Steven Spielberg’s lengthy rumination about the effects of revenge as a response to terrorism succeeds on the level of a thriller but falls short of its larger goals. Seeking to be evenhanded, Munich ultimately sags under the weight of its own equivocation.
The film begins with the 1972 hostage crisis at the Munich Olympic games, taking us efficiently through the sequence of events that led to the massacre of eleven Israeli hostages. In response, Golda Meir authorizes Operation Wrath of God, the Mossad effort to seek out and eliminate an equal number of Black September terrorists who were involved in the attack on their Olympic athletes. They tap Avner (Eric Bana), a young father-to-be and son of an Israeli hero, to lead the assassination squad. He leaves behind his seven-month-pregnant wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) and heads for Europe.
There he meets his team: there’s Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African native with a particularly keen taste for revenge; Hans (Hanns Zischler), the forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the toy-maker turned bomber and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the clean-up man. They begin tracking the Palestinian targets through Europe with the help of a shadowy French network of information brokers, whom they deal with through Louis (Mathieu Amalric). These folks are avowedly apolitical and will only help Avner and his team as long as he believes they do not represent any government (which, technically, they don’t, having been officially cut off and disavowed by Israel).
The operation is never quite picture-perfect. The first shooting is sloppy. One bombing leaves the target clinging to live and another nearly destroys an entire hotel floor and almost kills Avner. But one-by-one, the targets fall. Then Louis locates three of their targets in Beirut. The team is not supposed to operate in Muslim countries and Avner’s handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), wants the Israeli military to handle it. That would, however, reveal Israeli involvement and they could lose their source of information.
Largely because the real facts of the assassination mission are still closely guarded secrets, Spielberg has considerable freedom to fill in the gaps. Louis and his people are largely an invention to streamline the process of locating their targets. It does, however, make the search for the Palestinians seem almost too neat, too pat to be believable. There is another sequence, in which the Israelis winds up sharing a Cypress safe house with a team PLO terrorists, who think the Israelis are East German revolutionaries. This part had better be true, because if it’s not, it’s just a little too clever to work as fiction.
The individual performances are quite good, especially Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds and Geoffery Rush, and Munich works as a spy movie for a good two-and-a-quarter hours. However, Spielberg makes the mistake of back-loading his message into the last half-hour and the movie seems to wander off on a tangent as Avner, worn out and paranoid, is racked with uncertainties about the morality of his mission. This sequence leads to a final shot across the East River in New York City, showing the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background. After all that has gone before, this last visual seems unusually ham-handed, similar to the unnecessary ending of Saving Private Ryan.
In the end, Munich’s effort to make a statement is undermined by its director’s need for too much punctuation.