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MUNICH (R) (2005)

Universal Pictures

Official Site

Director: Steven Spielberg

Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, Steven Spielberg, Colin Wilson

Written by: Tony Kushner, Eric Roth

Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zorer, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Amalric, Moritz Bleibtrau, Yvan Attal, Lynn Cohen


Steven Spielberg has reached a level of unimpeachable technical mastery: Munich was shot and assembled in six months, but its craft is perfect. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s technique outpaces his source, as it so often does, going up here against a script by Forrest Gump hack Eric Roth and Angels In America didact Tony Kushner. Unevenly splitting the difference between vintage ’70s thriller and message-mongering, the pair come up with plenty of clunkers that aim for stylized eloquence but fall into overwriting instead. Character development is reduced to brute statements like “Your mother abandoned you to a kibbutz. Now you think Israel is your mother.” The political message-mongering can only fall even more flat.

Though the opening comes cloaked in somber strings and ethnic female vocal wailing, sobriety does not prevent the first 90 minutes from being on par with Spielberg’s best work. Deftly reconstructing the Palestinian hostage-taking/killings of the 1972 Olympics through a seamless blend of ABC’s coverage and new re-creations, the film moves swiftly towards vengeance: Golda Meir (Cohen) convenes her cabinet and dispenses with moral scruples. The TV reads out the name of the 11 victims, intercut with the cabinet lining up photos and names of 11 terrorists involved in the event: parallelism is established for the killings that are about to follow (or, as Leon Wieseltier would have it in his pre-emptive attack on the film, it begins “to look ominously like the sin of equivalency” between the Palestinians and Israelis—something that The New Republic, along with official representatives of Israel, have condemned the film for). The cabinet calls on Mossad agent Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana, still flexing muscles left over from Hulk and Troy and first seen clenching and unclenching his fist—Mossad smash!) to run off to a secret Swiss bank account, convene a team of experts (one for weapons, one for clean-up, and so on), and start killing people.

For a while, Munich jogs along nicely as an ersatz-’70s thriller, complete with immaculate period design and a Eurotrip feel (even if the film is clunky enough to establish that it’s moved to Paris by showing the Eiffel Tower in the background, what matters is the dirty bridge and food market in the foreground) and plenty of uses of the zoom lens. (Weird technical glitch in an otherwise flawless production: Spielberg’s DP of the last 12 years, Janusz Kaminski, still has a weird fetish for overlighting. In one scene, the light flares so much that Geoffrey Rush’s glasses blow out the film when they catch sun’s rays.) It begins to seem like Spielberg is running laps around the dire premise of another “serious” film on par with Amistad, tragic source material aside, but it’s not to be. Violence begets violence, and morality lessons from characters spelling that out beget tedium; the film elides a third act entirely, settling instead for a slow decline into paranoia and guilt for Bana. The nadir of this comes in the penultimate scene, where Bana has sex with his wife (Zorer) but can only envision Palestinians killing Olympic athletes; the exact connection is, to put it kindly, tenuous.

To restate the obvious: Spielberg’s “pop” films can be (and frequently are) deadly serious: War Of The Worlds raised some ire with its invocations of 9/11, Minority Report allegorically addressed the whole notion of “pre-emptive strike” just as the nation was buckling down to war, and so on. But in the face of documented historical reality, he blanches and loses his nerve, resorting to the unimaginative and sentimental: War Of The Worlds was chilly and non-comforting in its portrayal of panic on the streets, but Munich doesn’t hesitate to threaten to endanger the lives of children as the ultimate threat to audience sympathies. No children die, of course; a main suspense set piece almost kills a young girl. Bana may feel bad about killing Palestinians, but what really makes him tear up is hearing his absent daughter’s voice over the phone, and so on. Even more facile is Spielberg’s/Kushner’s strategy for humanizing the assassination targets: They never appear until just moments before their deaths, where they do something humane and lovable like call their daughters or strike up a friendly conversation with Bana. This strategy is repeated ad nauseam, and it’s never more than schematic.

Short-lived political controversies aside, Munich is a didactic parable (coming from the author of Angels In America, that’s not terribly surprising) that serves both as a plea to stop the cycle of killing in the Middle East and an obvious screed against the War on Terror: Violence is an endless cycle and so forth. Didacticism has little to do with aesthetics though, and Munich is a lopsided piece of work, dazzling at first but eventually spiraling into a lecture of platitudes.

—Vadim Rizov

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