While Schindler's List (1993) may remain the most important film to director Steven Spielberg, and understandably so, his latest effort Munich might just end up being the film hes most proud of. Intense and riveting, serious and thoughtful, Munich is arguably the toughest film so far from Spielberg. For once, he has tried to engage his audience, instead of simply providing them with they have come to expect from him. Yet, at the same time, the filmmaker has laid out his case with conviction, both politically and artistically, while realizing that hell most likely be criticized by the same people who have praised him in the past. But instead of hiding in the corner, Spielberg has responded to the criticism. He recently stated that, "The people who attack the movie based on 'moral equivalence' are some of the same people who say diplomacy itself is an exercise in moral equivalence, and that war is the only answer. That the only way to fight terrorism is to dehumanize the terrorists by asking no questions about who they are and where they come from. What I believe is, every act of terrorism requires a strong response, but we must also pay attention to the causes. That's why we have brains and the power to think passionately. Understanding does not require approval. Understanding is not the same as inaction. Understanding is a very muscular act. If I'm endorsing understanding and being attacked for that, then I am almost flattered." Bravo!
Munich depicts the somewhat secretive response by the Israeli government after 11 of their athletes were killed by the Palestinian gunmen (known as "Black September") at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. The title card, "Inspired by true events," allows Spielberg some artistic freedom, and he needs it since hes based the film on a controversial 1984 book "Vengeance" by Canadian journalist George Jonas. For his work, Jonas employed the person who actually led one of the Mossad hit squads to track down the killers. In the film that man, Avner, played by Eric Bana, is a secret agent whos inexperienced enough to be under the radar of most other agencies, and so he's brought in. The dilemmas and the compromises are palpable early on as we watch the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), no doubt under intense pressure, sharing a few words with Avner that more or less sum up what has to be done (a similar sequence from Apocalypse Now  comes to mind). Hes then taken under command by an official named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), and assigned his duties which need to be performed with four other agents under his leadership.
As the team starts to carry out its targets in Europe with the help of an unscrupulous Frenchman (a brilliant Mathieu Amalric), Munich develops a rigorously grinding, thrusting motion found in early John Frankenheimer and William Friedkin films. (Thankfully, however, the film doesnt feature any sexy car chases, nor are there ubiquitous overhead shots of cities with their names at the bottom.) And that grittiness is partly due to Spielbergs remarkable mise-en-scne and the work of his longtime DP Janusz Kaminski, but the credit truly goes to the screenplay by Tony Kushner who worked on an earlier draft by Eric Roth. The violence, from the initial sequence depicting the siege of the Israeli dormitory to the avenge killing of a Dutch assassin, is convincingly brutal, thus accentuating the air of graveness that persists throughout. (The notion that the film is somehow "entertaining" is beyond me; I was emotionally and intellectually exhausted while discerning Spielbergs every step [yes, Ive learned not to trust him], but needless to say, he stayed on course, and by the end I knew that something extraordinary had taken place.)
But Munich wouldnt be what it is without Eric Bana. His character, one of Spielbergs greatest, is initially forced to transform from a principled, morally honest soldier to a ruthless mercenary (though while continuing to believe in the cause), and then ultimately to a physically and emotionally drained out nobody. And it is due to Banas performance -- his eyes always speaking louder than his words -- that the moral complexities are consistently palpable, and Spielberg takes full advantage by posing his questions that deal with the responsibly of a state through him. Banas Avner is burdened by his past, and his present doesnt offer much relief. Hes fully aware of his responsibilities, yet he cant ignore the deep internal suffering that has been the result of his actions. As soon as he begins to question his task, while realizing that the hunters might become the hunted, he withers away in mind and body (Bana frantically searching for a device that they once installed to eliminate someone is one of the films greatest moments). Spielberg, much like what David Cronenberg did in this years A History of Violence, contrasts the two sex scenes in the film: one before Avner leaves for duty and the one late in the film once he's returned. And as the final sequence unfolds in a Brooklyn garden with the Twin Towers in the background, the filmmaker harks back to an issue dealt by his protagonist's family and foe, and what was the central theme of Violence (albeit in a smaller context): "The importance of a Home and the price one is willing to pay to protect it."
At the end, I would like to thank and congratulate Mr. Spielberg for Munich, the best and most important American film of 2005.