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He's mum about Munich
Screen On & Off
Mathieu Kassovitz and Eric Bana in a moment from Munich; (below) Steven Spielberg directing his cast

Normally, you can see Steven Spielberg films coming from a hundred miles. There are neutron explosions of hype and engineered buzz. Not Munich. It arrives with a whimper. Interviews have been scarce. On-location making of documentaries virtually non-existent. Anyone would think Spielberg had a reason to be afraid.

And the truth is, he does. Munich, a welcome move away from the candy-coated likes of War of the Worlds (2005) and The Terminal (2004), is his weightiest film since Schindler's List in 1993. The story of a covert band of Israeli killers assigned the task of wiping out the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games, it's also the most politically sensitive material he has dealt with in a long time.

Already, the list of people queuing up to denounce him is growing. Palestinians have accused him of demonising them. A number of Jews, including members of the Israeli government, have argued the opposite, claiming that he is proposing a moral equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli uses of violence.

The accusations must hurt. This is a film that, whatever its merits or failures, goes out of its way to add a tempered, conciliatory voice to a debate characterised by its often murderous intensity. Interspersing ABC footage of the massacre with excellently handled re-enactments, Spielberg begins the movie with Israeli PM Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) telling her war cabinet: 'It's the same as Eichmann ' dead Jews in Germany.'

What follows is a race to atone the athletes' deaths. A young agent, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), is chosen to head a crack, and at times almost crackpot team: cocksure getaway driver (Daniel Craig), angsty bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), anxious diplomat (Ciaran Hinds), document-forger (Hanns Zischler), and cunning handler (Geoffrey Rush).

The two writers responsible for Munich's screenplay ' Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) ' clearly hold very different views on the topic. One, almost certainly Roth, seeks to maintain the audience's interest in this 164-minute marathon by sticking as closely as possible to the conventions of the action thriller (stakeouts, car chases, daring raids, honey traps).

The other, wanting the film to be a more meditative inquiry into the roots of modern-day violence in the Middle East, gives Meir the line, 'Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values', and stages a confrontation between Avner and a Palestinian terrorist who argues, 'You don't know what it is not to have a home', as Al Green sings Let's Stay Together in the background.

Spielberg can't make up his mind which of these approaches he prefers. Ever the populist entertainer and consummate narrative craftsman, he wants the audience to get its fair share of adventure-story kicks. But the subject matter, its humour-starved treatment, plus one particularly grisly and near-misogynist murder scene, all suggest he's itching to present us with a far blacker pay-off than in most of his previous films.

Munich is shrouded in some mystery. The film claims to be 'inspired by real events', but is based on a much-disputed account of the Mossad hit squad in question. What's more, its author, George Jonas, has publicly rebuked Spielberg for going easy on the Palestinians.

Spielberg, seeking to capitalise on the post-Schindler's List goodwill he has accumulated from Jewish communities within the States, has produced what is in the present political climate a bold and suggestive essay about the corrosive effects that retribution wreaks on those who exact it. Heart-stopping set-pieces, combined with deft camerawork and some top-notch performances, particularly from Bana all add up to a film worth shouting about far more loudly than Spielberg and his associates seem inclined to do.

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