Steven Spielberg described Munich as his “prayer for peace,” yet his movie strangely lacks the eloquence and yearning of a prayer. On the one hand, there’s no better director in the world when it comes to depicting violence and the moral consequences thereof. Spielberg has a genius for conveying the physical dimensions of violence in all their raw and immediate intensity. In Schindler’s List, Spielberg seemed to be channeling documentary footage of Polish ghettoes and concentration camps along with his own uncanny instincts for staging and editing; archival WW2 battle footage informed much of Saving Private Ryan’s de-saturated aesthetic; in Munich, Spielberg’s action sequences feel like an intermeshing of television news footage of Mideast guerilla warfare by way of Michael Mann’s Heat. along with their more immediate pulsations of fear and grief. However, he can’t get his arms (or his head?) around the deeper, more complex issues implied by his characters, stories, and themes. But if Spielberg wants to carve out a legacy as a Humanist Filmmaker, then I’m afraid he’s at a loss.
In Munich, Spielberg gives us Avner (Eric Bana), a Israeli secret service operative who’s assigned to hunt down members of Black September, a Palestinian terror group that murdered a contingent of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Avner and his assassination squad take off from Jerusalem to various European metropolises where they systematically track down and kill several of their targets. The narrative’s picaresque seek-and-destroy nature lends it the guise of an espionage thriller from the early ’70s. Indeed, it’s miraculous how whole sections of Munich so atavistically conjure up memories of The French Connection and Three Days of the Condor, to name only two. This is a kind of cinema magic that only Spielberg is capable of–that is, paying a kind of stylistic homage to a bygone genre pertinent to the given story while, at the same time, infusing his own trademark aesthetic of gliding cameras, quick-cut editing and rack focus tricks to guide the capricious attentions of multiplex audiences. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, and sound designer Ben Burtt all weave their particular magic to bring Spielberg’s vision alive, paying particular attention to the hyper-realism of image and sound that render Spielberg’s handling of violence so soul-stirringly effective. There are gunfights and explosions in Munich that give us–a generation raised on television–instant recall of Beirut, Palestine, Bosnia, up through Manhattan on September 11th.
The fluency and ease with which Spielberg can move his audience through a space and across scenes is proof enough that no director since Hitchcock has wielded such authority over what’s in and between shots. For all its mastery, however, Munich utterly fails as a story of substance and, even more so, as a humanist tract. Together with screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (adapting a novel by George Jonas), Spielberg’s narrative, for its stylistic persuasiveness, feels oddly mechanical and impersonal. If this is meant to be about Avner’s moral awakening or his disillusionment, the script seems hardly up to the task. What we get for the movie’s first ninety minutes is a blow-by-blow of Avner and his group’s process of bad-guy elimination, with the requisite bickerings and tensions fraught in all tight-knit groups. And while the movement across the narrative is capably handled, what the script can’t adequately give us is a sense of the slow attrition of Avner’s convictions. Through and through, he’s a company man–lockstep with his Israeli superiors–and a family man, anxious for the arrival of his and his wife’s new baby. What Spielberg needed was to bring this man to the brink of all that he firmly believes in, then take us through the freefall of him questioning those very beliefs.
We do get a sense, by story’s end, that Avner’s values are up for grabs, but what were the pitstops to his getting there? That’s where the heart of such a story lies, and Munich is either too preoccupied with its espionage elements or hiding behind them, incapable of confronting Avner’s metamorphosis directly and honestly. Instead, with episodic efficiency, Spielberg takes us through the turns of Avner’s story but never do we see Avner–even in private–openly challenging or turning his back on his mission. Of course, too much liberty with the material–this is based on facts, after all–would’ve been inappropriate. But, more than the facts of this grisly story, what I wanted were the truths surely roiling beneath Avner’s resolute surface. Munich’s publicity would have us believe that this movie is something of a statement by its maker, a cause for open dialogue on the Israel-Palestine issue. But there is nothing so substantial on that subject in Munich that I couldn’t gather from a network news story on terrorism and its eye-for-an-eye, state-sanctioned aftermath.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner, Eric Roth
Cast: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zorer, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler