Munich (15)

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The Independent Culture

Munich is Steven Spielberg's bravest and most ambitious film, but not his best. After a caption declares that it's "Inspired By True Events", it opens on the night in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village in Munich, murdered two Israeli athletes, and held another nine hostages. This crisis is staged with typical control and confidence by Spielberg, but he leaves it until later to recreate exactly what happened. His initial emphasis is on the way the siege is instantly and misleadingly interpreted by TV news bulletins - a favourite subject of the director's ever since Jaws. By the end of the sequence, the details of what transpired are still vague, and the only thing we know for sure is its grim conclusion. All the hostages are dead.

Shortly afterwards, a Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) is summoned by the Israeli prime minister. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to eliminate 11 Palestinians who were connected to the Munich massacre. Officially, he'll no longer be working for Mossad. He'll collect his salary and his limitless expenses from a bank's safety deposit box, but he'll have only one contact (Geoffrey Rush) with the Israeli authorities, and a team of just four men. Ciaran Hinds brings both gravitas and kvetching humour to the role of a clean-up specialist who has intellectual doubts about the assignment. Daniel Craig is a cocky, gung-ho South African. Mathieu Kassovitz is a nervous bomb maker, and Hanns Zischler a forger.

The film has all the hallmarks of an espionage thriller, among them the buddy-movie dynamics of a gang dressed in funky Seventies outfits, and some action set-pieces which are as tense as they can be without snapping in two. In fact, Munich condemns the revenge motive which most espionage thrillers celebrate. Avner's men know that they have a long, hard road ahead of them, but none of them expects it to be quite so rocky. Along the way they acquire extra targets and they become targets themselves. They worry about innocent bystanders and shifty informants. Worse still, every one of their killings is answered by a bomb or a bullet from the Palestinians. So what is Avner achieving? Munich concludes that revenge is a dish best chucked in the bin.

Spielberg makes his point forcefully, but he makes it quickly, too, and for the rest of the film he makes it again and again, so that when Avner is eventually tormented by the thought that the bloodshed might have been without purpose or justification, it's the same thought which the viewer had a couple of hours earlier. Scripted by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth from George Jonas's novel, the film is just too balanced and scrupulous to let us feel the rage that must have been felt in Israel at the time. In its opening minutes, we see a Jewish family, stricken with horror as they watch a news report of the Olympic siege. But we also see a Palestinian family going through the very same experience. Next we see Israel's Prime Minister decreeing that it's payback time - but even then one of her ministers objects that reprisals have already taken place, and that hundreds of Arabs have been wiped out in bombing raids. Then we come to the scene of Avner being offered the job, one which will require him to abandon his heavily pregnant wife, possibly for several years. He's informed that his targets were behind the Munich catastrophe, but the nature of their involvement isn't explained, and no proof is forthcoming. Not many viewers, even at this early stage in the film, will be convinced that the enterprise is an excellent idea.

The assassinations themselves add to our misgivings. The first target is a portly, sociable poet, spotted by the team as he sits in a Roman piazza promoting his translation of The 1001 Nights; the second is a family man who, abetted by some comical interjections from his wife, gets a speech about the Palestinians' decades of persecution. Any flickering support we might have had for Avner's mission is well and truly extinguished, and there are still nearly two hours to go. One of Spielberg's themes may be how exhausting and endless the task comes to feel, but it's a theme he gets across so well that I almost shouted, "Get a move on, will you? You've still got nine targets to go!" And then, even when the operation is over, the film isn't. Munich has more endings than the last part of The Lord of The Rings.

One reason it's so long is that it airs every argument methodically. Subtlety may be too much to ask of a film whose London street scene features two red buses, a red pillar box, a red phone box, a black cab and lots of rain, but in Munich each viewpoint is articulated so lucidly that Avner could be in command of Mossad's covert international debating team. The only times it becomes a thought-provoking film, rather than a well-meaning sermon, are when Spielberg's clear agenda is muddied by some inky black comedy. It happens when the agents realise how fiddly it is to shoot someone using a dart gun concealed in a bicycle pump. And it happens when they find themselves sharing a safe house with a PLO man and half-a-dozen other paramilitaries from around the globe. Suddenly Avner is no longer leading a unique and righteous crusade for his country; he's just another back-packer, criss-crossing the world as part of a brotherhood of hitmen.

But if, by and large, Spielberg is writing his thesis in easy-to-read capital letters, it's courageous of him to write it at all. One of America's most cherished and bankable entertainers has made a film which states that terrorists are human beings who won't be stopped by an execution campaign. And he includes al-Qa'ida in that statement: the last shot of the film centres on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Jonathan Romney is away