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‘Munich’ is a haunted thriller

Spielberg doesn’t give you the luxury of an easy hero to root for. By John Hartl

“When will it ever end?” asks a worn-out character in “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s riveting, thoughtful dramatization of the revenge killings that followed the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Beginning with television footage of the Olympics, complete with appearances by the young Jim McCay and Peter Jennings, the movie at first seems to be going over the same territory as Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning 1999 documentary, “One Day in September.”

But it soon switches its focus to a Mossad agent, Avner (Eric Bana), who is recruited to hunt down the killers. At first delighted by his team, which includes a Belgian bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), a German forger (Hanns Zischler), a merciless South African driver (Daniel Craig) and a more scrupulous clean-up expert (Ciaran Hinds), Avner becomes increasingly haunted by his mission.

It not only takes him away from his wife and child but eventually seems to put them in harm’s way as well. Once he’s become a part of the cycle of revenge, both aided and possibly targeted by a global network of espionage experts, he seems incapable of finding peace.

The film struggles to find a satisfying ending, partly because there can’t be one. What began as a search for justice has been transformed into seemingly unstoppable savagery. Having accomplished only some of what he set out to do, Avner now lives in fear.

Written by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), the script does a delicate balancing job of presenting Israeli and Palestinian positions. Both sides are passionate about what they regard as their homeland, both are committed to a brutal eye-for-an-eye agenda, and both are inevitably compromised by the experience. Spielberg has been criticized for emphasizing the Israelis’ side, but in the end there’s really no one to root for — which seems to be his point.

With its international cast, atmospheric European locations and attention to pre-assassination detail, the movie often recalls Fred Zinnemann’s “The Day of the Jackal.” Michel Lonsdale, one of the key actors in that 1973 classic, even turns up in a crucial role, as the head of a Mafia-like family that regards itself as morally superior to “legitimate” governments.

Lonsdale brings a cat-like playfulness to this character, who gets a charge out of toying with Avner, who pays him to supply names and whereabouts of the killers. He also teases his own son (Mathieu Amalric), who has clearly inherited his dad’s penchant for enigmatic mischief-making.

They provide a welcome light touch in a movie that occasionally threatens to become the kind of cheap horror film in which each fresh victim is killed in a spectacularly different manner. Certainly violence is inherent in the story, but when the filmmakers choose, quite late in the film, to intercut the Munich massacre with a tortured sex scene, they seem to have become momentarily unhinged.

In most other respects, “Munich” demonstrates Spielberg’s control of difficult material. The casting is especially impressive, with Craig (the new James Bond), Hinds (Julius Caesar in HBO’s “Rome”) and Bana (the heroic heart of last year’s “Troy”) all making essential contributions.