By Ty Burr
Updated May 16, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Munich: Karen Ballard

As expected, there’s no director’s commentary on the DVD of Steven Spielberg’s complicated yet majestic Munich. The second disc of the Collector’s Edition, however, features the filmmaker talking easily, if sometimes defensively, in every one of the meaty featurettes, and the articulate input from much of the cast and crew gives the sense of a project that engaged the hearts and minds of all involved. In other words, this is a bonus disc that for once is worth the price. (A single-disc version is available for those who don’t want to bother.)

The movie’s worth it too, of course. Strip away the noise surrounding its theatrical release, and Munich is one of the master’s strongest works — a sprawling yet remarkably controlled essay on the spiritual costs of vengeance. Taking the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics as square one, Spielberg, playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner, and co-writer Eric Roth fan out across Europe, charting the fortunes of a secret Israeli assassination squad charged with killing those responsible.

Above all, Munich is a drama of incisive characters slowly blurring as they lose their moral way. As the team leader, Bana has to do the heavy lifting, and one wonders whether he’s up to the task (but, then, any actor would be confounded by the film’s weak link: an overreaching climax that conflates sex and death). You come away treasuring other members of the group — Ciarán Hinds’ fixer, Mathieu Kassovitz’s gentle bomber, Daniel Craig’s bluff, headstrong muscleman — and the gallery of rogues surrounding them, each with his or her own agenda: Rush as the Mossad contact, Michael Lonsdale as a paternal anarchist, Mathieu Amalric as his jealous son, Marie-Josée Croze as a lethal assignation, Omar Metwally as an unyielding Palestinian.

The people behind the screen are, if anything, even more well-defined. Spielberg spends a lot of time saying what Munich is not: ”I am not attacking Israel,” ”This movie is not an argument for nonresponse,” ”[I’m] not a historian and I’m not a diplomat.” It’s up to others to spell out what the movie is — ”a totally intelligent movie about hatred and vengeance,” hazards Kassovitz.

Movie geeks are well-served in segments like ”Portrait of an Era” and ”Editing, Sound and Music” — discussions of sound design and Spielberg’s use of zoom lens are surprisingly relevant given the context — but as we hear from the cinematographer and producer, costumer and production designer, extras and stars, their real impetus becomes clear. Each one of the hundreds of people charged with making this movie seems to be wondering where violence ends and who might have the nerve to end it. Munich remains one of the most beguiling question marks of recent years.

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