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‘Munich’

Home has a cost. That simple yet frightening notion gives Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” its everlasting power as a cinematic work.

Beyond terrorism and killing, beyond ideology and doubt, the thought that home has a price makes “Munich” a worthy entry in the master storyteller’s oeuvre. Not since “E.T.” more than 20 years ago has Spielberg so tapped a basic desire for his cinematic exploration.

After months of speculation and controversy, Spielberg’s political thriller about the Israeli government’s response to the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games has finally arrived in select theaters (and will go wide Jan. 6) for audiences to absorb. 

“Munich” centers on Avner (Eric Bana), who is picked by Israel’s intelligence agency—the Mossad—to lead a team to kill 11 Palestinians responsible for the Munich attack.

Saying it is “inspired by real events,” the script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth takes the bulk of its narrative from the 1984 book Vengeance, by George Jonas. 

The book and its alleged source, a man named Yuval Aviv (the “Avner” character), have been discredited by most Israeli intelligence insiders. That fact has accounted for part of the controversy. The other part has arisen from speculation that Spielberg would give Avner and his team too many doubts about their mission (when none apparently existed), and that the director would “humanize” the men on the hit-list. 

Having seen the movie, Spielberg seems to me not to be questioning Avner or what he represents as much as he is recognizing some awful truths, like the one about home having a price

“Munich” begins with the attack in the Olympic Village, and it returns to this horrific episode throughout the movie, reminding us of the immediate reason for Avner’s mission every time we might be tempted to forget. Spielberg masterfully mixes re-enactments with real footage of ABC’s Jim McKay, Peter Jennings and Howard Cosell reporting from the Olympic Village. 

We don’t meet Avner until the attack is over and Jews have once again been slaughtered in Germany. He’s taken to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s quarters, where she tries to parse right action from wrong.

“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate the compromises with its own values,” she says. Her conclusion: “Forget peace for now. We have to show them we’re strong.” She thus authorizes the counter-terrorist initiative, and it falls to an Israeli operative known as Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) to tell Avner he’s been charged with leading the team. “We want them dead,” says Ephraim. 

We first meet Avner’s team around the dinner table: expert forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), scene sweeper Carl (Ciaran Hinds) and driver/shooter Steve (Daniel Craig).

The movie’s structure feels much like the 1986 HBO movie “Sword of Gideon,” also based on Jonas’ book. But “Munich” does in fact humanize the targets more than the TV movie did, showing the men caring for children, shopping for groceries, carrying on friendly conversation.

After their first kill—Wael Zwaiter in Rome—team members debate what their reaction should be. Celebration? Rejoicing? They react differently.

As Avner turns to a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric) for information about the whereabouts of his targets, we’re exposed to another of the movie’s recurring themes: Governments corrupt lofty ideals and the people charged with maintaining them.

Louis and his group of informants are “ideologically promiscuous,” and they essentially sell information to whoever needs it, without regard to ethnicity or creed. The group is actually headed by Papa (Michael Lonsdale), who runs the business from his French countryside headquarters. 

Scenes between Avner and Papa are among the film’s best.

“The world has been rough with your tribe,” Papa tells Avner. “It’s right to respond roughly to such treatments.” And yet, Papa also offers an observation, which comes from the book of Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. But time and chance happen to them all.”

Time and chance of course happen to Avner and his team, with counter-terrorism engendering more violence against Israelis, and with the team itself being hunted.

Those looking for “controversial” moments in the movie will find them. Robert begs off a hit, saying, “We’re supposed to be righteous.” Avner develops paranoia, pulling guns and checking his own apartment for booby-traps. In addition to a scene in which Avner gets an Arab’s perspective on Israel’s land, there’s also frank dialogue among the team members about their mission. Carl and Steve, for example, argue about crossing a moral line. “It’s not like the Palestinians invented bloodshed,” says Carl. “How do you think we got the land? By being nice?”

“Munich” offers plenty of substance for discussion and debate, and it should be so. If anything deserves our scrutiny, the Middle East does—a fact that Spielberg hammers home for Americans by ending the film against an early 1970s Manhattan skyline and its brand new World Trade Center Twin Towers. 

Spielberg’s ability to crank “Munich” out in mere months is nothing short of remarkable. In addition to the director’s trademark rearview mirror shots, he also incorporates a handful of significant and actual zoom shots, adding to a 1970s film look he also creates with light and grain. 

Those zoom shots force our attention more so than the gentle push shot, and the effect here is superb, especially in the “hit” sequences with their intricacies of planning, coordination, signaling. Layered on this comes music from John Williams, reminiscent of his score for “Schindler’s List.” 

Ultimately though, “Munich” makes a compelling meditation, almost, on hearth and home. 

As the Arab in conversation with Avner says, “Home is everything.” Avner knows this, though his connection to this idea remains uneasy. His relationship with his father is strained, often filtered through his mother. He sends his wife and newborn daughter away from Israel to Brooklyn. He longs for home in a way that is both profound and quintessentially Spielbergian. 

Spielberg and his writers express this sense of home through … the table. Food. Breaking bread.

In the movie, conversations around the dinner table run rampant. Food is everywhere. Avner cooks for the team, as well as with Papa. On more than one occasion, we find Avner looking in a shop window at a “modern kitchen.” Later, Avner’s wife tells him her kitchen is too big.

Ephraim will beckon Avner to “come home” to Israel, and Avner will instead invite Ephraim to come over for dinner in Brooklyn and “break bread with me.” The totality of these moments and lines is surprisingly potent and should not continue to be edged out by the controversy.

Like “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich” isn’t easy to watch. Frequent and graphic violence try the emotions, as well they should. But violence gives life to this film story—which is still playing out in our constant news cycle.

Spielberg is taking his lumps for the movie’s source material, which must be part of the conversation. But so must the director’s take on the price of having a home. 

Avner’s mother asks him no questions about his mission. She’s simply thankful to have “a place to be a Jew among Jews.” 

“We have a place on earth at last,” she enthuses, and it’s left to Avner to count the continued cost for home.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com. 

MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. Reviewer’s Note: The violence is graphic and frequent, as well as creepy at times. There are also a couple of sex scenes between Avner and his wife, and a woman is shot to death while naked. 

Director: Steven Spielberg 

Writers: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth

Cast: Avner: Eric Bana; Carl: Ciaran Hinds; Hans: Hanns Zischler; Steve: Daniel Craig; Robert: Mathieu Kassovitz; Ephraim: Geoffrey Rush; Papa: Michael Lonsdale; Louis: Mathieu Amalric.

The movie’s official Web site is here.