Munich, Steven Spielberg’s latest thriller, is operatic and epic — with all the pros and cons those descriptions entail.
The expertly paced film about Israel’s alleged assassination retaliation against Palestinian terrorism at the 1972 Olympics is packed with stylish sequences of tension. Spielberg’s camera crawls and creeps around corners to give us the lay of the land and it’s stealthy spy filmmaking that calls to mind greats of the 1970s such as The Day of the Jackal.
Courtesy of Tony Kushner and Eric Roth’s screenplay, there also are penetrating laments for its characters’ faith, mercy and morality. Their hesitance, skepticism and concern for collateral damage keep the assassination scenes from growing repetitive. And there is an understated melancholy in the way that what begins as a quest of nationalistic honor for this five-man hit squad becomes numbing protocol with dwindling tethers to home.
Understated, that is, until it becomes one of those Important Spielberg movies — with the same Metaphor 101 visuals and dialogue, daddy-abandonment issues (here from two characters) and a reliably bad ending. Its filmmaking tricks and tropes only call attention to how messily the film attempts to reconcile its myriad ideas.
The massacre in Munich — in which Israeli athletes were taken hostage, then murdered, by Palestinian terrorists — opens the movie. Well, sort of. This graphic, gripping montage largely is broken up throughout as flashbacks that serve largely to show how good Spielberg is at dissolving one image into another and to distract from how bad he is at filming sex scenes.
“Every civilization finds a way to compromise its own values,” says Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir, as the nation’s politicos struggle to concoct a secret plan of bloodshed while keeping up the appearance of neutrality.
The result is a five-man team headed by Avner (Eric Bana), an Israeli intelligence star who goes off the books to track and kill the Palestinian moneymen said to have funded Munich. Joining him are gung-ho second-in-command Steve (Daniel Craig), bomb builder Robert, finance-minded Hans (Hanns Zischler) and Carl (an excellent Ciaran Hinds), who, asked of his specialty, says, “I worry.”
Fed names by an expensive, “ideologically promiscuous” whistleblower (a scene-stealing Michael Lonsdale), the team embarks on its globetrotting mission. But as the hits become cheaper, so do their seeming value to the homeland and the hosannas about duty for country coming from their handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush).
After a botched bombing, and the intimate murder of one of their own, paranoia burrows into the team’s brains as they wonder whether their whistleblower might also be selling them out.
Munich is best when it uses the idea of violence to erode the concept of comfort from the idea of what “home” means for Avner: his discussion in a safe house where only convincing lies and accents create an uneasy truce between the team and a Palestinian Liberation Organization squad; his spiritual displacement from Israel even as low-level Army men revere his black-ops success; his insistence on booby traps, fed by fear that the next audible footfall could be the last thing he hears. He’s a specter to his nation, as his nation is becoming to him, and the roiling mental torture of that idea would be fine without the visual of making Avner look like a ghost in the film’s third act.
It’s much less fascinating when exploring the global ramifications of what’s going on, especially a final image that would suggest a link of the film’s events to how terrorism has hollowed out the world’s nerves today. Spielberg might be the first filmmaker since 9-11 to digitally insert the Twin Towers into a film, but it feels like uneasy reliance on an easy image in order to tell us something we’ve known since that tragic day — that the hydra head of terrorism continues to grow back.
In Munich, Spielberg introduces us to compelling characters that communicate the only way they know how — speaking a language of violence and conversing through casualty. His admirably over-ambitious movie is never quite able to fully verbalize its personal and political stories.