Munich Muddle

An Israeli assassin begins to question his mission. Steven Spielberg should've done the same.

"Who are you—PLO, FLN, IRA, ETA, Red Brigades, Bader-Meinhof?" The comic confusion occurs at gunpoint in an Athens dormitory for terrorists and killers, at a time when radical violence was sweeping Europe, when you could still take a gun on a plane and easily fake a passport. In Munich (which opens Friday, Dec. 23, at the Guild 45 and other theaters), Steven Spielberg and his main screenwriter, Tony Kushner, remind us how politics and terrorism were a lot more complicated, and yet less global, three decades before 9/11. Still, they draw a straight line between the 1972 Munich Olympic attack and that in Lower Manhattan in 2001. Straight, but not convincing. Munich is an enormously unwieldy and unsuccessful collaboration between Kushner the intellectual playwright (Angels in America) and Spielberg the supreme mechanic of emotion, a bad marriage between thought and action. The thinking begins soon after the televised horror in Munich, where 11 Israelis were seized by the Palestinian group Black September, then killed in a bungled West German rescue. (Spielberg seamlessly knits new footage with original broadcasts featuring Jim McKay and Peter Jennings.) No less a figure than Golda Meir declares, "Every civilization finds it necessary to make compromises with its own values." She's speaking to a secret circle of generals and Mossad agents including Avner (Eric Bana), who's recruited to lead a team of assassins, "officially unofficial," in pursuit of 11 Palestinians who helped plan the attack. The action is the most satisfying aspect of Munich, as Avner and his four diverse colleagues roam Europe to hunt down their victims. This is the early '70s— bell-bottoms and sideburns—and they sit under Cinzano parasols in open-air cafes while planning their hits. With perfect location scouting, meticulous production design, and probably no small amount of digital erasing, Spielberg re-creates the Old Europe of John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth spy novels— narrow, cobblestone streets for surveillance, tiny Fiats and Rovers as getaway cars, and huge old rotary-dial phones in which plastic explosives are packed. This latter trick is performed by Avner's bomb builder, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), who'll then detonate the device by remote control when the phone is answered by a Palestinian plotter living in Paris. Spielberg is entirely at home with the suspense here. Robert poses as a reporter to case the joint, then finds the plan complicated by the target's little girl. His assassin's smile of satisfaction melts away as he watches her practice piano. Later, of course, it's her, and not her father, who answers the phone. Will the Israelis kill an innocent in pursuit of their man? And why won't their superiors supply them with evidence of his guilt? Are they becoming terrorists themselves? These moral issues bring us back, unfortunately, to Kushner's ponderings. "ALL THIS BLOOD will come back to us," warns Robert. "We're supposed to be righteous after 1,000 years of suffering." In response, the hard-minded South African getaway driver Steve (Daniel Craig) says of the terrorists: "Unless we learn to act like them, we will never defeat them." Spielberg keeps tripping over these clunky debates, and you wouldn't mind the dialogue so much if Kushner were mounting it onstage. (Eric Roth penned the first draft.) Spielberg with sharks or dinosaurs or alien invaders works just fine. Start adding speeches, however (see Amistad, The Color Purple, and certain portions of Schindler's List), and his contraptions wind down. If there's one thing that gums up the gears of a movie camera worse than Spielberg's sentimentalism, it's Kushner's references to Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. What Kushner really wants, like the angel waiting to descend on a wire, is for Marcuse and Meir and perhaps even Gandhi to roundtable this eye-for-an-eye stuff onstage, where it belongs. The hit men are just their mouthpieces here. There's too much talking, too little killing. It's not that moral considerations don't belong on film; rather, they should be conveyed through action, not discussion. Ever the dialectician, Kushner has a somewhat sympathetic PLO guy say of the Israelis, "The world will see how they've made us into animals," but it's Spielberg who puts a gun in his hand—so, of course, Avner has no choice but to shoot him. Unlike War of the Worlds and Schindler's List, Spielberg is too soft-hearted to have innocents die—except for the Jews in Munich. You think he's going to humanize the Palestinians, but the reverse is true. After the first scenes at the Olympic Village, the film cuts back twice more to Munich, which leaves you with the final impression of Palestinians machine- gunning their bound hostages to death. Which may be historically accurate, but it's a story the Oscar-winning 1999 documentary One Day in September relates with far more focus and insight. Munich vaguely yearns for peace while skipping over the particulars of how to earn it. As with all bad Spielberg movies, logic, history, and action are ultimately crushed by the embrace of family. Poor Bana, also emotionally thwarted in Troy and Hulk, here goes in search of a father figure (his parents have split), spending much time staring through the shop window of a Paris kitchen showroom. He only wants to be home chopping vegetables for his wife and baby, whom he deposits for safety in Brooklyn. (Remaining a faithful husband even saves his life when he declines a one-night stand.) Bana still carries the killer menace of Chopper and Black Hawk Down, but Spielberg makes him wear an apron. In the end, there are about three different Spielberg movies (plus one Kushner play) incoherently stewed together here. The climactic montage—an intimate scene of Avner and wife intercut with carnage in Munich—contrasts procreation and death with a simplemindedness that's offensive, as is the final shot evoking 9/11. Yes, the cycle of violence and revenge continues today, but it didn't begin in Munich and it didn't end at the World Trade Center. A film about moral accountability, Munich fails even to justify itself.

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