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Don't Believe the Pre-Oscar Hype

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 the Palestinian group Black September is, contrary to the recent Time magazine cover story proclaiming it as "Spielberg's Secret Masterpiece", one of the most disappointing films of the year. Compared to 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), which opened six months earlier, Munich is self-indulgent, unfocused, overlong, and thematically thin, betraying a director caught up in making a "statement" film instead of a compelling story.

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 an ill-prepared German government, and the tragic aftermath of a botched rescue attempt. Spielberg mixes archival footage with dramatic reenactments of the events, switching between contemporary news coverage from Olympic announcers (including, famously, Jim McKay, whose extemporaneous comments have become part of the official historical record). Spielberg intercuts the terrorists watching footage of the standoff on a television set, Israelis watching news coverage of the hostage crisis in Israel, and Palestinians watching with a different set of fears and concerns on their minds. Spielberg allows us only brief glimpses of the unfolding events, cutting away from or skipping over key events, including, at least for the prologue, the deaths of the Israeli athletes on an airport tarmac.

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, decide to create an extra-legal, unofficial covert action team to hunt down the organizers of the plot on Munich. The assassinations are meant to exact revenge, but their public nature is meant to garner international media attention and prove to the Palestinians that the Israelis will answer violence with violence. Meir and her cabinet call in a Mossad agent, Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), to lead a five-member team to pursue their goals. With many of the Palestinian leaders living in Western Europe, Avner and his group have to enter those countries illegally, 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 and forced into improvisation by changing events or unforeseen contingencies. 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, 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. 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 that go nowhere. The final scene is supposed to remind us that terrorism has been an issue of global import for more than thirty years, but it is not a satisfying dramatic payoff.

Although Spielberg deserves credit for unflinchingly depicting the violence Avner and his men commit with brutal, visceral realism and reminding us of the personal costs of covert killing, he makes a major error by initially keeping the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes off screen. Furthermore, Avner's storyline culminates 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 feverish Avner has sex with his wife. Not a good move.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars