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Losing my religion

Revenge is a dish best served with ambiguity in Munich

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George Bush's production in Iraq has gone on long enough for Hollywood to play catch up. The last few months have seen an escalation in productions like Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, which, though not specifically about the Iraq War, stew and ruminate over national agendas in the way a country at war might be expected to.

Like the vast, conspiratorial Syriana, Munich is not about the Iraq War, yet has everything to do with it. It is about the cost of violence and retribution and how actual human beings often suffer for the black and white absolutes governments live by.

Steven Spielberg's jumping off point is the Munich Olympics of 1972, when Arab terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage. The massacre of the Israeli athletes, rendered in a mix of newsreel footage and re-enactment, unfolds -- like all of Munich -- in an exquisitely convincing approximation of 1970s cinema, when filmmakers like Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula and Francis Ford Coppola made conspiracy and institutional corruption into a genre.

The film's extraordinarily rich, cineaste-pleasing look is equally '70s-inspired, so infused with caramel and mustard tones, so purely ugly and prone to show the pitted faces and bad hair days of its characters that it takes the blue eyes and brawny good health of Daniel Craig to convince us there are actual movie stars lurking in the film.

Craig is one of a cadre of five Israeli superheroes who meet in Germany -- already haunted soil, to be sure -- to carry out the secret revenge killings of the 11 Palestinians who masterminded Munich's "Black September."

They are led by former Mossad Israeli intelligence agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), who leaves behind one mother -- his pregnant wife -- in Israel to do the bidding of another -- elfin, matriarchal fury Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) -- who serves coffee while coaxing Avner to do bloody battle for the motherland.

Spielberg's crackling political thriller, full of tense scenes of the Jewish action heroes wiring bombs and stalking their prey, soon burrows into deeper, less Bruckheimer craters of the brain.

There are relatively few painful Spielbergisms to endure, save a scene where an Arab and a Jew find common ground in American Motown and the comic refrain voiced by Avner's leaders that, though he is operating off the record, they want receipts.

In Munich's post-terrorism gut-churner, Spielberg has fashioned a familiar grunt's-eye war film. Munich owes a debt to Vietnam War films in which the men on the ground who fulfill the bloody, inhumane mission of their commanders also begin to lose their way and serve an invisible master of immorality and violence.

Like others on the mission, Avner finds the act of carrying out revenge complicated by all the moral ambiguities that arise. Though dialogue and action articulate that conflict, Bana is less able to emotionally involve us in that struggle. In a revamp of espionage convention, every murder begins with a neurotic question few thrillers dare to ask: "Is this the right guy?" the paid assassins ask each other again and again.

The most heartfelt argument against all the killing comes from the mild-mannered bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz). "We are supposed to be righteous," he tells Avner, voicing the film's central quandary of how people trained in a creed of "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world," can kill without some devastation to their souls. War's perversion is in asking good men to miraculously become bad ones. Munich's greatest virtue is in refusing to swallow the belief that things go better for the group when the individual hands over his soul.

The Iraq War is Munich's elephant in the room, but the Holocaust is the backstory to all the killing -- the reason for preserving Israel -- and a painful reminder that history has taught us nothing.

Screenwriters Eric Roth and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") do their audience the great service of suggesting that the same sense of injury, persecution and sorrow also provides the backstory for the Palestinians. When the Avenging Zions accidentally bunk with the PLO in the film's most contrived moment, we get the Palestinian side of things, that "home is everything." As the film goes on to illustrate, home is also the ever-retreating mirage of comfort to which Avner loses his bearings. Avner meets his Paris point man, the symbolically double-dealing French aristocrat who sniffs out his Palestinian targets, outside the kind of model kitchen that would do political artist Martha Rosler proud. As his ennui deepens, he gazes stuporously at this unattainable icon of home kept behind glass.

The film's successes and Spielberg's surprising appeals to thought over emotion are the mark of a filmmaker who has wisely chosen to keep his mawkish impulses in check. Munich is, for an intelligent film, also a well-paced and entertaining one. Though initially suggesting a Kabbalah Ocean's Eleven, Munich thankfully grows a conscience that wins out over thrills that grow increasingly sour.

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