Wake in fright - Spielberg's 'Munich' achieves Hitchcockian suspense, hellish ambiguity

Lacking in star power. Dramatically uncompelling. Too morally ambiguous. A box-office downer. These are just a few of the witless charges leveled at "Munich," Steven Spielberg's briefing for a descent into hell. The filmmaker who has always placed his faith in the transfiguring power of family and home now envisions a world war in which that power is drained of its sustaining force - or turns as deadly as any other weapon of mass destruction. Subtle, humane, brilliantly conceived, "Munich" takes a big chance: this is a movie that invites its audience to measure up to Spielberg's own scrupulous standards.

After the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Golda Meier (superbly impersonated by Lynn Cohen) ponders how to measure the value of murdered Jews. Her worn face is a map of conscience, fissured by a history of losses from the Holocaust to Black September's latest atrocity. Sitting among all her men, from Cabinet members to Mossad, Meier most resembles a grieving mother, choosing to compromise her values - the values of her homeland - in order to avenge the murder of sons. A squad of Jewish hitmen will be deployed, decides this Mother Courage, to execute those who organized the Black September raid in Munich.

The team consists of baby-faced Avner (Eric Bana, absolutely outstanding), son of an Israeli war hero and a woman whose family was annihilated by the Nazis; a South African gunman hungry for action (Daniel Craig); a German antiques dealer adept at forging documents (Hanns Zischler); a Belgian toymaker-turned-bomb-builder (Matthieu Kassovitz); and buttoned-down Carl (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), given to neat suits, an occasional pipe and careful cleaning-up after each hit.

We first see young Avner in his home, a family man head-over-heels in love with his wife, happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Strikingly, as his team settles into an apartment to plan their first job, Avner seems more head of household than team-leader, cooking up a storm, presiding over convivial meals in which these "brothers" bond while breaking bread. After their first hit, this tribe of righteous men goes a little giddy with success, their celebration untainted by qualms of conscience.

In each city - Geneva, Rome, Paris, Athens, Beirut - his assassins do their bloody work, Spielberg is at pains to show places and people steeped in normalcy, everyday life in rich motion, aboveground existence. It's what we all see when we survey the world in which we live and work. But "Munich" slowly erodes our faith in that reality by X-raying the metastasizing cancer just behind the scenes, beneath the surface, just next door.

"Munich" is deliberately deracinating, making us feel as though every brand of human community - from nation to family - is fragile illusion. From cottage to houseboat, home is just another place to die. Fighting, ironically, for father- or motherland, "Munich"'s armies of patriots (by no means limited to Israelis and Palestinians) seem doomed to murder one another forever until there are no grounds left.

Once, holed up in a "safe house," Avner and his men draw down on a posse of Palestinians who've also been assigned to this hideout. Seeking to identify friend or foe, the soldiers scream terrorist acronyms at each other, labels replacing names and nationalities. These momentary housemates may share music and even political philosophy, but they are dead men walking, underground men locked for eternity in one of Dante's deepest circles of hell.

Again and again, Spielberg casts the death of marked men and women in the context of scenes so casually ordinary it seems they should somehow ensure against extremes of violence. A little girl in a scarlet sweater (recalling that iconographic Jewish child in "Schindler's List") returns home unexpectedly and almost answers a phone rigged to explode when her father picks it up. There's authentic Hitchcockian suspense in Avner's desperate attempt to call off the hit. Once she leaves again, we sit outside with the Israelis, staring at the apartment's bay window, willing the world to explode. Her life saved, a child orphaned. That's cutting morality mighty thin.

A guy trades easy small talk with Avner on two adjoining hotel balconies, sharing smiles at two newlyweds embracing passionately on the next balcony down. In moments, with the switching on of a light, the soft night is shattered, the flesh of loving bodies - a community of two - shredded.

On a houseboat splashed with sunlight, full of greenery, a lovely woman lounges in her kimono. When her executioners surround her, she exposes a breast, not so much a sexual bribe as a display of vulnerable human flesh. When two small red bullet holes suddenly flower on her chest, she rises to walk unsteadily into her kitchen, there to touch her orange cat - reluctant to let go of those precious anchors in the mundane.

Avner and his team are hard-pressed to keep the faith, beginning to wonder if they are even killing the right people, if what they are doing makes any difference. The men - especially the once-boyish Avner - look hollowed out, their souls eaten up by the savagery they must practice. "All this blood," the toymaker predicts, "will come back to us."

As most of his comrades-in-arms become targets, Avner's sweet steadiness fails; he frantically tears apart a hotel room because he's come to live in a nightmare where lying down on a bed or picking up a phone means instant death. It's not just the paranoia of the assassin; this is the systematic violation of how we see and name and trust in our environment. No such thing as dependable home ground exists in "Munich."

Along with old ethnic conflicts, memories of WWII motivate many in "Munich"'s long-running mortality play. (Recall that Munich was the "capital of the Nazi movement," the city where Chamberlain signed off on appeasement.) One of the film's most fascinating characters is a Gallic godfather (Michel Lonsdale, mesmerizing), once a Resistance fighter, now disillusioned with all isms and governments. Neutral to a fault, he and his son (the admirable Matthieu Almaric) sell information to anyone who can pay. The old man's loyalty lies only with his immediate family, the tribe he feeds at his table in an Edenic French countryside.

"Munich" opens on a warm Indian summer evening, a soft mist shrouding the quiet grounds of the 1972 Olympic dorms. When violence erupts and the Israeli hostages are taken, television brings the unfolding horror into the homes of people all over the world. Those "boxed" images became a collective memory, the start of something like a Third World War. Throughout the film, we catch flashes of the Munich massacre as it happened, until, as Avner desperately seeks sanctuary in his wife's body, he envisions the end of it all: the wanton murder of nine men whose homeland is claimed by their killers.

At film's end, Avner, now living in Brooklyn, learns from his Mossad handler (a very scary Geoffrey Rush) that he and his crew weren't even the Chosen, just one team of many in bloody dialogue with their opposite number. When Avner invites the Mossad man to dinner, "one Jew breaking bread with another," he discovers that his company's undesirable - except as a gun for hire. The idealistic boy recruited as his motherland's avenging angel has become persona non grata, a Wandering Jew who can never go home again.

As Avner and his handler exit each side of the frame, we look across the East River to Manhattan, taking our time to register a city skyline that was, graced by the two World Trade towers.

"Munich" comes full circle: collective memory, individual nightmare, collective memory. "History," James Joyce said, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made a morally honorable movie about that nightmare. Whether or not the world will awaken is another story.[[In-content Ad]]