For weeks before its release, and for months afterwards, Steven Spielberg's "Munich" was pilloried from all sides, for any number of invented or imagined arguments -- moral relativism, overidentification with Israelis, overidentification for Palestinians, you name it. It arrives on screens today carrying so much political baggage that it's probably not possible for any viewer to be satisfied by what he does or doesn't find.
Except that "Munich" is not, ultimately, a political film. It's a work of art, with all the moral quandaries, psychological complexity and unanswered questions that one would expect from such a thing -- and in examining Israel's response to the massacre of 11 of its citizens by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic games, Spielberg has found a subject with no end of avenues to explore.
The story is told through the eyes of a Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana, a long way from the misfire of Ang Lee's "Hulk"), who is charged with hunting down and assassinating 11 men who planned the Olympic incident. Avner is provided by his government with unlimited finances -- providing he gets receipts -- and four supposedly elite operatives (sharply essayed by Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler) and sent abroad to terminate his targets with extreme prejudice.
But the assignment isn't quite as clear-cut as Avner's case officer (Geoffrey Rush) would have him believe: Before too long Avner begins to question whether the French information brokers who supply him with targets and locations are being entirely straight with him, and precisely how his work -- which involves hunting political targets and killing them in cold blood, preferably with explosive devices -- makes him different from the men he's pursuing.
The easy answer, of course, is that Avner's targets started it. And although Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's script never really disputes that, "Munich" isn't a movie that traffics in easy answers -- it wants us to consider the way the Munich incident set decades of terrorism and counter-terrorism in motion, and the way nationalism can be invoked to justify unthinkable actions on every side.
It also draws a deft parallel between Israel's violent retribution and the American response to 9/11 - an audacious but entirely understandable move on Spielberg's part. And that, more than any perceived comment on Middle Eastern politics, makes "Munich" a film that cannot -- will not -- be easily dismissed.
Universal's enhanced-widescreen DVD offers a splendid transfer -- though the DTS audio option so often included on Spielberg's films is conspicuously absent. (The Dolby Digital track is plenty effective, though.) The sole extra is a videotaped introduction by Spielberg himself, who lays out the factual groundwork covered by his fictionalized characters and briefly discusses the impact of the Munich hostage-taking and massacre on the world of 1972.
A two-disc special edition adds a comprehensive 75-minute documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau, Spielberg's go-to guy for supplemental material; viewable as six separate featurettes, each with its own self-explanatory title: "The Mission, the Team," "Memories of the Event," "Portrait of an Era," "The 'On Set' Experience," "The International Cast" and "Editing, Sound and Music." Cast and crew are interviewed extensively, as well as several key external players.
It all adds up to a very thorough, very somber examination of one of the most intellectually challenging -- and politically relevant -- films from a major American director in a very, very long time, and one that's desperately needed.
STUDIO: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
RELEASE DATE: May 9, 2006
PRICE: $29.98 (standard edition)/$39.98 (deluxe edition)
TIME: 164 minutes
DVD EXTRAS: French audio dub; English, French and Spanish subtitles. Deluxe edition includes additional documentary.
Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush in 'Munich' (May 8, 2006)