On the Scene Week of Dec. 22, 2005

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – follow that philosophy and before you know it, the whole world will be blind and toothless.

Steven Spielberg's message from "Munich"?

No, Tevye's from Anateveka.

But what Spielberg has done with his new film – inspired by the events that followed the Munich massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, without being inspirational itself – is kicked it up a notch, positioning the fiddler on a roof splintered from machine-gun fire to scratch out a tune no one is listening to in the first place.

Is "Munich," which opens nationally on Friday, Dec. 23, more a morality-means test than a movie? Is it possible to go on – morally, psychically, spiritually – when those wearing the black-and-white ski masks are hiding the same ugliness in their soul?

"Munich," which goes for the gold and comes up with the guilt, is a beautifully shot film in the realm of Spielberg's "The Color Purple." But here, the color of crimson – bloodletting bombshells of self-indictments – reveals what "Purple" people also disclosed – Hollywood's master pieces many films together with more flash than substance.

Indeed, in a flash, the viewer is lured into the topsy-turvy world that was the 1972 Olympics, with the terrorists shown being given helpful, seemingly innocuous lifts over a fence into the Olympic village, where the chain of events lead to an event so cataclysmic in its cruelty and irony that 33 years later, the phrase "Munich Games" sports a black eye.

As the film evolves, it gruesomely demonstrates – and detonates – that an assassin's job is never done, especially when that assassin is killing himself over his culpability in the success of the possibly misguided missions.

That is the crux of the fix that stagnates intelligence officer Avner (Eric Bana), the hunter-cum-hunted-cum-haunted Mossad agent in whose young, yielding hands is tossed the grenade-like mission of tracking down and killing the terrorists who exterminated the Israeli athletes.

Is Avner hero or hit man, Israeli icon of a stand-up braveheart – or a foolishly duped fall guy whom Golda Meir maneuvered to head her "Operation Wrath of God"?

Surely, this tale – based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas about a since-discredited Mossad agent leading the plot against the terrorists – is a bit Hollywood on the Golan; there is a field of overwrought, overdramatized – overly important – themes at work here, which usually spell Oscars for cast and crew, and cast a spell of somnolence over the audience.

In a way, "Munich" is a Mideast "Mission: Impossible," with the theme song turned strangely Hebraic. Should film-goers decide to accept this mission, they do so at their own risk.

Risk? Certainly, the man who made "Schindler's List" has already made the sh- list of many of those on the right who, without seeing the film, have saddled him with the sobriquet of a sad-sack secular Jew trying to piece together a Hollywood peace plan for the muddied Mideast.

But "let's do lunch" doesn't play out at Spago on the Sinai when too many serious issues are at hand. And "Can't we all just get along?" may have netted Rodney King millions, but it takes a beating in real life where Hollywood chic – and sheiks – have no place.

But to dismiss "Munich" as political claptrap and idiotic ideology is to ignore the power of a filmmaker whose use of the word "home" – the calling card of "E.T." popularity and here as a harrowing heartbreaking allusion to Israel – is at the heart of much of what he does and accomplishes.

So what if Spielberg seems to have crafted a self-important self-introspection that passes for genius among the intelligentsia at Hollywood and Vine that wouldn't pass the sands of time in Israel. Have the so-called experts done any better?

If Spielberg – who, outside of a timely Time mag fluff piece with questions that could earn Richard Schickel, the interviewer and former Spielberg collaborator, a career in a softball league – becomes the negatively cast naif here, it wouldn't be all that surprising.

Certainly placing terrorists and vengeful Israelis on a level playing field that caroms into a killing field is a chance Spielberg took, willingly. And asking noted left-leaning writer Tony Kushner – no stranger to political drama; besides taking on the early failed AIDS war in the Pulitzer-Prize winning "Angels in America," he also demonized the right in his "Homebody/Kabul," focused on Afghanistan – to script "Munich," Spielberg knew he was just spilling more Mideast oil on the fiery furor that would engulf this film.

Will controversy catch on at the box office? Hey, has anyone seen Michael Moore lately?

Ironically, "Munich" may be the second coming of "The Passion of the Christ" for Jewish audiences.

In 2004, it was Mel Gibson's so-called attempt to nail Jews for the death of Jesus; this year, Spielberg is taking a hit and the preliminary heat for attempting to humanize the enemy.

Indeed, it's a risk. If you don't think so, just ask Leslie Moonves, who still probably has night sweats whenever anybody wants to know how he could have ever considered making a mini-series about "Hitler" as a regular guy gone bad.

Meanwhile, much has been made of the final Oscar showdown this year – the terrorist guerrillas of "Munich" aping the terror-inducing gorilla of "King Kong."

Whatever that outcome, there's no doubt that Spielberg and Kushner (and co-writer Eric Roth) have come up with something to be discussed rather than condemned.

It is, after all, only a movie; daring but not as dynamic as the much better "One Day in September," Kevin Macdonald's 1999 masterful Oscar-winning documentary about the Munich Games.

As with some of his other films, Spielberg shows a hand at being a pointillist here, if too heavy-handed on making his points.

As the camera scans the still-standing twin towers at film's end, and Spielberg's dual allusion comes across, it's obvious that what the filmmaker wants to show is that one day in September has become another.



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