The first and most important thing to say about Munich, Steven Spielberg's new film, is that it is a very good movie--good in a particularly Spielbergian way. By which one means that it has all the virtues we've come to expect when he is working at his highest levels. It's narratively clean, clear and perfectly punctuated by suspenseful and expertly staged action sequences. It's full of sympathetic (and in this case, anguished) characters, and it is, morally speaking, infinitely more complex than the action films it superficially resembles--pictures that simply pit terrorists against counterterrorists without an attempt to explore anyone's motives and their tragic implications.
Munich begins and ends with, and frequently reverts to, an account of an especially heinous historical act: the capture and eventual murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games by a Palestinian terrorist group calling itself Black September. Because television was omnipresent at the Games, the entire world was witness to that awful event. Indeed, it's not too much to say that most of us for the first time perceived the face of modern terrorism in the images that ABC and the other networks broadcast of those frightful 24 hours. Or, in fact, did not fully perceive it, since the iconic image of the attack was of a ski-masked terrorist standing on the balcony of the Israelis' Olympic Village quarters peering back at the cameras that were peering at him.
But -- and this is why Munich works so well -- the movie is not primarily about that Munich. It is about the aftermath, in which the Israeli government, with Prime Minister Golda Meir's full endorsement, mounted a secret war of revenge against the murderers. In one of the movie's most crucial lines, she says, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." That negotiation--also carried out in the increasingly troubled mind of Avner Kauffman, leader of the Israeli hit squad on which the movie concentrates (there were several)--raises Spielberg's film above the thriller level, granting it real, often poignant, distinction.
"You are assigned a mission, and you do it because you believe in the mission, but there is something about killing people at close range that is excruciating," says Spielberg. "Perhaps [your victims] are leading double lives. But they are, many of them, reasonable and civilized too." Killing them, he says, has unintended consequences. "It's bound to try a man's soul, so it was very important to me to show Avner struggling to keep his soul intact." (The moviemakers would not reveal the identity of the real Avner, whom they talked to at length during their research. In Spielberg's opinion, though, his soul was tried too much. "I don't think he will ever find peace.")
More significantly, Spielberg wonders if the Israelis and the Palestinians will ever find peace. "I'm always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it's threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine," he says. "There's been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?"