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Review: 'Munich' a masterpiece

Spielberg film brilliantly acted, directed, written

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

story.munich.cast.jpg
The hit team in "Munich" discusses their operation.

FACT BOX

'Munich'

Starring: Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Daniel Craig

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Tony Kushner and Eric Roth

Studio: Universal

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(CNN) -- "Munich" is a masterpiece.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a visceral, emotionally exhausting work that dares to ask questions -- and gives no easy answers -- regarding the horrifying events that occurred at the 1972 Munich Olympics and their aftermath.

That fall, the entire world watched as an extremist Palestinian group, Black September, kidnapped and massacred Israel's 1972 Olympic team. This was at an Olympics labeled "The Olympics of Peace and Joy."

The deaths were played out in real time on television, with the hostage drama culminating in a botched rescue mission at a nearby airport. Many historians point to Olympic tragedy as the beginning of the kind of worldwide terrorism we know today.

First-time screenwriter (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Tony Kushner -- along with Eric Roth ("The Insider") -- helped Spielberg fashion journalist George Jonas' book, "Vengeance," into a thriller that examines the power and psychological toll of violence and retribution.

Publicly, Israel responded to the Munich massacre by bombing Palestine Liberation Organization bases in Syria and Lebanon, but privately the government, under Prime Minister Golda Meir, launched a highly top-secret group of special force teams to spread out across the world and assassinate all the Palestinians involved in the attack. The mission was called "Operation Wrath of God."

"Munich" is about one of those covert groups. Israel, to this day, has never confirmed the existence of these hit squads.

Building tension

Much of the action is seen through the eyes of one group leader, Avner, played by Eric Bana ("The Hulk," "Troy"). Geoffrey Rush plays Ephraim, Avner's contact, who intercedes when the shell-shocked Avner begins to have questions -- questions that become more philosophical and demanding about the ethics of the mission.

British actor Daniel Craig, who has just been named the new James Bond, plays Steve, a South African who is the most unwavering of the group.

Other members of the small group include Hans (Hanns Zischler), a German Jew who has a gift for forging documents; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), who is in charge of cleaning up the actions of his team; and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a toymaker turned explosives expert.

(One interesting bit of casting is Guri Weinberg, now 33, who has a deep connection to the story -- he plays his own father. He is the son of Moshe Weinberg, the Israeli wrestling referrer and former champion who died in the massacre when Guri was just 1 month old.)

The hit team finds that the more they stay on the hunt, the more likely they too will become the hunted. Indeed, Avner's main contact, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), has no loyalties at all -- except to the money Avner pays him for his information. The idea can only make the men paranoid, Avner -- with a wife and child and another life waiting for him -- most of all.

"Munich" veers between scenes of incredible tension -- one sequence, in which the group accidentally finds the daughter of a target in their cross hairs, is almost unbearably hard to watch -- and relaxed, if meaningful, conversation. At one point, Avner, blindfolded, is taken to see Louis' father, a man who understands everybody's quandary -- but remains outside the fray, the better to exploit it.

Spielberg does not demonize the Palestinians, nor make the Israelis into saints. He's already taking heat from numerous groups on both sides of this fiery issue. (Watch how "Munich" is angering many -- and also receiving support -- 3:00)

Indeed, "Munich" deliberately walks a tightrope. It's full of clashes of tone and reason and offers no pat answers. All it does is humanize the story of some decent men who -- in the end -- must come face to face with their own souls. That's plenty.

Spielberg's directing is brilliant, from Hitchcockian set pieces to jittery '70s-style movement. Kushner and Roth's script is thoughtful and provocative. The acting is uniformly excellent.

Near the end of the film, Ephraim asks a weary Avner, "What have you learned?" Ephraim wants to know about the mission, but the same unwittingly loaded question could be asked of everybody.

"Munich" is a great film -- and an important one. It's a brave work from a top-notch filmmaker, and one of the best films of the year.

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