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Munich

Movies | Steven Spielberg has his own points to make here, and he uses the film's fictional protagonist to reflect his own ideas

Issue: "God and mammon," Jan. 14, 2006

No one's right. No one's wrong. Can't we all just get along?

It's disheartening to realize that the most serious work in recent years (or, perhaps, ever) of one of the world's most talented filmmakers can be reduced to such a bland aphorism. But searching for a deeper truth, or even more challenging questions, in Steven Spielberg's Munich (rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity, and language) proves fruitless.

Be warned too: One is tempted to believe that, to Mr. Spielberg, nudity signifies seriousness of intent, and Munich contains an entirely uncalled-for scene of full frontal nudity.

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The film deals with the aftermath of the 1972 murders of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympic games in Munich. A secret team of Israeli agents is set up to track down and kill 11 Arabs connected to the attack.

Much of Munich is top-notch, as expected. Australian actor Eric Bana heads an excellent international cast that includes Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Ciarán Hinds, and Mathieu Kassovitz. In staging action sequences, fleshing out 1970s period detail, and finding modest human moments amidst tragedy, Mr. Spielberg excels.

He also overreaches. The film uses the Israeli response to Munich as a springboard for broader ideas, and one wishes that it didn't. Difficult, probing questions can be raised about state-sponsored assassination and the difference between vengeance and justice. But Mr. Spielberg isn't content to deal with the specifics of this blip in history. His relationship to historical fact is tenuous-Mr. Spielberg has his own points to make here, and he uses the film's fictional protagonist, team leader Avner Kaufmann (Mr. Bana), to reflect his own fundamental distrust of answering violence with violence.

Avner is a former Mossad agent whose confidence in his mission wanes as he witnesses its human toll: on the Arabs he kills, on his disintegrating team, and on himself and his own family. It's a weakness to which Mr. Spielberg often falls prey, even at his best: The largest of conflicts are reduced to a level so personal that the very idea of transcendence, some right or wrong larger than oneself, is lost. The film's final shot-reminding the audience that this is not a film simply about Israel-is heavy-handed even for Mr. Spielberg.

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