Munich. We know what happened there in 1972. Many of us remember Jim McKay, sitting at that ABC Sports desk, intoning those fateful words: "They're all gone."
But what we don't know is what happened afterward, the reprisals for the act of terrorism that slaughtered 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympics. And we almost certainly don't see what happened there as part of a continuum, the vicious cycle of terrorism and reprisals that connect the dots all the way to 9-11.
"Munich" is Steven Spielberg's sincere effort to wrap his Hollywood arms around terrorism. It's also a heavy movie about a grim subject, that Olympic massacre, and the Israeli assassination squad that went out to punish those responsible.
It's riveting. But it's a thriller with a conscience. "When," Spielberg asks, "does it end?" Where is the finish line when you're trapped in a circle of bombings, political "hits" and murder?
But it's also awfully glib. The director who played around with our memories of 9-11 with his "War of the Worlds" has made a grisly movie about the ugly business of government-sanctioned murder. He also has made an entertaining one, with thrills, suspense and light moments.
And then he makes us feel guilty about it all in the finale. Yes, we want revenge. Yes, we're sure we're entitled. And here it is, 33 years after most of this happened, and we're still stuck in the same trap.
Eric Bana stars as the Israeli secret agent commissioned to lead four other men into deep cover, in Europe, to kill 11 Palestinians whom the Israeli government says were linked to the attack.
He leaves behind his pregnant wife, and gets a pep talk from Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen, a bit off) and orders from a prickly control agent (Geoffrey Rush, superb). He's assigned a driver (future Bond Daniel Craig), a bomb-maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), a document-forger (Hanns Zischler) and a "cleaner," the agent who can clean up their messes (Ciaran Hinds, terrific). And they go to work.
A bomb in a phone here, under a mattress there. A poet and supposed PLO operative gunned down. Men with families, killed in front of those families.
Assassination by assassination, first one then another of the killers starts to fret over what they're doing, some for moral reasons, others out of sheer paranoia. When you're on the lam and a murderer, whom can you trust?
The great Michael Lonsdale, who once played a French cop who chased "The Jackal," shows up here as a seen-it-all French Godfather whose family trade is helping out or selling out terrorists from the alphabet of terror - the IRA, the ANC, ETA or PLO. It's one of the standout turns in an ensemble movie whose peripheral players make a better impression than the lead (Bana).
The movies make it seem so easy. A silencer, easily obtained; a gun, easily used; a life, snuffed out with no more than a stoic grimace from the hit-man "hero." Plastic explosives? Off the shelf, in the movies. But how does somebody learn to make these clever, perfect little bombs? Aren't there ever accidents? Yes, "Munich" shows us, there are. Don't the killers go a little nuts doing what they do? Yes, as "Munich" shows us, they do.
"Munich" gets into the seemingly mundane logistics of running a "hit squad." Safe houses have to be found. Explosives are hard to procure. The Israelis have to use WWII vintage grenades, at one point. The gear and men who use it aren't Hollywood glamorous. No shiny metal briefcases with exotic weapons seen only in the movies here.
An unspoken message of this Tony Kushner script - he wrote "Angels in America" and adapted this from the book "Vengeance" - is what a distressingly dangerous place the world was, even in the ordered universe of the Cold War. So many factions, so many terrorists.
Are we safer now? Not because of anything these guys and their comrades did.
It's a tricky sermon, and Spielberg hides the preaching well until the third act. Whatever his other motives, he plainly lost himself in the spycraft, the mechanics of planning murders, the prettiness of the violence (blood spreading out through spilled milk, a naked woman artfully "plugged"). The entertainer in him makes the history go down easy.
"Munich" is only based on true events, and has much that is fictional (there's a lot of evidence that they killed the wrong guys). But that doesn't obscure the greater truth: that the killings on both sides aren't solving anything "over there."
Like the superior "Syriana," this isn't a Middle Eastern tale that offers much hope. It's just bloodstained history. And if we don't remember that history, Spielberg says, we learn nothing.