There is a scene two-thirds of the way through Steven Spielberg’s Munich where three undercover agents confront a woman they know guilty of killing one of their team. She knows she’s about to die, and tells the men to look at her, what a waste it would be to kill her. It doesn’t work. Her perfect skin is marred by two black holes. There’s no blood, not yet, just an expression of despair on the woman’s face. She stands up and pets her cat, struggles across the room, and finally slumps into a chair. She is naked. She coughs, and one of the black holes spits out blood. She has a look of sadness on her face as a final bullet is placed in her head.

One of the men wants to cover her up. Leave her, they tell him. He feels shame, not over her death, but for her exposure. It’s a tough scene, but it serves many purposes. It’s a reminder the war on terrorism knows no gender; even beautiful women can be weapons of mass distraction. It forces the audience to think and behave like the men pulling the trigger. Finally, the scene effectively reminds us what a strong storyteller Spielberg can be. We feel sad for the woman (I almost lost it when she petted her cat), but are reminded what she did to bring about her demise.

Spielberg and writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (from the book Vengeance by George Jonas) want to have their cake and eat it too with Munich, and most of the time it’s a feast of high drama and taut suspense. Depicting the kidnaping and eventual slaughter of eleven Israeli athletes and trainers during the 1972 German Olympics, Munich has the benefit of forethought on its side. Instead of making a reactionary film, time has allowed Spielberg to make a film filled with reflection and insight. He grips us in the moment, but allows his writers and characters to ask questions which help us understand and perhaps even accept the events which followed the massacre.

Unlike Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg doesn’t play all of his cards at once. He holds them back, even if the story begs Spielberg to start the film with the massacre. He doesn’t. He shows us little bits and pieces, how the terrorist members of Black September managed to gain entry into the Olympic compound; how the hostage situation goes from bad to worse; and finally how Israel decides to deal with the terrorists on their own terms. It isn’t until the end of the film when we are finally shown the tragedy.

The massacre is indeed horrific, shot and executed with as much grit as the camera allows, but the emotional toll of the cat and mouse hunt that follows is just as real. Kushner and Roth are commended for crafting credible characters who never take anything at face value. Though their mission is filled with moral ambiguity (can they be sure the names on their list are really terrorists?) the team members never waver in their convictions. There’s a lot of give and take in the dialogue, but when all is said and done we, like the team members, know where we stand.

Eric Bana delivers a sensitive yet steely performance as Intelligence Officer Avner, personally chosen by Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, spot on) to head up a top secret team to assassinate the terrorists responsible for planning the massacre. Although he doesn’t believe he’s the right man for the job (plus he has a baby on the way), Avner accepts the assignment, which takes him and his small but deadly team to various ports.

Avner’s team is comprised of bomb maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), driver Steve (Daniel Craig in full Bond mode), forger Hans (Hanns Zischler) and clean-up man Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Even though none of the men have met before, they must place their trust and lives in each other’s hands in order to complete their mission. Geoffrey Rush is very diplomatic as the officer unofficially in charge of the team, while Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric lend creepy support as terrorism profiteers.

Munich is a well crafted, mind numbing, and brutal film, a reminder that film can mirror current events without too much sacrifice.

War On TerrorMunich Tackles Olympic MassacreMunich

Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ciaran Hinds. Michael Lonsdale. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated R. 164 Minutes.Larsen Rating: $9.00

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