Written for the screen by Lake Charles native Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich is the story of the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics by a Palestinian organization calling itself Black September and the subsequent pursuit of 11 co-conspirators. The goal of the responsive retribution campaign is clear: Teach those who would shed innocent Israeli blood that they will pay with their own lives.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) decides to stage its campaign of vengeance under a cloak of deniability. To lead the operation, Meir selects a young Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) who once served as her bodyguard. On rare occasions he receives information and directives from a handler called Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), but mostly he's on his own. His team consists of only four other men. Steve (Daniel Craig) is a dedicated soldier and true believer whose job is to assist Avner with direct killings. Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) has been assigned to the operation as a bomb maker. A sensitive toy designer by profession, Robert was trained in the Israeli army to defuse bombs, but his skills as an explosives expert are less than ideal. The other two team members are the philosophical Carl (Ciaran Hands), who acts as cleaner, and the cynical Hans (Hanns Zischler), who forges documents and identification papers.
In structure, Munich plays as a straightforward thriller. Avner's assassination squad zeroes in on a target, develops a careful plan to execute its hit and improvises on the fly when complications develop. But from the very beginning, Spielberg delivers a discomfiting twist. He refuses to treat the men Avner is assigned to kill as unalloyed villains. In fact, viewed outside any political context, the men on Avner's hit list seem normal, peaceful, decent, likable and even admirable. The first man Avner is to kill is a scholar who has translated The Arabian Nights into modern Italian. Living in Rome, giving public readings and lectures to small, appreciative audiences, this seemingly gentle, intellectual man appears unlikely to have plotted the murder of innocent athletes. Probably he's guilty, but maybe a mistake has been made. We never learn for sure.
As Avner and his men work their way down their target list, they read of other attacks by Arab terrorist organizations, the hijacking of an airplane, the murder of tourists. "We have their attention," Carl observes. "They are talking back to us." At first glance this seems good news because it means that the terrorists recognize they are being hunted, that they will not be allowed to kill Jews with impunity. But first Carl, then Robert, and ultimately even Avner, realize they have perhaps played into the terrorists' hands.
Because this film so openly worries about the strategy Israel has taken in dealing with a violent and resolute enemy, Spielberg has been criticized as naive or even hostile to the interests of Israel. But he's very careful in this regard. Israel was created as a state in direct response to the Holocaust. Avner's mother (Gila Almagor) states the importance of Israel with succinct power: "In Israel we have a place on earth at last." Moreover, Spielberg makes clear that Muslim terrorism is a cruel and unrelenting enemy. In replaying the events at the Munich Olympics, he emphasizes that the athletes were slaughtered after the mission to secure the release of so-called political prisoners had clearly failed, as had any possibility of escape.
In the years since 1972, the situation in the Middle East has gotten worse yet. Palestinian (and other Muslim) fanatics convinced their young people to act as suicide bombers. And in response, for the most part, Israel has tried to meet force with force, repay blood with blood. Three decades pass and the cycle goes round and round. Spielberg asks if the time hasn't come for a different strategy.
The human instinct for vengeance is so strong that it is hard to control and can tempt even someone as in other ways wise as Golda Meir. But recent world history has suggested that even those with the most entrenched grudges can make peace if one side will not seek vengeance that's easy to justify. The politics of apartheid kept Nelson Mandela in prison for advocating civil rights for his nation's black majority. His enemies slew his friends and robbed him of his youth. But when he came to power after prison, he dared to reconcile with those who did not deserve his embrace. Spielberg does not point at Mandela as a model, but throughout, what Munich is saying is that surely the time has come to give peace a chance.