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Vengeance served Spielberg takes a closer look at righteousness and revenge in 'Munich'

They called themselves Black September.

They were Palestinian terrorists who, on Sept. 5, 1972, kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes from the Olympic Village in Munich. Twenty-one hours later, the world found out that Black September had slaughtered all 11.

It was the first time Middle Eastern terrorists had succeeded in doing their worst under bright lights on a world stage. If the era we're in had a beginning, that was it.

For once, you have to give the TV commercials for Steven Spielberg's "Munich" credit. The film isn't really about that. It's about what happened next -- specifically Israeli retaliation in the form of a five-man hit squad that travels around knocking off those they're told by the Israeli government were responsible.

It's a first-rate suspense thriller with a lot of controversial things on its mind -- namely the impossibility of true retaliation for terrorist acts and the unending cycle in which murder can only possibly beget more murder and terrorism can only possibly beget more terrorism.

Only Steven Spielberg -- an international brand name like Coca Cola or

Some Israelis have already registered protests

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Canada Dry -- could have gotten this film made. But then only he would probably want to.

No Hollywood greenlighter would dream of saying "yes" to anyone else who wanted to make a major globe-trotting suspense thriller about the soul-crushing conflict between Jewish righteousness and the secret vengefulness of modern espionage. But then you have to remember that Spielberg is the most publicly identifiable Jewish filmmaker in the world. (One of the things that happens at the end of "Schindler's List" is that a Hollywood film master goes against a long Hollywood tradition of glossing over Jewishness to take his place publicly among those who depend on the Oskar Schindlers of this world.)

This is a film that continually refuses to automatically equate terrorism with the Palestinian cause or to wholeheartedly endorse retaliation by any means. It's a fact-based fiction that's on righteousness' side, everything else be damned.

That's why it took some courage and perhaps no small megalomania to make. What we have here is the world's most powerful Jewish filmmaker having very public doubts about Israeli actions. It's Spielberg taking his place as a kind of 21st century Jeremiah. There's a great tradition behind him but there's also a great counter-tradition of doubt.

Those who don't think deeply about such matters always assume uniformity among American Jews on the subject of Zionism. "Munich" puts an end to that. Some Israelis have already expressed wounded protest -- as well they might.

It's a very easy film, I think, to overrate.

At heart, though, it's just a very good and very smart and very moving suspense thriller (I don't, for instance, think that it's nearly as accomplished in its way as Spielberg's other film this year, "War of the Worlds" was in a very different way.)

Lest all of this make the film sound like a Poli Sci lecture at Johns Hopkins it is very much a well-made suspense thriller with first-rate performances (especially by Eric Bana and Geoffrey Rush) and unstoppable forward motion.

Bana, of "Hulk" fame, plays the Israeli agent who is plucked from the Mossad and turned into the leader of an ultra-secret assassination squad with a list of 11 targets, all supposedly with responsibility for the Black September massacre. Included in his five-man hit squad are Daniel Craig (the next James Bond), and Ciaran Hinds, the fine, witty, enormously versatile Irish actor.

In this twilight world where black and white morality is impossible, they are supplied with whereabouts and resources by a French family which is only in it for the money. The family's urbane and grandly cynical leader is played with wry weariness by the great French actor Michel Lonsdale (a Bond movie alumnus) who represents the opposite pole to Bana -- the wise-up amorality of the ages against Bana's tormented search for righteousness in homicide.

The dialogue by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") and Eric Roth is on a high level unusual for spy thrillers. So good are Bana and Lonsdale they could have had their own film together.

In this one, the crew does as much of its work as it can. And then suffers ethical misgivings and deaths.

Suspense is high. (In one nail-biting scene, a bombing is averted at the last second when a small child skips back into a target's apartment.)

It's a film, finally, about a lot of small doubts that collect over time into very big ones.

They're hard not to share.

Munich

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Eric Bana, Ciaran Hinds, Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Craig in Steven Spielberg's controversial suspense thriller about Israeli revenge for the murder of 11 athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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