He's hardly my favorite director, living or dead, but I cede to no one in my ardor as a Steven Spielberg apologist. Even when his films are flawed or simply flat-out bad, I think there's something interesting to dig at, and besides the man is one of the most internally-coherent auteurs working in America.

Thus, I had high hopes for Munich, his Tony Kushner-scripted take on the events following the assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. And largely, my hopes were borne out, as this just might be the most morally engaged film of 2005.

Ignore every last damn word you've heard about whether or not this film is an excuse for the Palestinian terrorists. It's not. The film makes no effort for even one moment to argue that the events in Munich were anything less than evil. The questions raised by this film are not along the lines of "why have they harmed us, and do we deserve it?"

The film follows a team of four Mossad agents led by Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana). They are given a thematically convenient list of 11 Palestinian leaders who planned and executed the Munich events, and instructed to eliminate those leaders, excessive force encouraged. Along the way, wouldn't you know, these patriotic sons of Israel suddenly come to realize that they are killing men. Not innocent men, the film never argues that (but some of them may well be innocent of Munich). Nevertheless, in responding to violence with violence, the agents are simply perpetuating an unending cycle.

No one is blind to this reality. In ordering the hit, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) rationalizes her decision with a line from the trailer that has wedged itself immovably in my brain: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Meaning that nobody is under the illusion that this is a just response (and boy, do I wish the current American administration had evidenced a similar notion, but more on that later). But not responding at all would be equally unjust. And thus is the tragedy of Munich: to kill in revenge is evil, but to not kill in revenge shows weakness, and thus more killing will occur.

Uniquely in Spielberg's canon, the film is content to allow this ambiguity to stand. Nowhere else does he seem so comfortable with the notion that the world is primarily composed of moral greys. Certainly in Schindler's List, his other unabashedly great "adult" film, there is a simple, almost programmatic morality. Nothing like that here: it's easy to call Munich evil, but from there on, how far does one go? When does murder stop being evil? Actually, the film does answer this question: murder is always evil, because it never ends. Late in the film, the assassins commit a freelance act of revenge of almost unwatchable savagery. It's made clear that the men could never have perpetrated this act if there government hadn't already made revenge killing a morally accessible option.

The film is being positioned as a meditation on the perpetual state of conflict between Israel and Palestine. But that's not the most satisfying way to read it, for the reason pointed to in a conversation between Avner and a Palestinian youth: there is no position of compromise between these two groups. Their needs are mutually exclusive. They will go on killing each other until one side is dead, or one side is convinced that God was lying all along and no, it's that land, over there, that I promised you.

What Munich is really about, and fairly unobliquely, is the War on Terror. If you hadn't noticed it by the end (an impossibility), Spielberg makes goddamn sure you get it with the rather ham-fisted final shot, focused on the new-in-1972 World Trade Center. By this point, though, the parallels between the Olympics and the 9/11 attacks are entirely clear: each begat a period of national trauma, each resulted in a disproportionate response against men who may or may not have been at all involved. And the constant insistence that "Munich changed everything" is a direct and surely deliberate mate to the old canard of "America changed after 9/11." In a year filled to the brim with politically engaged films, Munich stands above them all, asking the question "is killing those who have wronged us right?" without any attempt to answer it, but making it clear that the world might be a rather better place if the powers that be had asked it a few years ago.

The film is not all grim and doom, although the final hour is utterly mirthless. For the first 90 minutes or so, Munich is actually a pretty taut 70's-style political thriller, more in the mode of Three Days of the Condor than One Day in September. That might seem irreverent, but Spielberg clearly came to the same conclusion, and thus one of the most amazing choices of his career: to shot the film in the style of an early-70's movie. He and Janusz Kaminski, who has recently been turning out cinematographic masterpieces about as easily as normal DP's focus a lens, have made a film with all of the flat focus and muted colors of any picture from that era. And the zoom lens! Never have I seen such purposeful zooming in a movie! During the five or six years that the technology was in favor, some great work was done with zoom lenses, but every single time it's used here, it counts for a lot.

The actors are all brilliant, especially Eric Bana. And where the hell did he come from? Is it possible that Spielberg was sitting in a dark room, screening Hulk and thinking to himself, "Yes. That is the man who shall support my epic about the morality of terrorist-hunting"? Geoffrey Rush is great for the first time in forever as the shadowy contact between the assassins and the Israeli government, and Daniel "the next Bond" Craig is the most memorable of the hit squad, in the role of the demented asshole who actually likes their work.

Not all is wonderful, I admit. For one thing, Spielberg doesn't trust his audience all that much, and so we get some fairly sledgehammery moments of thematic development. And while he keeps the soft focus fuzzy warm moments to an absolute minimum (this film is almost as bleak as Schindler's List, without that film's ethical righteousness), they exist. Also, there's a sex scene towards the end, which is good (sex is a rare commodity in Spielberg), but what is done with that scene is almost incoherent, given what we've seen throughout the film.

Beyond Spielberg's personal sins, I found the requisite John Williams score to be surprisingly generic, a huge disappointment given his recent work with his longtime director (I found A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Catch Me If You Can, and War of the Worlds to all have excitingly challenging and unexpected scores).

I will part with one last observation: Spielberg is universally slammed as being overly sentimental, safe and happy. Yet in 2005 he has directed this story of moral ambiguity and savagery, one of the bleakest things I've seen all year, and the 9/11-by-way-of-Bosch nightmares of War of the Worlds. How much more does he have to do to get some fucking credit?