Steven Spielberg made two movies about worlds at war in 2005. One was a forgettable career footnote. The other ranks with his finest films, and it is also the director's most politically charged, philosophically challenging and bleakest by far. Like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, the fact-based Munich is set against the backdrop of a historic global conflict. The difference is, the bombs and bloodshed of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle aren't a thing of the past.
By 1972, the two cultures were already old enemies. The crisis drew the world's attention when armed Palestinians took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the Olympics and wound up killing them within 24 hours. The director tells the story of the athletes' capture and ultimate massacre in fragments spaced throughout the movie. This is a shrewd move, as it allows him to save for the end of the film a dark and unexpected implication, which complicates a series of events one would not have imagined could be complicated further.
In the wake of the tragedy, as extrapolated by screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Prime Minister Golda Meir convenes top-secret meetings with advisors to weigh her options. She wrestles with their moral ramifications before deciding on a course of action that might in any other context sound like something out of a Chuck Norris adventure. An undercover team of assassins is assembled. Its leader is a respected young member of the Mossad, the government's intelligence agency, played by Eric Bana. His mission, shadowy officials inform him, is to travel to Europe, track down 11 figures identified as connected to the Olympic terrorist plot, and take them out one by one.
The other members of the team are, for the most part, European Jews. With the exception of a getaway driver played by future James Bond Daniel Craig, Bana's cohorts are as unlikely a death squad as you'll ever encounter on screen -- one is a toymaker-turned-bumbling bomb maker. The other two, a clean-up man and a document forger, could be mistaken for middle-aged accountants. Using information they purchase from a reptilian Frenchman, the five locate and eliminate one target after another, with by now predictable results.
Even as Bana's crew gives Israel its revenge, the other side responds to its losses by launching horrific counter-attacks. Civilians are murdered. Government officials are assassinated. Jets are hijacked. Eventually, Bana is forced to face the fact that justice is a concept that doesn't even come into play here. Blood leads only to more blood, let on an even larger scale. For every member of the Black September terrorist group they kill, six more radical Palestinians emerge to take their place -- a phenomenon eerily foreshadowing the boondoggle in Baghdad today.
Munich is that rarest of Hollywood products: a motion picture that works as both an illuminating, highly provocative meditation on serious moral themes and a seriously white-knuckle thriller as taut and riveting as any in movie history. The cast is brilliantly understated, the script exceptionally perceptive, and Spielberg has never been better. It's difficult to conceive of a director bringing more fairness or balance to a dissection of a struggle as long and labyrinthine as is this one. By the time the credits roll, you're likely to possess a deeper understanding of how it started, and a diminished expectation that it will end any time soon.