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By Brad Cook | May 22, 2006

In the 4.5-minute introduction to “Munich” on DVD, director Steven Spielberg mentions that George Jonas’ book “Vengeance,” on which the movie was based, has been oft-attacked but never discredited. After watching the film, I feel the same of those who attacked Spielberg’s effort, which ironically included Jonas among their ranks.

There’s been much talk about moral equivocation in “Munich,” which centers around the efforts to find and kill the 11 Palestinian terrorist leaders who orchestrated the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Aside from a fictional, and forced, scene with Avner, the leader of that Israeli hit squad, and a fabricated Palestinian terrorist, I didn’t see much of that at all.

Jonas wrote in an opinion column published earlier this year: “My ‘Avner’ may have questioned the utility of his mission toward the end — targeted assassinations barely slowed down terrorism, let alone stopped it — but he never questioned the morality of what his country had asked him to do.” I think Jonas, and other critics, confused the toll the operation took on Avner’s soul with any moral qualms about what he was doing.

Repeatedly in the film, he professes his belief in what he’s doing for his country and insists that killing these men is the right thing to do. Eventually, though, as the men in his squad start dying and he finds himself constantly looking over his shoulder for hit men, you can literally see his transformation into a gaunt figure, haunted with guilt over the deaths of those who followed him to their demise, as well as guilt over the danger he may have put his family in. Put yourself in such circumstances. Would you be skipping down the street in glee over those you had assassinated — no matter how much they deserved it — if good people had died in the process and your family could be at risk because of your actions?

Yes, the scene with Avner and the Palestinian — which likely didn’t happen, according to Jonas — was strained, and I’m not sure what to make of the sex and violence montage near the end, except to say that I think it was about Avner getting rid of his demons, as opposed to getting his rocks off over the deaths of Israeli athletes, as Jonas thinks. Either way, that type of montage has become cliché, and I wish Spielberg had thought better of it.

But other than those points, I found little to dislike in “Munich.” The ultimate point of the film is this: No matter how much those 11 Palestinians may have deserved to die for what they planned, do targeted assassinations make any sense when, as Jonas admits, they don’t slow down terrorism? Instead, the killings increased the spate of reprisal attacks by the Palestinians, many of which involved innocent civilians. At least Avner and his men did everything they could to avoid civilian casualties.

Like “Schindler’s List,” “Munich” feels the need to bonk us over the head with a speech at the end, rather than allow us to reach the same conclusions merely by digesting what we’ve seen. I’ve always appreciated Spielberg as a great American filmmaker, but I think he sometimes becomes ham-fisted with serious subject matter, choosing to belabor the point rather than close with eloquence. Compare those movies with such popcorn films as “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and even “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” all of which ended with understated scenes that allowed the audience to come down off a rousing high and exit the theater satisfied.

Of course, one only has to watch that aforementioned introduction on this DVD to see how the negative reaction to the film has forced Spielberg to painfully explain how he didn’t want “Munich” to be seen as anti-Israeli. (I’m sure such reaction was anticipated by him during the making of the movie, which may have led to some of his dramatic choices.) I didn’t see it as anti-Israeli; far from it. It’s simply a movie that asks us to ponder how we would handle wrestling with monsters. Could any of us do better than Avner? I doubt it.

Universal sent me the single-disc version of the film, which contains that introduction as the only extra. It’s a very quick, EPK-style piece that hints at the more in-depth material found in the two-disc Limited Edition. Ironically, Spielberg has nothing but praise for Jonas’ book. Too bad Jonas couldn’t view Spielberg’s effort in the same light.

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