Munich, filmed mainly on Malta and in Hungary and with no Hollywood stars, suggests outsourcing can really be good for America-at least for American audiences, theatres and a big studio. Steven Spielberg's spectacular part-fact, part-speculation depiction of the international exploits of a covert Israeli team of assassins that went after the Palestinian masterminds behind the 1972 slaughter of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics is a multi-faceted tour de force.
Foremost, Munich is a tour through a murky but fascinating historic episode still enshrouded in mystery, delivered with all the intrigue, suspense and excitement of a first-rate thriller. The film is also a great showcase for international screen talent. Most of the names aren't familiar to domestic filmgoers, but all are actors who are celebrities in their own countries or throughout Europe.
Australian Eric Bana, who broke through in Chopper before big roles in Hulk and Troy, stars as Avner, the young Israeli patriot and father-to-be who sacrifices a comfortable home life to lead the five-man assassination team that will track down the Palestinian plotters. His squad includes the U.K.'s Daniel Craig (the future James Bond), as Steve, a fiery South African; Irish actor Ciarán Hinds as Carl, perhaps the most introspective of the operatives; French actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz as Robert, the team's Belgian demolitions expert; and Germany's Hanns Zischler as Hans, a German Jew who had been working for the Mossad (Israeli intelligence) as a forgery expert.
Australian Geoffrey Rush is the slightly shady Ephraim, a Mossad go-between who provides instructions to the band of assassins. Among the film's other major international performers are Israeli star Gila Almagor as Avner's mother; France's vet actor Michael (aka Michel) Lonsdale and writer-director Mathieu Amalric as mercenary, slippery French informants who just may be playing a few sides at once; and Germany's Moritz Bleibtreu and French actor/director Yvan Attal as leftist tipsters maybe not tipping to the right side.
If its controversial subject is uncomfortable, the film is comfortably structured. Spielberg, in arguably his best film since Schindler's List, first delivers scenes, including actual news footage, of the Palestinian Black September terrorists invading the Israeli quarters at Munich. The story continues soon after as the Israeli revenge operation (Operation Wrath of God) takes shape and Avner's team-armed with their respective skills and the names of informants throughout Europe-embark upon their kill campaign.
First to drop is an alleged Arab plotter in Rome, who lives quietly and amuses himself reciting Italian poetry in cafés. Other tips, most significantly provided by the French duo, provide leads to Black September plotters in Paris, Athens, Spain, etc. The prize will be to get to Salameh, the alleged mastermind behind the Munich slaughter. But as the team draws closer, doubts and misfortune prove problematic.
While much of the film is exciting cat-and-mouse stuff with suspenseful action set-pieces that succeed or abort, Munich is no conventional picture of good guys versus bad guys. Some of the Palestinian targets are downright likeable; on the other hand, Ephraim, the team's colorless Israeli contact, is hardly a hero. And the collateral damage and retaliatory actions are so widespread.
While the film makes clear that the unspeakable Munich tragedy avenged was horrific to the utmost, the putative heroism of the vengeful Israeli assassination team slowly erodes as their questions grow and actions become suspect. (Are their hits really the guilty ones and worth the bloodshed?) Ultimately, the biblical notion of an eye for an eye-at the heart of their revenge-driven mission and so many battles and wars throughout history-seems pathetically futile, and far worse (as poignantly suggested by the background behind the end credits).
Taking on moral and sociopolitical issues with a profound sense of fairness and urgency, Munich isn't only a cinematic triumph.