In "Munich," Steven Spielberg's gritty story of men, murder and vengeance, two of the most powerful moments involve beautiful, dark-eyed little girls. In one, a planned apartment bombing is interrupted, at the last minute, when the would-be victim's young daughter skips back into her home unexpectedly. The resultant commotion, as the hit men scramble to stop what they have put into motion, is meticulously choreographed and devastatingly real; watching it, you forget to breathe.
And later in the film, a young man named Avner (Eric Bana), aged before his time, is reunited with the daughter he barely knows. She's an enchanting toddler, her face wreathed in curls, and he races to her as if she's a magnet.
Spielberg's films so often deal with themes of parenthood, and he knows how to convey that bond without a word. Earlier, we've seen Avner speaking to his infant on the phone; she gurgles "da-da" and his face crumbles, weeping. The child is his anchor, his reason, in a world where reason sometimes seems very far away.
"Munich," written by Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") and Eric Roth, tells a complex, harrowing story inspired by real events. In September 1972, at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich, a group of Palestinian terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team.
Spielberg's film sketches in this tragedy in its first few minutes, mixing real footage (ABC sports broadcaster Jim McKay, dark circles under his eyes, narrated the unfolding story) with meticulous, bone-chilling dramatization. It's over, quickly, and we hear the names of the victims, interspersed with the names of the killers. And then the real story of "Munich" begins.
"Forget peace for now," says Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, an uncanny ringer), her eyes unblinking. She and the members of a secret committee appoint five men for a hellish mission: to find and kill the 11 men behind the Munich murders. The chosen hit men are Avner, Steve (Daniel Craig), Hans (Hanns Zischler), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Carl (Ciaran Hinds).
Each has a specific skill to contribute: Robert is a bombmaker; Hans a forger. Each has ambivalent feelings about his assignment, but each agrees to take it on, for reasons never entirely clear.
From here, "Munich" unfolds, moving from city to city and from name to name on the hit list. The group of five dwindles; this is a dangerous assignment, and not all survive. And the film, though made with great sincerity and artistry, becomes increasingly remote.
Spielberg's great strength as a filmmaker is his humanity, his ability to show us those connections between people that make us whole. Here, he spreads that humanity to practically everyone in the movie.
It's a courageous choice in the light of this politically charged story but one that challenges its audience to find a way in.
Made in a hurry, "Munich" was filmed just this past summer and rushed through production. Sometimes that speed seems to benefit the movie: There's a jagged, on-the-fly energy to it, like the best of '70s cinema. But the characters perhaps weren't thoroughly thought out; it's hard to connect to anyone here, even Bana's often enigmatic Avner.
Spielberg, with longtime director of photography Janusz Kaminski, creates some pictures as vivid as any in his career. One, of Avner, is an uncanny echo of the famous photograph from the 1972 Olympics of a stocking-capped sniper on a balcony.
In another, a man is gunned down in his apartment lobby; as steam rises from his lifeless body, a pool of milk spreads from his dropped groceries, puddling as it mingles with his blood.
Ultimately, there is no peace for Avner, and no answers in "Munich" — just as the real story remains elusive. It's a smart, mesmerizing and often angry film, from a truly confident filmmaker, but it remains, maddeningly, just beyond our grasp. We connect to it in moments, such as those with the children, and then it slips away; dark as a nightmare, with no promise of light.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com