Another chunk of history, this time dealing with the revenge that was ignited when eleven Israeli athletes were massacred at the 1972 Olympics by a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September. This mournful masterpiece is Steven Spielberg's harshest film yet, which is saying something, given Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Working from a script co-written in a spirit of ethical inquiry and unforced compassion by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg focuses on an Israeli hit squad, led by former Mossad agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana). They're sanctioned by prime minister Golda Meir (a forceful Lynn Cohen) but given no official standing as they go about their vengeance business, with only one contact (Geoffrey Rush, all steel and given a last line that could freeze blood) to bark orders. The other members of the team are played by Daniel Craig (guns), Mathieu Kassovitz (bombs), Hanns Zischler (forger) and Ciaran Hinds (cleanup). As an operative who works both sides of the fence, Michael Lonsdale slyly steals every scene he is in. The film moves like a thriller, and a tremendously exciting one, as the men travel to London, Paris, Athens and Beirut to eliminate the names they take on faith as the architects of the Munich massacre. There's a lockstep feeling that seeps into the killings, but the cumulative effect is devastating, which is precisely the point. There is never a moment when Spielberg and Kushner are not also measuring the human toll these executions are taking on the executioners. Though Spielberg insists his $70 million film is "inspired by real events" and not historical fact, controversy is already dogging him, with some Israelis objecting to what they see as a sympathetic portrait of the Palestinians, and vice versa. It's a long-standing conflict that this movie (or any other) won't solve. But a movie can illuminate, and Munich writes its most compelling passages on the face of Avner — Bana is magnificent in the role, a man at war with his own conscience who hides his wife and child away in Brooklyn but can never escape his bad dreams. Spielberg saves the graphic sequence of the Munich slaughter for a climactic flashback, reminding us of a wrong that cannot be undone and of the self-perpetuating futility of vengeance. No easy answers, no happy ending, no hero who can lead by example. This is new territory for Spielberg, and he completes the journey with honor.
From The Archives Issue 445: April 11, 1985