Assassins and killers

Speilberg's new film an uneasy melding of action thriller and ethical drama

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You can tell a director thinks his film is really important when he turns a two-hour story into a three-hour ordeal. Whether it’s artistic indecision or overindulgence, these movies exhaust the patience and bladders of their audiences. If elaborate, multifaceted films like Syriana and Crash can deliver the goods in two hours, there’s no reason King Kong, The Producers, The New World and Munich can’t do likewise.

Steven Spielberg’s latest effort has been the subject of much political brouhaha before it even opened. Pundits like New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks are lining up to express their outrage over its ethical subtext without any consideration for the film itself. Why? Because Spielberg and his screenwriters (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) dare to suggest that the unrelenting violence in the Middle East is perpetuated by actions on both sides of the conflict. Though flawed, Munich is a provocative dissection of political retribution, one unlike anything the celebrated director has done in the past — but it’s hardly worth the vein-popping rhetoric of editorialists.

Adapted from George Jonas’ 1984 novel Vengeance (also made into the 1986 HBO drama Sword of Gideon), the film is a mostly fictional account of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and the aftermath of reprisals. The movie follows the five Mossad agents sent to hunt down and execute 11 individuals associated (some rather loosely) with the Olympics killings.

The team is led by Avner (Eric Bana), a troubled question mark of a man who follows his murderous orders but broods over their implications. His hit squad consists of a high-strung bombmaker (Mathieu Kassovitz), a levelheaded crime-scene “cleaner” (Ciarán Hinds), a soft-spoken forger (Hanns Zischler) and the muscle (Daniel Craig). Each is a quickly sketched personality that adds color but not substance to the proceedings. Geoffrey Rush is their “handler,” keeping the group focused when their mission becomes morally confused.

It’s an uneasy fit: Globetrotting spy thriller meets ethical drama. But Spielberg seems to have absolute faith that Hollywood can offer the audience both redemption and entertainment. Unfortunately, he falls short on both fronts.

Spielberg’s approach is novel: Build suspense from the vantage point of assassins as they carry out their intricately choreographed hits. Unfortunately, this becomes highly repetitive, losing vitality and momentum with each mission. By the 90-minute mark, when only three of the targets have been eliminated, the audience might begin to despair, wondering if it’ll be forced to slog through all 11 murders.

Circumstances grow messier as the group inadvertently kills other people, adds targets to their list and suffers reprisals. The idea that violence — even justified violence — corrupts both its victims and perpetrators is certainly worthy of examination. How we struggle to maintain our morality while employing immoral behavior is always timely ... particularly now, given our present “war on terror.”

At one point in the film, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Munich asks if those compromises are worth it, and what they ultimately accomplish. The three-hour answer is — more violence. There’s an unmistakable sense of self-importance at work here. Spielberg tackles some murky issues of ethics, but overvalue their contribution to the conversation.

While never suggesting that terrorists and counterterrorists stand on the same moral ground, the film seeks to humanize the Palestinian targets, presenting them as both victims and perpetrators. It’s boggy terrain, and Spielberg’s pat ruminations seem too rational. Avner’s interactions with characters on both sides of the issue are unconvincing and, at times, inappropriately quaint. Still, Spielberg is far too good a director to completely fail in his mission. Though he often loses track of the big picture, he’s a master at creating memorable set pieces. The movie’s opening is a brilliant, fluid mix of authentic TV footage and fictional action sequences detailing Black September’s haphazard hostage-taking.

Later in the film, the director quietly unnerves the viewer with the group’s revenge murder of a beautiful female assassin. The young woman stumbles through her home, before flopping onto a chair to die. When her robe falls open, Avner covers her naked body. A colleague yanks it back open, leaving her exposed. It’s a moment of spite that haunts him later on, illustrating how everyone loses a bit of his soul to violence.

Munich might have worked better if Spielberg had put less effort into the message and more effort into shaping an effective and entertaining thriller. With just the right shading of moral complexity (and a shorter running time) he could have delivered an exciting film that challenges you to think, rather than a thoughtful film that fails to excite.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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