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click to enlarge Hunting down assassins in Munich.
  • Hunting down assassins in Munich.

*Munich (R)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

Is there anyone who doesn't honestly dread seeing Steven Spielberg's Munich? We know the blood and brains are gonna splatter in living color, and we expect there will be BIG LESSONS in store with any Spielbergian semi-historical treatment, Saving Private Ryan being the most egregious example.

But Munich, with its shimmeringly dark 1970s color palette, understated performances, arching historical context and -- whoa! -- moral ambiguity, is so brave, so compellingly filmed and told, that the director seems like a new Spielberg altogether, one who's figured out that we've learned little from the violent world events of the last century.

The film opens with a mix of staged and archival footage of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where Palestinian terrorists of the Black September operation kidnapped and took hostage the entire Israeli team.

Horrified Israelis and Palestinians huddle around their television sets, watching the terror unfold as ABC sports anchor Jim McKay announces, disbelievingly, "They're all gone." The hostages are executed and, due to bungling by the German police, many of the terrorists escape, dispersing to cities across Europe and the Arab world.

Munich tells the story of Israel's retaliation, a series of assassinations ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir and managed by fictional agent Ephraim, played by a nearly unrecognizable Geoffrey Rush. Heading a five-man team of ex-Mossad operatives is Avner, a mild-mannered former bodyguard whose wife is about to give birth to their first child.

As played by Eric Bana (The Hulk), Avner is a patriot who'll do whatever it takes to serve his country, a man with a conscience who grows more uneasy with the mission as it progresses from one bloody murder scene to the next.

Avner's sidekicks are a study in assassination planning: Steve, a hardcore warrior with no regrets or second thoughts (Daniel Craig); bomb- and toymaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); expert forger Hans (Hanns Zischler); and cleanup man Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the thoughtful father figure of the group.

Dispassionately providing names and addresses for pay (notably in American dollars) is Louis (Mathieu Amalric), a Frenchman working for his Papa (Michael Lonsdale) in an organization that disavows allegiance to any country and scorns governments.

In one of the film's many stunning scenes, set in the idyllic French countryside, Papa tells Avner that he could be his son -- then quickly adds that he is not, implying that Avner's as expendable as the terrorists he's hunting.

Munich is about what killing does to men and to humanity. For every successful hit by Avner's group, there is retaliation somewhere in the world by the Palestinians, and for every terrorist killed, one or more emerges to replace him.

Spielberg takes great care to present the deeply felt rationales of both sides, avoiding any conclusion beyond the obvious: Murder reaps murder in an endless cycle. That the film ends in Brooklyn with a sweeping view of Manhattan and the Twin Towers in the distance is no accident, nor is it an empty rhetorical device.

Bana's Avner is impeccably performed, even in the one overwrought, dispensable scene near the end of the film. One could argue that the flashback device is used too much, or that the metaphor of food representing home becomes repetitive. But these are mere quibbles.

The new Spielberg fears for the future of humanity and can make a white-knuckle, action-adventure film about that without sacrificing character, plot or deeply humane motivation -- and without preaching. Munich is a triumph, the best film of the year.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Speaking of Not Rated, Drama

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