I was expecting this to be good going in, but it wound up exceeding expectations. Part of the reason I thought it wouldn't be exceptional was that Steven Spielberg's 'serious' films have always been very good but fail in some aspect or the other - usually by being schmaltzy or manipulative. Munich isn't perfect, but I reckon it's Spielberg's best serious film (and by serious I mean in terms of weighty subject matter, although I have to admit I hate that use of the word - to me, serious means serious in tone).
Munich begins with a recreation of the hostage taking of the Israeli Olympic Team during the 1972 Munich Olympics by a terrorist group called Black September (apparently this recreation is fairly accurate). This incident ended with a firefight at an airport that resulted in all of the hostages being killed. The full depiction of these events are doled out in segments as the film progresses, and are quite realistic and harrowing. In the aftermath, Israeli leaders decide that they need to strike back against Black September to deter future attacks. They bring in a man named Avner (Eric Bana) to head a team in Europe to assassinate several people responsible for the Munich massacre. From this point on the film deals with the operations of the team, and many of the events depicted are considered mostly speculative in terms of historical accuracy.
Avner's team comprises several specialists - a driver (Daniel Craig), a cleanup man (Ciarán Hinds), a bomb maker (Matthieu Kassovitz), and a forger (Hanns Zischler). After the team assembles, the film kicks into thriller mode, as Avner and his team hook up with a French intelligence trader (to locate their targets) and begin carrying out their assassinations across Europe. As their mission progresses, they begin to question whether the people on their list were actually responsible for Munich, and whether their missions achieve anything since each target is eventually replaced by someone else. Things eventually descend into paranoia when Avner and his team are targeted in reprisal.
Spielberg and his writers have created a fairly even handed film. While it dabbles with details of the larger conflict it doesn't really take sides or examine the conflict in depth (though it does present arguments from both sides); its focus is more on the effectiveness of the methods used and how they perpetuate a cycle of violence, and the effect these methods have on the people that have to implement them. Avner and his team start off with conviction, but as their work takes its toll they begin to think about what they are achieving and the people they are killing. The characters' transition from idealistic but inexperienced, nervous killers into hardened, unflinching assassins and then into doubting, paranoid wrecks is gradual and believable. The characters are conflicted, with each team member having his own views - none of them feel like mere ciphers. Even the men who are being assassinated, despite being involved in terrorism, are shown as human beings - a reality that many in today's world seem unwilling to accept (let's face it, terrorists don't hatch out of pods like Uruk Hai, ready to do evil).
There's a sense of realism that permeates the film - it's restrained and doesn't go for overblown theatrics. Despite that, the assassinations are tense and exciting affairs, as we watch along with the team to see if the bomb-maker's devices will finally work properly! Watching the film, I was drawn into the dangerous world of intelligence and counter intelligence; to use a cheesy clichè, it's a deadly game of cat and mouse. The somewhat muted colours and John Williams' moody music add to the sombre atmosphere (although the use of the "wailing Gladiator woman" voice irked me just a little).
When it comes to performances, Eric Bana is superb as Avner, a complex and conflicted man who has to bear the weight of responsibility for the mission. Bana gets to exhibit many facets of the character, who appears in most of the film and interacts with all the major characters, including his family. Also making a strong impression is James Bond aka Daniel Craig, who's all steely eyed and no nonsense as the hard-liner. Ciarán Hinds plays the Devil's advocate and voice of reason and is the key speaker in the team's moral debates - he's excellent in the role. Geoffrey Rush is memorable and funny in his small role as Avner's 'handler' within the Israeli intelligence agency. Matthieu Kassovitz and Hanns Zischler are solid in their roles as the bomb maker and forger respectively, although the latter is given very little to do.
All in all, it's a terrific film that deals with complex issues without dumbing them down. If there are any criticisms to be made, the film could perhaps stand to be a little shorter, and occasionally the dialogue is a bit too grand and speech-like; but these are only minor complaints. Munich is thoughtful, horrifying, tense, and exciting in equal measure, and is well worth seeing.