The thriller is a gloriously amoral form. We might be watching a heist artist, a cop, or an ice-blooded sniper — what counts, before anything, is the deftness of the action, the ruthless pleasure of pulse-pounding risk and reward. Munich, Steven Spielberg’s spectacularly gripping and unsettling new movie, is a grave and haunted film, yet its power lies in its willingness to be a work of brutal excitement. It’s a movie about killing that invites the audience to share the terror and the rush, the adrenaline of vengeance, only to leave us sliding into the horror on the other side.

Munich begins with an event that shook the world, and that arguably remade it: the taking of 11 Israeli athletes as hostages by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympic Games, and the murder of all 11 within 24 hours. Spielberg re-creates this cataclysm as a dread-ridden collage of TV broadcasts being watched by viewers around the globe. The famous, eerie shot of a ski-masked terrorist leaning over a balcony is made all the eerier when Spielberg stages it from within the hostage quarters, in perfect simultaneity with the hazy vintage TV footage.

In Munich, however, the Olympic massacre gets relatively little screen time. Inside the walls of Israeli power, the prime minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), gives terse approval to a new eye-for-an-eye ethos: For the sake of Israel’s strength and survival, she says, the men who planned the Munich terror must be hunted down and killed.

Spielberg, working from a script by the playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, follows a team of five assassins whose mission of vengeance, organized by the dour, pragmatic Ephraim (played with a jaunty misanthropic jolt by Geoffrey Rush), is to be kept secret even within the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad. Since that mission has remained secret ever since, the movie, by necessity, fuses fact and speculation. The team leader, Avner (Eric Bana), is tall, strapping, and ironically gentle. The son of an Israeli war hero, he’s a tender husband who’s about to have a baby he will scarcely see for the next two years, yet despite his cherubic poker face, he has the hint of a bruiser about him. His comrades, mostly European Jews, are a quirkier lot. They include a hotheaded South African getaway driver named Steve (Daniel Craig); an antiques aficionado, Hans (Hanns Zischler), with a flair for forging documents; Carl (Ciarán Hinds), a jovial and punctilious cleanup man who, with his fedora and tortoiseshell glasses, has the air of an insurance salesman out of a ’50s film noir; and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a nervous young Belgian toy maker?turned?bomb maker who can never seem to get his explosives quite right.

Kushner has written these roles with a marvelous wry, hostile spunk. There’s a glimmer of fractious comedy in this team of not-too-macho Jewish hitmen, who quibble, with Talmudic precision, about the ethics of what they’re doing. Does a bodyguard with a gun count as a civilian? (They can’t kill him if he does.) At moments, the film plays like a cross between The French Connection and some ’70s crime-series pilot — The Matzoh Squad. Yet Munich, through the unromantic oddity of its assassins, does something all too rare: It immerses us in a suspense that’s logistical and, at the same time, anxiously humane. These agents have little high technology to hide behind, and their schemes, most of which hinge on plastic-explosive bombs detonated by remote switch, play out without the usual glib overkill. We can’t predict what’s going to happen any more than they can. In the Paris apartment of a terrorist-scholar, the phone is stuffed with explosives, but when his young daughter enters the flat, the scramble to abort the mission has a Hitchcockian intensity.

Spielberg shoots Munich without showy virtuosity, yet his camera seems to be everywhere at once, and John Williams’ score is like a telltale heartbeat. The result is a thriller that seeps into your central nervous system. With each assassination, things go awry in a different way. A too-potent bomb blows up an entire hotel floor, almost killing Avner, and the no-civilian rule begins to get left in shards. As acts of global terrorism escalate, a malaise sets in: Righteous as they are, what, exactly, are these assassins for Israel accomplishing? Are they even killing the right men? In the role of Louis, the French information dealer from whom Avner buys the names of his targets (at hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop), Mathieu Amalric, with brusque manners and a crocodile grin, incarnates the sleaze of ”neutrality.” The very sight of him signifies the gray zone that Avner has entered.

Eric Bana, with wavy hair and a puckered grin that makes him look like Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman, exudes a decency that is undercut by ripples of anguish. Yet as Avner’s willingness to kill for Israel shades into paranoid futility, there’s one sequence that sputters: Spielberg cuts between Avner’s tormented sexual union with his wife and a flashback to the murder of the athletes. It’s ham-handed and philosophically garbled — returning us to the spark plug of vengeance that Avner has moved beyond. That, however, is the only misstep in a movie that has the vision to dramatize a startling reality: that political murder, even when it’s justified, consumes the soul — and justice along with it.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Steven Spielberg); Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth); Best Film Editing; Best Original Score (John Williams)

  • Movie
  • 164 minutes