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Avnerís list
Spielberg takes on terror and revenge in Munich
BY PETER KEOUGH
MUNICH
DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG | WRITTEN BY TONY KUSHNER AND ERIC ROTH BASED ON THE BOOK VENGEANCE BY GEORGE JONAS | WITH ERIC BANA, DANIEL CRAIG, CIARÁN HINDS, MATHIEU KASSOVITZ, HANNS ZISCHLER, AYELET ZURER, GEOFFREY RUSH, MICHAEL LONSDALE, MATHIEU AMALRIC, AND LYNN COHEN | A UNIVERSAL PICTURES RELEASE | 160 MINUTES | PROVIDENCE PLACE 16 + SHOWCASE


What is it with Steven Spielberg and flashbacks? In Saving Private Ryan, an ancient soldier recalls Omaha Beach in grisly detail; the problem is, he wasnít there. In Munich, the kidnapping and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September during the 1972 Olympics unfolds with harrowing precision in the recurring nightmares of someone who saw it only on TV. A remarkable accomplishment, since none of the victims survived and the actual events took time and painstaking analysis to unravel. Whatever their value as a cinematic device, such flashbacks donít inspire much confidence in historical accuracy or psychological insight.

Of course, their purpose is not to illuminate but to manipulate, to reduce the irresolvable issues surrounding a horrible truth into a comforting platitude. A buzz word like " home, " which is repeated in Munich with the relentlessness of a mantra or an interrogation. Home is where Avner (Eric Bana), a marginal Mossad agent, sees the broadcast of the siegeís botched and bloody conclusion. Heís more concerned with his pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer) and their future than with the nationís tragedy. But history has a way tracking us down, even in a Spielberg movie. Called in for a meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir and the top brass of Israeli intelligence, Avner is put in charge of " Wrath of God. " Heís given a list ó the names of those believed to be responsible for the massacre.

Which means assassinations. Although reassured by his wryly sinister case worker Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), Avner has no experience in such matters. Neither do the men assigned to him, a motley band including South African Steve (Daniel Craig), German Hans (Hanns Zischler), Belgian Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and spectral veteran Carl (Ciarán Hinds). Their experience ranges from selling antiques to building cuckoo clocks. A melting pot of citizen soldiers, just like the squad in Ryan.

They fast learn the trade and lose their innocence, gunning down a Palestinian poet in Rome and blowing up an academic in Paris. The details of their work fascinate, and the cast is outstanding; Spielberg would be the best Mission Impossible director ever. But after every entertaining rub-out, the boys have second thoughts, and the film drifts off into unconvincing speeches and discussions. Are their targets really legitimate? Are they any better than the terrorists if they use the same methods? " I think anyone is capable of anything, " Avner complains to his wife on the rare occasion when heís able to sneak home.

Based on George Jonasís 1986 book Vengeance, a much disputed account of a disaffected Mossad agentís participation in the retribution campaign (Aaron J. Kleinís recent Striking Back supplies perhaps more cogent and devastating revelations), Spielbergís film, unlike Syriana, has the guts to deal with realities. But he canít help reducing them to simplistic sentimentality. In the end, " home " is where Avnerís, and the filmís, heart is. A better word to embrace might have been " truth. "


Issue Date: December 23 - 30, 2005
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