"Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values…these people want to destroy us…forget peace for now, we must show them we're strong." So says a solemn Golda Meir in "Munich," director Steven Spielberg's new film. It's a powerful statement that masks an ugly truth – world history is written in the blood of our men, women and children. Meir was the revered Iron Lady of Israel, a prime minister instrumental in the establishment of the State in 1948. She was also a key official in the authorisation of Operation Wrath of God that required the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, to exterminate operatives of Black September (a group within Yasser Arafat's Fatah organisation) and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) responsible for the death of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Three out of the eight Palestinian terrorists escaped the sharpshooters in the botched German rescue attempt. Operation Wrath of God was in response to the massacre of these Israeli civilians; it was borne out of the state's contention that the world did not adequately address this tragedy.
"Munich," based on these true events, is a deeply moving meditation on vengeance and a potent commentary on the cyclic nature of violence. The polemic film goes on to berate corruption of values and the continuing subversion of every person's inalienable right to a place in this world. Because it is able to do that – without awkward ingratiation or the kind of helpless unanimity of simplistic liberal ideology – the film becomes truly great. "Munich" is actually based on George Jonas' 1984 book "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team" which, you must note, some former Mossad officers have dismissed as not accurate. Pulitzer-winning writer Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") and Eric Roth have adapted Jonas' controversial book into a multi-layered screenplay with honesty and sublimity. It is a three-dimensional story that offers fiction in a heady mix of facts, an elegiac template for Spielberg's astonishing finesse as a filmmaker.
The film begins with a dramatic documentary-style recreation of the tragic events that led to the death of both the Israeli hostages and their Palestinians captors. We are then introduced to Avner (played with serious resolve and depth by Eric Bana), an honest family man recruited by Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) as the team leader of the Operation. He is supported by four other men each possessing skills necessary to the mission. Drunk high on nationalism and rhetoric, Avner and this team perform their first murder. It is not easy but they are jubilant at the idea of removing one enemy of their country. But, during the course of eliminating more men connected to the Munich massacre, they will begin to question not only the rationale behind the names on their hit list but also find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of despair. Can exacting revenge on people, even those who absolutely deserve it, provide true justice and satisfaction? This is an intellectually stimulating provocation that has been tackled in films before. Spielberg's "Munich" provides us this searing insight within the potent politics of the story, but without condescension or preaching. What's more compelling is how Spielberg approached the material. The film's form is like a procedural: As our characters learn more about the complex nature of geopolitics, so do we. A masterstroke that allows for the benefit of reaching our own conclusions.
"Munich" is Steven Spielberg's least successful commercial venture. It was overlooked by the industry when accolades were been passed out during awards season. Above all, the film has been mercilessly attacked by the right and, surprisingly, even the left has criticised it. Because Spielberg (himself a Jew) does not take sides he has been called "no friend of Israel," while some Palestinians consider his film as another injury of their reputation. But do believe me when I say that accusations of propaganda or, perhaps, naiveté are unfounded. If nothing else, "Munich" is the most pacifist and smartest film to be produced within the Hollywood system in years. As Time magazine fittingly called it, this is Spielberg's secret masterpiece; with it, Spielberg has come full circle as an entertainer and auteur. "Munich" is his best film, and easily the best film of the year so far. Do not deny yourself the opportunity to see it, and judge it without prejudice. - Adnan Khan