by Mel Valentin
Steven Spielberg's latest film, "Munich," a political thriller constructed around the aftermath of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games by members of a Palestinian group, Black September, is, contrary to the recent "Time" magazine cover story, "Spielberg's Secret Masterpiece," one of the most disappointing films of the year, especially coming less than six months after the commercially successful and critically praised sci-fi/horror summer blockbuster, "War of the Worlds" (most critics glommed onto the superficial 9-11 references, while missing the unsubtle parallels to the invasion and occupation of Iraq by a superior military force led by the United States). Unfortunately, "Munich" is self-indulgent, unfocused, overlong, and thematically thin, betraying a director caught up in making a “statement” film instead of a compelling story compellingly told.Based, as the opening title card reminds us, “on real events,” Munich briefly covers the kidnapping of the 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinians armed with machine guns and grenades (the Palestinians demanded the release of fellow Palestinians held in Israeli jails), the standoff with a badly prepared German government, and the tragic aftermath that follows a botched rescue attempt. Spielberg mixes archival footage with dramatic reenactments of events, switching between contemporary news coverage from Olympic announcers (including, famously, Jim McKay, whose extemporaneous comments have become part of the official record). Spielberg intercuts the terrorists watching footage of the standoff on a television set, Israelis watching news coverage of the hostage crisis in Israeli, and Palestinians watching with a different set of fears and concerns on their minds. Spielberg allows viewers only brief glimpses of rapidly unfolding events, keeping the deaths of the Israeli athletes on an airport tarmac offscreen (this holds true, however, only for the prologue).
"Muddled, messy, repetitive, and overlong. In short, disappointing."
With the athletes dead and most of the Palestinian terrorists directly involved dead or captured in the failed rescue attempt, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, decides to create an extra-legal, unofficial covert action team to hunt down the Palestinian organizers behind the Munich events. The assassinations are meant to exact revenge, but their public nature is meant to garner international attention and serve as notice to the Palestinians that the Israelis will respond with violence extra-judicially. Meir and her cabinet call in a Mossad agent, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), to lead a five-member team to pursue and terminate the Munich organizers. With many of the Palestinian organizers living in Europe, Avner and his group have to enter those countries under false pretenses (and using false passports), eliminate their targets, and avoid capture or imprisonment.
Avner’s Mossad handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), gives him a crash course on running a covert team. Sworn to secrecy, Avner takes the potentially fatal, open-ended mission, leaving his pregnant wife, Daphna (Ayelet Zorer), behind. Avner’s team include Steve (Daniel Craig), a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, resolute commando, Hans (Hanns Zischler), a furniture dealer and expert document forger, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a young bomb maker, and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), whose supporting role within the team remains murky, but who later acts as moral conscience to Avner and the other men.
Munich then unfolds as a series of episodes or vignettes. Each episode focuses on the planning, preparation, and execution of each target, beginning in Rome, where their first target, a middle-aged Palestinian (and translator) makes his home. Avner and his men, however, are inexperienced, forced into improvisation by changing events or unforeseen contingencies (in part due to their being chosen for the team based on their relative inexperience and, therefore, anonymity and, in part, due to the exigencies of dramatic structure). The first assassination is up close, personal, and clumsily handled, but Avner and his men manage to escape undetected.
Avner and his team travel to Paris, where they meet their new contact, Louis (Mathieu Amalric). Louis helps Avner find the Palestinians, giving Avner their locations and arranging for lodging and logistical support in exchange for extravagant amounts of money. From there, Avner and his team travel across Europe, into Greece, Lebanon, and back to Europe, primarily using bombs to eliminate the Palestinian leaders. Concealed bombs become the weapon of choice for the team, as they offer a dramatic, public display of the Israelis’ willingness to use violence to eliminate the organizers of the Munich massacre It also allows the men to avoid the face-to-face killing that might lead them to doubt themselves or the efficacy of their mission.
After a series of procedural-based episodes, Munich abruptly turns into a morality play, with the group’s conscience, Carl, expressing his doubts about their mission in a conversation with Avner, who eventually begins to share those doubts. Avner’s conflicted conscience, however, comes well past the mid-point of the film. This tonal shift is where Spielberg and his screenwriters, Tony Kushner, and Eric Roth (working from a controversial book by George Jonas), lose general filmgoers, if they haven’t been lost already thanks to the heavy-handed, on-the-nose dialogue (including a "Munich changed everything" comment meant to echo post-9-11 thinking in the United States), the muddled storyline, or the complex issues underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict barely touched on in the screenplay.
Worse, Munich is essentially a film without a climax, and before that, a compelling dramatic conflict with a central, externalized antagonist. The inner turmoil is there, if poorly developed, but Avner trudges on, and when he finally rejoins his family, Spielberg indulges in extended, tedious scenes of a distraught, paranoid Avner (now living in Brooklyn) that go nowhere and a final scene that ends without a satisfying dramatic payoff, just a gratuitous shot of a pre-9-11 World Trade Center (presumably to remind us that terrorism has been an issue of global import for more than thirty years, while reminding us of the cycle of violence the United States has found itself in).Although Spielberg deserves credit for unflinchingly depicting the violence Avner and his men do with brutal, visceral realism, as well as reminding us of the personal costs of extra-legal killing and whether it actually serves its intended purpose of defeating terrorism when new leaders spring up immediately to replace their fallen comrades, he makes a major error by initially keeping the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes offscreen (creating the expectation that Spielberg will try to avoid unnecessarily sensationalizing the subject matter or manipulating audience sympathies for the pro-Israeli side), but then changes his mind, interspersing scenes from Munich, each scene moving us progressively closer to the athletes’ deaths, with Avner’s storyline culminating in one of the most disturbing directorial choices of his career: the grim, tragic deaths of the athletes on the airport tarmac are intercut with a sex scene. It seems to unfold as a flashback, but it shouldn’t, since Avner wasn’t present in Munich when the athletes were murdered (he was in Israel, thousands of miles away).
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originally posted: 12/23/05 14:11:53