Spielberg Stumbles Through the Gray Areas in His New Political Thriller
Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a fascinating doorstop of 1970s political-flick fetishism. An off-the-books team of five operatives—gung-ho action man Steve (Daniel Craig); older papers forger Hans (Hanns Zischler); Belgian toy maker/explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz); veteran clean-up man Carl (Ciarán Hinds); and team leader Avner (Eric Bana), a company man so squeaky-clean he cooks—bounces around early-’70s western Europe. From Rome to Cyprus, Lebanon to London, they track down their men and take them out in lovingly acute period detail: driving Citroëns down narrows streets, conducting recon in tight flared slacks and open-collared shirts, all caught by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in a washed-out palette and fondness for the zoom lens. Michael Lonsdale, who played the dogged French detective who tracks the titular hit man in 1973’s Day of the Jackal, even shows up as Papa, a Vichy government-burned patriarch who buys and sells intel.
The problem is Munich doesn’t want to be a thriller—its tone is too conflicted to satisfy as a genre workout, and its politics are too naive to deliver the poignancy its narrative seeks. And that’s entirely due to the true events that inspired the story. The above five men are all former agents of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad. They’re covertly assigned with locating and eliminating 11 Palestinians that Mossad identifies as the operational leaders behind the Sept. 5, 1972, Black September hostage situation at the Munich Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes were killed. The entire movie unfolds under the heavy cloud of that international tragedy, stirring an already volatile counterinsurgence and radical-politics cauldron in Europe and the Middle East that, the movie posits, grows into the violent mercenary political desperation that we know as terrorism today.
Such complex, multilayered, and unstable ground isn’t Spielberg’s strong suit. Munich is another one of his Important Movies, but its reality—and the one from which we view it—is the most inchoate gray area the director has ever attempted. Recognizing the heroics and/or good and evil in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan isn’t difficult; implying such things exist in a world where Avner purchases info from Papa’s wily deal broker Louis (Mathieu Amalric) about a well-heeled Paris-based Palestinian so the team can plant an explosive in the apartment he shares with his wife and piano-playing daughter is cynically facile at best and blithely ignorant at worst.
Which isn’t to say that Munich even suggests taking sides. Spielberg, working from a script by Eric Roth (Ali) and Tony Kushner, goes to great pains not to paint anybody in a potentially bad light—for which you can probably blame/thank Kushner. The Angels in America and Slavs! playwright has spent his career exploring the so-called moral responsibilities of people in politically volatile times, locating the question of history—and what to do with it—as the proverbial elephant in the room, always crowding the present. And, for better and worse, Kushner’s knack for social debate as interpersonal dialogue pitches softball after softball of quasi-political discussion, locating the “whatever it takes” hard-line stance in Avner’s mother (representing the World War II-displaced survivor), letting Avner and Arab operative Ali (Omar Metwally) calmly debate the pros and cons of Israeli-Palestinian guerrilla actions over a cigarette, and resting the entire burden of supposedly justifiable vengeance on the capable, if overburdened, shoulders of Bana’s nuanced performance.
In many ways, the visual story Munich courses through is more compelling than its verbal one. Early on Spielberg frames one of the Black September terrorists walking onto the Olympic Village balcony as a foregrounded TV shows the same image from actual, infamous newsreel footage that reported the event. Munich’s entire running time is dedicated to these plural views of history, indulging in every alternative POV it can muster along the way. The actual horror of the Munich hostages unfolds in three flashbacks construed as Avner’s dreams, their narrative purpose changing with each instance. What starts as his motivation to undertake this mission becomes, as he envisions the hostages’ final minutes while having sex with his wife, a scene of both cruelly manipulative masochism and bluntly corny bullshit. Worse is the final meeting between Avner and his Mossad handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), which transpires in a Brooklyn park with a Twin Tower-skylined Manhattan looming across the river, a none-too-subtle visual bridge between early-1970s terrorism proliferation and Sept. 11. Even so, Munich doesn’t have anything to say about any of this. The only point it manages to make with all its governmental hand wringing, taut assassination plotting, and simple debates is that the emotional, political, psychological, and human fallout of blood-for-blood retaliation is a violence cycle with no end—and g-d, Allah, or whomever help the fool who needs a movie to tell them that.