MovieREVIEW: Munich a Powerful moral thriller

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Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” takes a shocking, emotionally fraught historical event — the 1972 kidnapping and killing of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by the shadowy Palestinian “Black September” group in Munich, Germany — as the basis for a powerful moral thriller.

Its compelling message is especially directed at those who would support Israeli policies of bloody “counter-terrorism,” assassinations, “collective punishments,” and the like. That message is: “Enough!”

“Munich” makes the unmistakable point that the quest for homeland is not just a Jewish concern, but a Palestinian one too.

The film revolves around the growing moral crisis of the “hero,” an Israeli Mossad agent, son of an Israeli military hero, who is pressed into service to head a super-secret assassination squad sent abroad to track and kill a list of figures Mossad considers responsible for the Munich attack. The squad carries out a series of bloody assassinations with the help of mysterious agents in several countries. Eventually, the cynical role of the U.S. government in promoting terrorism comes to light, completing the hero’s disillusionment.

Each member of the five-man assassination squad reacts differently, with vivid character portrayals by actors who are not big-name stars. A particularly powerful scene is a peculiar chance encounter between the Israeli assassination squad and a group of Palestinians apparently on a similar mission. In a highly charged conversation between the leaders of the two “teams,” the Palestinian challenges the Israeli, and the audience, to realize how much the two peoples — Jewish and Palestinian — have in common.

Playwright Tony Kushner co-wrote the screenplay. In a Los Angeles Times commentary, Kushner notes that “the refusal of the film to reduce the Mideast controversy, and the problematics of terrorism and counterterrorism, to sound bites and spin … has brought forth charges of ‘moral equivalence’ from people whose politics are best served by simple morality tales.”

“We live in the Shock and Awe Era,” Kushner writes, “in which instant strike-back and blow-for-blow aggression often trump the laborious process of analysis, investigation and diplomacy. ‘Munich’s’ questioning spirit is an affront to armchair warrior columnists who understand power only as firepower. We’re at war, and the job of artists in wartime, they seem to feel, is to provide the kind of characters and situations that are staples of propaganda: cleanly representative of Good or Evil, and obedient to the Message.”

Spielberg showed a lot of guts in making this film, and it is significant that he chose to do it at this time. It is an unflinching call for a fundamental change in U.S. and Israeli policies, to make possible a real peace that gives both peoples a homeland. It’s also a terrific, polished, unsentimental, edge-of-your-seat thriller. It fully deserves its “Best Picture” Academy Award nomination.

Go see “Munich,” then go see George Clooney’s “Syriana.” Its theme is less controversial — simply that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is all about oil and political domination on behalf of powerful U.S. corporate interests. It must be a commentary on how much the American public has come to recognize this that “Syriana” has not drawn much controversy.

Unique for a Hollywood movie, “Syriana” shows the vast working class that produces the region’s oil wealth. Many are immigrant workers, exploited and discarded at will by the oil multinationals. The intertwining of oil, blood and cynical geopolitics is revealed through a complicated intrigue-filled plot with a shocking finale. If you have ever wondered what one of those aerial assassinations by unmanned “drones” looks like — the kind the U.S. military talks about so antiseptically — “Syriana” shows you. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s one we need to see.