a commentary by Tony McRae  

In 1972 eleven Israeli athletics were killed by Arab extremists in Munich during the summer Olympics.  This movie is Steven Spielberg’s recreation of the massacre and the hunting down and execution of these killers.  It’s based in part on a book entitled “Vengeance” by George Jonas, which is probably a more accurate title for this movie.

Spielberg decided to tell this story almost totally from the point of view of the five Israeli men charged with the task of executing these killers, and in particular from the point of view of intelligence agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), the son of an Israeli war hero, and the husband of a woman soon to give birth to their child.  The team’s mission spans several years and jumps around the world from Paris to New York to London and any number of other cities.  The audience witnesses seven or eight executions, most of them extremely graphic killings either by gun fire or bombs.

In the course of this operation the five Israelis encounter people of every political persuasion.  In one instance, they spend the night in a so-called safe house in Athens with a group of Palestinians who wish the annihilation of Israel.  It’s obviously a Spielberg moment in which both sides perceive the humanity of their enemies.  And it’s this realization that gets to Avner, that begins to eat away at him so that by the end of the movie he is a tormented, almost psychotic, man living with his wife and child in the relative safety of Brooklyn. But by now he seems a drained man robbed of his own humanity.  He has done this for his country's survival, and he questions whether it was worth it.  

It appears that director Spielberg is asking the same question.

Now this is quite noble on Spielberg’s part, to insist that war and killing is in the final analysis dehumanizing.  But I feel Spielberg is also torn, like his protagonist, with what he believes is another hard and immutable fact—that Israel cannot continue to exist without this violence, without the need to show its enemies that it is not weak, that if it is attacked and its people killed, it will demand a vengeance even crueler than the original act.

The essential weakness of the movie is Spielberg’s inability to work through this, to arrive at some sort of catharsis.  There is, in fact, no release of emotion, no refreshment for the audience.  Perhaps this is his intention.  But while the acts of violence are graphically, viscerally awful, the dehumanizing process is stagy.  For example, Spielberg decides to show in flashback the final scene of how the Israeli athletes were killed after a botched attempt by German police to rescue them.  He chooses to do this by interspersing this bloody scene with Avner Kauffman having sex with his wife, his face tormented, we presume, by the memory of the killing of the athletes.  It’s a big miscalculation, and underlines the director’s inability to mesh a life-giving act and a life-ending one.

And the story drags, the execution of the perpetrators too repetitious.  In the end these scenes take over the movie, and leave us numb.

On the positive side, the international cast is very good.  Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Ciaran Hinds, Matthieu Amalric (Kings and Queen), Michael Lonsdale, and Lynn Cohen in the small but crucial role of Golda Meir.  As usual Janusz Kaminsky’s photography brings us into the picture.

Rated R for graphic violence and some sexual content, nudity and language.