point the poor nation of Israel can afford. Kauffman and his crew have to operate under many strictures, including limiting their exploits to Europe and minimizing civilian casualties. Still, no admonition matches the seriousness of the one they hear most often: Get receipts!