Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” is most effective in calling to mind “The Day of the Jackal,” a much better movie released in 1973. “Jackal” was inspired by a bungled 1962 attempt on the life of French President Charles de Gaulle by the OAS, a group of outlaw French army officers. The movie’s concept held little intrinsic suspense: de Gaulle lived on for another eight years, so it was clear that the fictional assassination attempt in the film would have to fail.
What was gripping about the picture was its intense concentration on the stalking of de Gaulle by a shadowy assassin called the Jackal — his acquisition of false identity papers, his designing of special weaponry, his meticulous planning for the hit. Set against him was an equally resourceful French police inspector named Lebel. The story had a satisfying clarity: one seemingly unstoppable bad guy versus one determined good guy. The movie is a classic thriller.
Spielberg’s new picture is too high-minded, supposedly, to offer such vulgar gratification. It, too, was inspired by a real-life incident: the killing of 11 Israeli athletes during an attack by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The focus of the film, however, is on the aftermath of that event, in which the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, sent out assassination teams of its own to track down and terminate the terrorists and their enablers. Whether this actually happened the way Spielberg’s movie says it did is a matter of some dispute. (“Munich” is based on a 1984 book called “Vengeance,” by George Jonas, which has been dismissed as fanciful by former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, and criticized as “full of mistakes” by the man who actually planned the Munich terrorist attack, Mohammed Daoud.)
In any case, the movie has a dramatic problem right from the beginning. There are too many good guys and too many bad guys, and none of them are especially interesting. Eric Bana, who plays Avner, the leader of one of the Israeli teams, is too mild a presence to be convincing as a hard-boiled intelligence officer, especially when he’s cooing over the phone to his faraway wife and baby daughter. And the other members of his team — a getaway driver (Daniel Craig), a document-forger (Hanns Zischler), a bomb specialist (Mathieu Kassovitz) and a “clean up” man (Ciaran Hinds) — don’t really make much of an individual impression. (Their lethal techniques are less than fascinating, too — they set a bomb and boom, something explodes.) As for the nominal bad guys, the Arabs, some of them are sympathetically depicted — one is a poet, another has a sweet little girl whose life is threatened by the Israelis’ targeting of her dad — but their main function in the story is to be blown up or shot down in various colorful locales. (The movie races around Europe from London and Paris to Frankfurt, Rome, Athens and beyond.)
Spielberg’s determination to show that the good guys aren’t all good, and that the bad guys aren’t all bad, hobbles the picture’s dramatic thrust — the blurring of its basic conflict, however nobly intended, turns it into a thriller with no one to really root for, and thus no real thrills. The Israeli team comes to question the moral implications of its own terrorist mission. (“Jews don’t do wrong because others do wrong,” one disillusioned member says.) And a young Arab gets to make the case for a Palestinian homeland, and to point out that the Israelis have also killed many innocent people over the years. (“Do you think the Palestinians invented it?”) To anyone familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none of this is likely to qualify as an electrifying insight.
“Munich” is thus a muddle, and it bogs down completely at the end, in an extended coda set in Brooklyn, where Avner is reunited, at great length, with his wife and child. (In a movie that’s way too long at more than two-and-a-half hours, this flaccid sequence cries out for cutting.) The picture does have some tangy supporting performances by Geoffrey Rush, as a Mossad honcho, and Michael Lonsdale (one of the stars of “The Day of the Jackal”) and Mathieu Almaric as father-and-son French intelligence-traffickers. There’s also a funny scene in which an Israeli and an Arab face off over what music to tune in on a radio. (They find common ground in Al Green!) And of course any film shot by veteran Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is bound to look pretty great. But the picture is limp and conflicted: Is it a thriller? Is it a poli-sci lecture? It seems lost in thought, and not very deep thought at that.
Spielberg’s attempt to stage-manage an atmosphere of hushed media reverence for the release of “Munich” has been unusually pretentious. (His unctuous solemnity is especially annoying given the inclusion in his film of a scene in which a pretty, bare-breasted woman is shot in the chest, and then, post-mortem, has her robe flipped open to display her genitalia.) Much was made of the director’s lofty decision to do only one major promotional interview for the picture, in the December 12th issue of Time magazine. But it was a self-serving strategy. The interview was conducted by Time film critic Richard Schickel, who collaborated with Spielberg on a 2000 TV documentary called “Shooting War”; in an advance assessment of “Munich,” Schickel called his friend’s new picture “a very good movie.”
In the Time interview, Spielberg characterized “Munich” as “a prayer for peace” (not much of a recommendation for a movie, actually). Of course, millions of people more directly affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been praying for peace for a very long time. And it so happens that peace in that particular arena has never seemed so real a possibility as it does at this particular moment. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently noted, in a hopeful survey of the situation, the bloody, four-year-long Palestinian Intifada has come to an end; the Israelis have withdrawn from Gaza; and the Palestinians now, at last, have their own state. All of this has been accomplished without the intercession of Steven Spielberg, whose movie seems, in comparison, a puny thing.
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