The most surprising thing about Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” a conversation piece long before it even got out of production, is the limpness with which it lands. There’s something trumped-up about the whole enterprise that actually renders it less substantial — scenes milking the extra second before an explosion, assassins debating ethics with improbable gravitas and, of course, the very hype surrounding the film’s release. Imagine a scene that combines a terrorism flashback with sex, and ask if it could possibly whip us into more emotional froth. Then add an opera score, as the film does.
Spielberg has never been one to ease off the schmaltz button, and it would be naive to think he’d change now. “Munich” is a film that painfully wants to be heard, so painfully that it shouts its prescription at every turn. But to listen to its cry is to be struck by a strange absence of meaning.
Let’s dispense with the necessary: “Munich” is not a pro- or anti-Israel movie, any more than “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a pro- or anti-alien movie. In telling of the strike against the Black September leaders who planned the 1972 Olympic attacks, the film does have a message about how Israel should operate –– one that will clearly make some Israelis uncomfortable –– but it doesn’t question the country’s basic right to exist and defend itself.
But more on politics later. The movie begins by dropping us into the titular city during the attack, which Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski film with a hint of vérité, the camera’s unease mirroring the accompanying global jitteriness. If the bloody sequences (like those that follow in flashback) feel fetishistic, they also have a perverse grandeur that sets up the need for retribution.
Back in Israel, that retribution is coming together. In a disconcertingly cozy living room, Golda Meir presides over her intelligence team. The strong but silent (un-Israeli?) Avner Kauffman — played competently, if in screaming need of an accent coach, by Australian Eric Bana — is given a choice: He can leave behind his pregnant wife to travel to Europe for a retaliation mission, or he can turn his back on…his country? his patriot-hero father? some other motive? It’s never made clear. Avner accepts his mission, of course, and soon he and his mates are given money and vague directions.
Even with muddled information that leads to Clouseau-ish moments — the film illustrates nicely how intelligence often gets conducted in the dark — they kill a few plotters. The assassinations are played with a maximum of suspense to no particular end. There’s something manipulative about having the young daughter of a target answer a phone that’s set to explode; it uses an unknown child first to work us into an artificial cringe, and then offers an equally manufactured relief when she’s saved. (Sorry for the spoiler, but of course a Spielberg child would never be hurt.)
And so it goes, a film that manages to be very intense without being particularly good. Soon, the Palestine Liberation Organization begins striking back, first against innocents and then against the team. Spielberg suavely uses the indirection of an off-screen news report to inform of these attacks, as if to suggest that the consequences of the team’s actions exist only at the edge of their consciousness — that to effectively carry out assassinations, one must tune out everything, even threats to one’s survival. But what we also don’t see is how much Spielberg plays fast and loose with causality: One of the supposed consequences of the assassinations, a deadly Black September attack the Athens airport in 1973, has never been linked by historians to the Israeli retaliations. (Moreover, the film is based on “Vengeance,” a disputed book that purports to show the Israeli team haunted by its actions.) Some may argue that the film fictionalizes to serve its cautionary lesson. But when you start monkeying with such biggies as motive and consequence, you’re crossing a line.
As characters zip around the world in a kind of Jewish “Alias,” they find time to ponder the ethical limits of counter-terrorism and what obligations/exemptions apply to the Jewish state, all delivered from Tony Kushner’s and Eric Roth’s wonderfully lyrical, if declamatory, script. Phrases like “Butcher’s hands, gentle souls” and “All the blood comes back to us” slide off characters’ tongues. It’s eloquent stuff, but after a while the alternating chaos and pathos grows tiring. In the middle of yet one more exchange of gunfire, you might be tempted to close your eyes and wait for the movie to tell you how it all ends; all the energy spent setting up the clues never leads anywhere.
What Spielberg seems to have wanted is a morality play –– a warning about the dangers of emotions in politics, especially Israeli politics. Which brings us back to the Zionism question. There’s been some advance speculation in the media that the movie would be decidedly pro-Israel, but it’s a hard case to make, unless you consider the very decision to show Israeli retaliation as a kind of political pornography meant to get the faithful off on the sight of dead terrorists, absent the inhibiting effect of morals or context.
But to worry that the movie has an anti-Israel message –– as some observers and leaders in the Jewish community have –– is similarly to miss the point. The film does rebuke Israeli hawkishness, but that isn’t its primary concern. All that seems to matter to Spielberg is that violence begets violence. The rest is commentary.
As it happens, that commentary –– the how and why of violence and its effects –– can be profound and relevant, and one wishes for more of it here. For all the seesawing between Arab and Israeli horrors, the film never packs the punch of moral ambiguity. It’s a thin line between sly equivocation and preachy mush, and Spielberg can never seem to get out of the way of his own wan message.
That the message comes in 1970s wrapping doesn’t help. Why in the name of the International Olympic Committee was a movie about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict set exclusively in this era? Certainly it’s a production coup; the loud brown suits and washed-out tableaus are a delight. But I suspect something more subtle: an attempt to isolate the argument’s strains from modern prejudices. Sadly, this is the film’s great cop-out. A more ambitious movie about the Israelis and Palestinians would have shown them as they live today, humanized, with all the attendant cinematic (and commercial) risks and payoffs. “Munich” wants to float above the fray, disengaged from the modern world while still claiming the authority to comment on it. (The setting also leaves it open to anachronism: A poignant and funny scene in which Palestinian and Israeli strike forces meet is ruined by an all-too-modern discussion of Palestinian statehood.)
By the last quarter the film completely unravels, going from a plea for peace to a character study of a man betrayed by his government. Even if we hadn’t seen it before, it would feel false. An agent this seasoned –– even in a more innocent time in Israeli history –– shouldn’t be this wide-eyed.
In a recent interview, Spielberg said that he didn’t want to make another “Raid on Entebbe,” the Charles Bronson vehicle that whiffs of propaganda. Spielberg’s movie distinguishes itself from that pulp, but is no less binary in its way. In setting up a world where there are those who get the conflict’s pointlessness and those (fools) who don’t, he has simply swapped one form of simple-mindedness for another.
Late in the film, when the strike team, on a lark, kills an agent who killed one of its own, the mission becomes its own end, running on a logic separate from, even antagonistic to, the original goal. There is something important poking through here, not just about the loss of innocence but also about the (possibly controversial) interchangeability of hunter and hunted in a fraught ecosystem. But the ideas never develop teeth, and the drama isn’t chilling enough to make up the difference. At the end of nearly three hours, “Munich” amounts to little more than a stylish bumper sticker — well meaning and eye catching but ephemeral, a deceptively slight work that dissolves in its own seriousness.
Steven Zeitchik is a staff writer at Variety.