The Revenge of 'Munich'

CBS News Sunday Morning contributor David Edelstein says Steven Spielberg's "Munich" puts a guilty twist on the familiar revenge film.

Steven Spielberg's "Munich" turns on the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games, and on the Israeli government's off-the-books retaliation: allegedly bankrolling a squad of covert operatives to assassinate the Palestinians they believed responsible.

This set-up is familiar. American thrillers often have scenarios of injury and vengeance that's extra-legal, vigilante vengeance. You'll remember Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" and Charles Bronson's death-wisher-not to mention Uma Thurman's blood-spattered bride in "Kill Bill." But this year, maybe as a result of 9/11, we've seen a different kind of vengeance movie. Call it revenge with a guilty conscience.

Consider David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" in which the hero surrenders to the dark side he'd suppressed and dispatches a bunch of psychos and gangsters. The director makes clear that the vermin have it coming, but he also lingers on the killings in a way that's meant to make you sick.

"Munich" takes this ambivalence much further. Avner, played by Eric Bana, doesn't know what role was played by the people that he and his Mission: Impossible-style team gun down or blow up. He has to take his info on faith from an Israeli intelligence agent played by Geoffrey Rush, and the man is like many unreliable father figures in Spielberg films. He's not wholly trustworthy.

From the start, Avner's nightmares of the Munich massacre are balanced by his increasing disgust at what he has to do: killing men who have their own righteous fervor, who don't seem, at least, like monsters. As the body count mounts and members of his own team are picked off, Avner begins to go mad.

The screenwriter, Tony Kushner, is the liberal playwright of "Angels in America," and the Israeli government and some conservative commentators have denounced the film as naive. They have a point. Government retaliation can be necessary. But in the context of modern cinema, showing the insanity-individual and collective-engendered by this tit-for-tat mentality: that feels vital. In this superb and troubling film, everyone's an avenger, and the cycle of killing never ends.