[box cover]

Munich

When Palestinian gunmen infiltrated the 1972 summer Olympics in Germany, taking 11 Israeli athletes hostage, the vicious terrorism that would come to define future Arab and Islamic insurgencies could no longer be dismissed as a provincial issue. Playing out live on televisions across the world, the tense stand-off in Munich — and the resulting massacre that left all the hostages and but three terrorists dead — brought this barbaric bastardization of Middle East politics into everyone's living room, chilling horrified sympathizers with the embattled Jewish state but also galvanizing future generations of jihadist fanatics. With the event itself — and the German government's tragically inept handling of it — skillfully depicted in the Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September, Steven Spielberg's 2005 "fictional history" Munich is more concerned with Israel's retaliation. Eric Bana stars as Avner, a Mossad sniper chosen to lead an unofficial counterstrike unit targeting 11 top Palestinian terrorists for assassination, one for each of the athletes murdered in Munich. With only covert financial resources from the Israeli government, Avner's group relies on untrustworthy black-market sources to locate their targets and provide logistical support. At first, the hit squad is assured in purpose but tentative in execution; however, as they progress through their list of targets, they become clinical killers but less certain of the morality informing their actions.

Munich was widely criticized at the time of its theatrical release by political pundits who felt it either took clear sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (it was accused of being both pro-Israeli and anti-Semitic), or, worse to some, being so careful not take sides that it equates the morality of fighting terrorism with terrorism itself (meanwhile, other critics praised the movie for the very same reasons). Munich unfortunately offers red meat to many of its detractors with two ill-advised sequences in its opening minutes — first the one-by-one juxtaposition of the slain Israeli athletes with the targets on Avner's hit list, which can just as easily be read as likening the two groups as it can differentiating them, and this followed shortly by an egregiously obvious and unnecessary Jewish stereotype of a Mossad accountant hectoring Avner to keep detailed receipts of his expenses. From then on, however, Munich is a much more interesting film, similar in some ways to Monster's Ball (2001) in carefully depicting how institutionally approved murder, even when just, can wear at the soul of those charged with carrying out the sentence, especially when faced with the humanity of even the most vile victims. Munich also effectively contemplates the corrosive psychological effects and murky ethics of covert operations in general, and it questions the potential futility of countering violence with like, as each assassination is followed by reprisals and a seemingly never-ending supply of new terrorists. Naturally, the movie is also full of not-so-subtle references to the contemporary U.S. "Global War on Terrorism," and it will be left to each individual viewer to decide whether the rhetorical power of Munich's emotional appeals outweighs the tactical naiveté of its underlying assumptions, or the dubious assignment of its strong themes to this particular infamous event.

Historically, Munich is a mixed bag, in a few short scenes very faithfully (and chillingly) recreating the well-documented siege at the Olympics, but relying on questionable sourcing for the bulk of its narrative. Screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) adapted Munich from journalist George Jonas' 1984 book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, whose primary source and the basis for the character of Avner, Yuval Aviv, unverifiably claims to have been a Mossad agent involved in "Operation Wrath of God." Not only does the Mossad officially dispute Aviv's entire story (especially Munich's contemplation of moral dilemmas faced by irresolute Mossad officers), but even Mossad critic Victor Ostrovsky has claimed that Vengeance is wholly unreliable. Author Jonas himself has admitted that Aviv's story cannot be accurately checked, and he also has complained that Spielberg and Kushner (a vocal critic of Israel) fail to make necessary moral distinctions in the film, which also includes pro-Palestinian distortions. All of this subtext makes Munich both more troubling and more intriguing than it might have been had Spielberg & Co. safely transferred their narrative and ideas onto a fully fictional terrorist event, for Munich's many flaws are exaggerated by the magnifying glass of history and politics. While the movie contains many excellent scenes, some tense and emotionally powerful and among the best in the spy-thriller genre, Spielberg's gift has never been that of subtlety. Although this shortcoming rarely affected the fantasy blockbusters of his early career, it has not always been kind to the "mature" Spielberg, who is prone to hammer home potentially quietly effective dramatic points with a flying saucer-sized sledgehammer, just to make sure we don't miss how he feels (see, for example, the girl in the red coat in Schindler's List, the weeping soldier at the end of Saving Private Ryan, Avner's histrionic sexual breakdown near the end of Munich). Ultimately, empathizing with Avner's journey of disillusionment may depend on how closely one already sympathizes with Spielberg's quasi-pacifist view of the futility of violence (he calls his movie a "prayer for peace"); but even head-nodders may find too much cognitive dissonance complicates the experience. Bana is decent but wooden as Avner, but the rest of the cast is fine, especially Daniel Craig as the most gung-ho of Avner's unit, and Geoffrey Rush as Avner's Mossad contact.

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Universal's Munich is available in both movie-only and two-disc Special Edition DVD releases. The feature is presented in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. The movie-only edition includes a short introduction by Spielberg. The two-disc Special Edition includes featurettes "Munich: The Mission, The Team," "Munich: Memories of the Event," "Munich: Portrait of an Era," "Munich: The On-Set Experience," "Munich: The International Cast," and "Munich: Editing, Sound and Music." Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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