Steven Spielberg (2005's "War of the Worlds
"), a master technical craftsman who always knows where to place and move his camera in order to pulsate a scene to life, has made possibly his least Spielbergian film with "Munich." Based on the true story of eleven Israeli athletes who were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian rebels during the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the Mossad assassins subsequently hired to hunt down these same terrorists, the film is rife with political messages about the never-ending and unsolvable chain of war and strife between different countries and religious factions that back-and-forth violence only nurtures. The picture is more graphically violent than 1993's Holocaust masterpiece "Schindler's List"actually, it's more graphically violent than any theatrically released movie of the year. The gushers of blood, bullet holes and brain matter do help to differentiate the film from most like-minded docudrama, and Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner provocatively cover some hefty subjects as timely today as they were in 1972. What "Munich" is missing is the one thing that Spielberg has never gone without: a heart.
The opening ten minutes depicting the abduction/slaughter of the Israel athletes by an extremist group called Black September through television news reports, soundbites, and the faces of viewers watching from home is mesmerizing, electric filmmaking of the highest order. Placing the viewer right in the midst of that moment's chaos and heightened emotions benefits viewers who weren't born in 1972 or were too young to remember it. Things settle down a bit, both in quality and pacing, once the story proper gets underway. Israeli special agent Avner (Eric Bana) is approached by Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to seek retribution for the deaths of their country's athletes. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," Meir matter-of-factly states, and her values clearly involve finding and assassinating every last one of the members of the Black September group.
The top-secret mission, coordinated by a handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), forces Avner to leave his beloved wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zorer), and newborn daughter and completely drop off the radar until the assassinations are complete. Joining Avner is South African getaway driver Steve (Daniel Craig); clean, precise "cleaner" Carl (Ciaran Hinds); toymaker-turned-amateur-bomb-specialist Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); and expert forger Hans (Hanns Zischler). As their mission, fraught with close calls and missteps, approaches the one-year mark, Avner is stricken with warring emotions of patriotism for his country and people, guilt over the murders he has committed, and hopelessness over whether what he is sacrificing his life for will really solve anything in the grand scheme of things.
Based on the book, "Vengeance," by George Jonas, "Munich" is a partially fictionalized account of what happened after the very real assassinations of the Israeli athletes were carried out in early September of 1972. The film is well-made from an aesthetic, purely cinematic standpoint, and every time one's interest begins to lag there is a tense or memorably gory scene to pep things up when it's needed it most. While it may sound shallow to pinpoint the violence as one of the high points of "Munich," this is, indeed, the case. Without these gruesome depictions of human destruction at their most unblinkingly cold, the film would be consistently dry and slow-going with not much to latch on to.
Director Steven Spielberg, who never met a cloying or heart-tugging moment he didn't like, goes in the exact opposite direction with "Munich," and in this case it was a mistake. Without humanizing anyone but Avnernot the Israeli victims, not the Palestinian extremists who turn out to be average working-class men with families, not the Mossad squadthe experience of watching the film is done from the outside looking in, without any chance of connecting to or caring about the people on screen. The assassinated athletes are but ineffectual names and faces, the Palestinian group might as well be extras, and precious little discussion is afforded to getting to know any of the central men assigned alongside Avner. While Spielberg does a solid job of conveying his relevant messages without taking sides with the Jewish Israelis over the Arab Palestiniansthey are all victims of a violent circle unlikely to ever be brokenthe movie as a whole lacks the intimacy and human connection that would have helped even out its plot's overwhelming bleakness.
The only scene of genuine poignancy comes with the brutal murder of a beautiful but dangerous Dutch spy, Jeanette (Marie-Josee Croze), who previously had killed one of their own. Jeanette, like everyone else, is a killer, but enough time is spent with her in an early scene where she flirts with Avner at a bar that there is a feeling of remorse when she is shot. Staggering across the room, her body in a state of shock, Jeanette hesitates for a second when she comes to her cat, who is sitting unsuspectingly on the counter, and puts her arms around it. Silently played out but speaking volumes about the nature of one's humanity through a solitary hand motion, this one relatively small moment is more devastating than anything else in the film. In comparison, more obvious aims for character drama are unsuccessful and misguided, as in an awkward late scene where Avner's love-making to his wife is overcome by his own internal imaginings of the last moments in the Olympics athletes' lives. With an expressive face and stirring, contemplative tone, Eric Bana (2003's "Hulk
") gives a very good performance as Avner; it isn't his fault so much as the chilliness of the screenplay that keeps the viewer at arm's length from him.
"Munich," like the recent, also-flawed oil drama "Syriana
," dares to explore tough issues that have faced our world in the past and still pose life-altering conflicts today. Also like "Syriana
," "Munich" is more accomplished in its ambitions than as a deeply emotional experience because the characters have been written with such rough strokes. The final shot of a 1970s Manhattan skyline, the Twin Towers standing proud and undisturbed in the background, is penetrating and courageous, summing up with a static image what the whole of "Munich" stands for. Had the rest of the film lived up to its isolated moments of greatness, Spielberg might have had a new classic on his hands. As is, "Munich" is akin to a promising early architectural blueprint still waiting for the details to be filled in.