2½ stars (out of four)
Midway through his bloody mission, holed up in a crumbling Athens building, Avner, an Israeli assassin, meets Ali, an agent for the PLO.
Leaning against the concrete walls of an empty stairwell, far from their wives and babies, Avner, posing as German, and Ali, vehemently Palestinian, talk politics.
"You don't know what it is not to have a home," Ali says to Avner, jaw clenched, tears pooled in his eyes at the thought of his father's stolen olive trees and the suspicion that his people are paying for the evils of Hitler. "Home is everything."
Home -- homeland, really -- is still at the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just as it was in 1972, when the Palestinian extremist group Black September viciously murdered 11 Israeli Olympians at the Munich games. In his latest piece of historical fiction, "Munich," Steven Spielberg tries to wrap his head around this concept of home and the moral conundrum of revenge it has spawned by dramatizing Israel's response to the murder of its athlete sons.
This is dense and complicated territory, even for an extraordinarily gifted director like Spielberg, who in the past has focused his expensive lens on more clear-cut, pored-over Manichaean episodes -- the Holocaust ("Schindler's List"), World War II ("Saving Private Ryan") and slavery ("Amistad").
Some have gone so far as to wonder aloud if "Munich" might change the course of Mideast politics. And with Spielberg's bullhorn and a script co-written by playwright Tony Kushner -- adept at mining his own conflicted feelings about politics, Judaism and Zionism for art -- I hoped "Munich" would at least bring something new, even provocative, to the table.
But Ali and Avner never get any further in that stairwell. The conversation ends where it always does: Palestinians want a homeland, Israelis have to protect theirs, and Spielberg stays mum. That Ali and Avner eventually end up on opposite sides of a gun makes "Munich" a competent thriller, but as an intellectual pursuit, it is little more than a pretty prism through which superficial Jewish guilt and generalized Palestinian nationalism look like the product of serious soul-searching.
Do we need another handsome, well-assembled, entertaining movie to prove that we all bleed red?
Based on George Jonas' book "Vengeance," with a script by Kushner and Eric Roth (Roth wrote the first draft; Kushner was involved throughout filming, and his influence is easy to spot), "Munich" concentrates on one team out of the many involved in Israel's multi-pronged assassination plot, "Operation Wrath of God."
The son of an Israeli war hero and former bodyguard to Prime Minister Golda Meir, Avner (Eric Bana) is plucked from the Mossad to lead this team of five. He immediately goes off the books. No salary, no insurance, no connection to Israel. You don't exist, says his terse Mossad contact, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush).
Leaving his pregnant wife behind, Avner meets up with his team in Europe to embark on their "Ten Little Indians"-style mission. First night, Avner cooks a brisket, and the soon-to-be killers sit around the dinner table kibitzing. The dynamic between them is a little bit '70s sitcom -- I half expected Starsky and Hutch to show up with kugel -- and each guy is his own Semitic caricature. As the only native Israeli, Avner is hunky and steady; Steve (Daniel Craig), the brash South African getaway driver with a bit of bloodlust, is in the habit of saying things like "the only blood that matters is Jewish blood"; Hans (Hanns Zischler), the German, stays under the radar and forges documents; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a nerdy toymaker from Belgium, builds bombs; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the conscience and fastidious yenta of the bunch, cleans up after the assassinations.
Spielberg introduces us to the list of targets in dramatic fashion, cutting back and forth between the Mossad's war room, where intelligence agents flip through pictures of the 11 potential hits, and the recitation of the 11 murdered Olympians' names. All the while, the mournful notes of "Hatikvah" -- the Israeli national anthem -- moan in the background.
That wide gulf between terror and anti-terror slowly narrows as Carl and Robert start to wonder about things like proof and evidence and even the usefulness of the targeted assassination strategy when each time they kill a leader, another takes his place.
All one has to do is listen to our country's current debate or read Israel's lefty newspaper, Haaretz, to know that questioning a nation's retaliatory tactics is far from brave these days; it's positively mainstream. Yet even though Israel still targets -- blowing up a number of Hamas' most powerful leaders just last year -- Spielberg will go only so far with this line of debate, affirming that violence begets violence and then splicing in Munich flashbacks to make sure we remember that this is not a chicken-and-egg scenario. Each hit is offset with the news of another Black September strike (or each Black September strike is offset by another hit -- however you see it).
"Munich" is all about balance, base covering. There's a line of dialogue to answer any critic, clear any conscience, soothe any concern. Everyone gets a turn to kill and to ponder. And while the intent is noble -- if only the conflicts' major players were so fair-minded -- drama turns to mush without a point of view. (Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers" proved decades ago that compassion and conviction are not mutually exclusive.)
It's when Spielberg stops trying to think so hard that "Munich" works best. Though some of the assassination scenes feel a little too choreographed, more "West Side Story" than "Bourne Identity," most are fast and tense, each hit its own self-contained drama, shot by Janusz Kaminski in gripping style with a zoom lens.
Avner and his crew mess up a lot. Jobs are botched, bombs malfunction, it all feels kind of remedial, which ups the suspense and is a compelling counter to the myth that Israelis are born shooting.
I'd guess that tracking down the targets was a pretty complicated and time-consuming affair back then, but Spielberg lets Avner off the hook with logistics and gives him an omnipotent informant, Louis (Mathieu Amalric). An "ideologically promiscuous" French information entrepreneur, Louis and his dad have made millions selling secrets and weapons to whomever they deem trustworthy -- and lucrative.
Louis and Papa (Michael Lonsdale) add welcome intrigue to Spielberg's balancing act, testing Avner's allegiance and giving us a peek inside the world of international espionage, where Black September might work for the CIA, and loyalty is not always what it seems.
Lonsdale gives a marvelous performance as Papa, the only character Kushner wrote gray. He's shady by profession, but wise, warm and fiercely protective of his family, and his moral compromise -- as an equal opportunist, he may be willing to sell information on Avner to the Palestinians -- is more substantive than any other in the film.
Papa's enormous estate in the French countryside, always full of food, children and flowers, is Spielberg's utopian vision of home -- safe, abundant, a haven for his family. Avner longs for such a place in the world, and by the end of the film, with our hero tormented by his task, wary of his country and plagued by flashbacks of Munich, it seems less and less likely he'll ever find it.
Adding a political layer to Spielberg's career-long fixation on home, Avner returns again and again to the window of a Paris housewares store, where he stares in at the beautifully appointed kitchen display, running his hand down the glass that separates him from the butcher block. Bana is so convincing, with his tortured eyes and hollow face, that it's tempting to mistake the stove for Israel and the sink for Avner's wife.
It's tempting to believe that the raw and painful history between guys like Avner and guys like Ali -- men who back in that stairwell could have been brothers and whose struggle for home and security continues to this day -- might be emotionally summed up in a window display.
It's tempting to think that those wood-paneled cabinets and burnt-orange appliances actually mean something.
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book "Vengeance" by George Jonas; photographed by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; production designed by Rick Carter; music by John Williams; produced by Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel and Colin Wilson. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 23. Running time: 2:42. MPAA rating: R (strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language).
Avner -- Eric Bana
Steve -- Daniel Craig
Hans -- Hanns Zischler
Robert -- Mathieu Kassovitz
Carl -- Ciaran Hinds
Papa -- Michael Lonsdale
Louis -- Mathieu Amalric
Ephraim -- Geoffrey RushCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times