Arriving after months of hurried production in near-total secrecy, Steven Spielberg’s Munich must be counted a monumental, jaw-dropping surprise. A riveting account of Israeli assassins hunting down Palestinians in retaliation for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spielberg’s latest is not only the year’s best movie, far and away, it’s also an extraordinarily daring and provocative political statement on the part of the director and his primary collaborator, playwright Tony Kushner. Unquestionably, the film stands apart from most of what passes as “serious” Hollywood filmmaking currently. Movies such as Brokeback Mountain (the assured winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar, arriving January in the Triangle), Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana deal in liberal pieties that wouldn’t challenge any 10-year-old. Munich, in contrast, is a film of dazzling intelligence that offers complexity on every level–psychological, cultural, political and, above all, moral.

The primary mark of its intellectual worth is that the movie doesn’t toe anyone’s party line, for which offense Spielberg and Kushner stand not only to forfeit an armload of Oscars but also to be reviled from here to Tel Aviv. Even before opening, the film was denounced on the op-ed page of The New York Times and in a shrill broadside by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, and you can expect to hear lots more comparisons to Oliver Stone along with hysterical charges that Spielberg and Kushner are “self-hating Jews” (a term now almost as meaningless as “anti-Semitic”), guilty of the “sin of equivalence.”

Said sin involves suggesting that the Palestinians are not simply rats to be exterminated but human beings who, no less than the Jews, have a right to a homeland. The movie’s other heresies include the notion that violence, though sometimes necessary for a state’s defense, is ultimately soul-destroying and tends to lead only to more violence. In other words, Spielberg and Kushner have had the temerity to create a work of art rather than a piece of right-wing pro-Israel propaganda, and were they not the most prominent American Jews in their respective fields, they’d likely be kissing their careers good-bye about now.

Granted, even its harshest detractors will have a hard time maligning Munich as pro-Palestinian, given the incident denoted by its title. The movie opens with a team of gunmen from the Black September faction entering the lightly guarded dormitories at the Munich Olympics and taking the Israeli team hostage, killing two in the process. A few hours later, as the world watches, the German authorities bungle a rescue attempt, and the Palestinians respond by murdering their hostages in cold blood. Spielberg returns to this atrocity throughout the film, as if to underscore its absolute, unforgivable barbarity.

Yet Munich also shows us that this horror, like that of Sept. 11, 2001, was staged less to inflict damage than as a worldwide TV spectacle. As such, it was, sadly, an inexorable success for its sponsors; the massacre brought the Palestinian cause to the forefront of the world’s attention much as 9/11 later did for al Qaeda. Likewise, Israel’s decision to hunt down Palestinians in retaliation was not just aimed at revenge or eliminating opponents; it also sent a message to Palestinians and the world about Israel’s strategic aims and reach.

In effect, Munich subtly acknowledges that this long-running war is in large part a media war, a fact that inevitably draws into question the role of the film. Is Munich itself not a part of the war now? No doubt it is, but in this exceptional sense: Rather than arraying itself against either of the two sides, it ultimately positions itself against the violent tit-for-tat that keeps the whole infernal process in motion.

This stance does not, it should be stressed, question the Jewish state’s right to defend itself. After the Munich massacre, the movie shifts to Israel, where Prime Minister Golda Meir sets in motion the plan to eliminate the crime’s architects–an understandable response in a situation where not mounting a forceful response is unthinkable.

As part of its top-secret plan, Israel recruits a young Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana in a taut, controlled performance) who’s stripped of his official identity and all connections to the government. With a wife who’s seven months pregnant, Avner has reasons for resisting the assignment, yet the urgency of the cause compels him to accept. In Europe he is put in charge of a team of men (well played by Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Daniel Craig and Hans Zischler) who set out to track down and kill their 11 targets one by one.

In its essential form, Munich is an espionage thriller–a sort of Jewish Mission: Impossible–and watching it is indeed thrilling in all the usual senses. Aided by the elegantly noirish images of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg stages one incendiary set piece after another in ways which remind you that, as a master of action, suspense and cinematic mayhem, he has few if any equals. Through all of this, we are–as in every thriller–carried along by our identification with the five-man hit squad, rooting for them to complete their grisly assignments without screwing up or getting caught.

Yet standard thrillers allow us the easy pleasure of never questioning the unalloyed rightness of our heroes’ cause, and Kushner’s script (co-credited to Eric Roth and derived from the George Jonas book Vengeance) begins undermining that comfortable posture from early on. The first target killed by Avner and a partner is an old man coming home with his groceries; he reaches out to them before they finally pull their triggers. The milk from his bag mixes with his blood on the floor (a brilliantly sickening, consummately Spielbergian image).

The second target, it turns out, has a young daughter who happens to answer the phone that’s been planted with a bomb meant for him. But even before this happens, a feisty internal debate has begun among the five men concerning what they’re doing. Though it never prevents them from continuing their mission, it turns up a stream of questions that grow ever more discomfiting. Are the people they’re killing really those responsible for Munich? (In fact, there were several Israeli hit squads and few of their victims were high-ranking or directly connected to Munich.) Why not grab these people and whisk them to Israel for trial, like Adolf Eichmann? What about cases of mistaken identity or bad intelligence? What of innocents who get in the way?

While such moral qualms form the very heart of Munich, the film offers plenty of incidental fascinations in its portrayal of the shadow-world of Europe in the ’70s. Here’s a place, still riven by the Cold War, where American and Israeli interests are largely divergent (there’s a great scene where CIA agents prevent Avner’s team from whacking a Black September biggie who’s on their payroll), a continent roiling with violent groups like the Red Brigades, Red Army Faction, the IRA and the Basque separatists. Interestingly, Munich not only subtly disparages the jejune leftism of most such factions, but also distinguishes it from the determined nationalism of the Palestinians, which is eloquently voiced in a key scene where Avner allows one of his targets to speak his mind.

The story’s most oddly intriguing sections concern a Frenchman named Louis (wonderfully played by Mathieu Amalric) whose family sells information and assistance to Avner and similar operatives. At a beautiful estate, Louis introduces Avner to his father (Michael Lonsdale), who involves the Israeli in cooking an exquisite meal. Who are these people? My hunch is that Kushner has ventured deep into allegory-land here, and that the strange clan can be seen as representing nothing less than Christian Europe. Louis’ father expresses anger at the rough treatment inflicted on Avner’s “tribe,” and extends both help and friendship, but at the end of the day Avner is given a gentle reminder: You are not family.

When Avner leaves his team, which hasn’t completed its assignment, he is an emotional wreck who seems a million miles from any conceivable peace of mind. After he joins his wife and child in Brooklyn, the film heads toward a startling conclusion–played with the World Trade Center looming symbolically in the background–that’s likely to bring Kushner (whose hand is particularly evident here) charges of “rejecting Israel.” Yet it seems to me that the scene means only to evoke the differences and distances that separate America and Israel, which in fact means rejecting neither country but something else: the dangerous fiction that their interests are somehow identical.

And it’s not as if Kushner and Spielberg let America off the hook. While Israel continues its abominable policy of assassinating anyone it so chooses, including aged clerics in wheelchairs, America since 9/11 has ventured down a similar slippery slope, using firepower in place of diplomacy, abrogating international law, countenancing torture, trashing its own citizens’ rights in the pursuit of a chimerical sense of security. Munich captures much of this in the wide metaphorical net it casts, and with a firmness that can’t help but challenge any thoughtful viewer.

Whether you agree or disagree with its various arguments and implications, the film deserves endless credit for exhibiting a quality that we almost never associate with American movies: genuine moral courage.