Catch Them If You Can

Spielberg's dour tale of assassination gets lost in a morass of moral ambivalence

The war on terror is a grim business, and so is Munich, Steven Spielberg's sincerely self-important account of the assassination campaign waged by Israeli secret agents against the Palestinian group that perpetrated the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

The film is sluggish and repetitive, yet it exerts a certain clinical fascination. Munich isn't so much a dramatization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a rumination on the morality of counter-terrorism as a filmmaker's cri de coeur. More than politics, it's predicated on Spielberg's faith in the redemptive nature of Hollywood entertainment, as well as his ongoing attempt to be all things to all people—not just a macher but a mensch.

Thus, although made from an Israeli perspective, Munich doggedly seeks to humanize the Palestinian other. Nor are Mossad and Black September the only odd couple. Initially written by Eric Roth (awarded an Oscar for the quintessentially depoliticized Forrest Gump), the script was revised by Tony Kushner (who won a Pulitzer for writing the highly politicized Angels in America). American neocons and Palestinian nationalists are likely to find common ground in their objections. All are united in victimhood as Spielberg attempts to feel his way into a situation that confounds rational analysis.

A troubled blank: Bana, with Rush
photo: Karen Ballard/Universal Studios
A troubled blank: Bana, with Rush

Munich heralds itself as tragedy with a bombastic faux Jewish lament as a group of inebriated American athletes give a gang of Palestinian terrorists a leg up over the wall and into the Olympic village. There they storm the Israeli compound, shooting some athletes and holding the rest hostage. The games continue, even as the whole world watches the debacle on TV. Spielberg compresses the gist of the Oscar-winning doc One Day in September into a superbly edited McLuhanite frenzy; as with Saving Private Ryan, nothing else in the movie can match its opening.

Munich was adapted from George Jonas's 1984 Vengeance—an essentially unverifiable account of a Mossad hit squad provided by the unit's leader, known as Avner. As in Vengeance and its 1986 HBO adaptation, Sword of Gideon, Spielberg's Mossad commandos are both super-competent and morally confused. Eric Bana's Avner is a troubled blank, rendered even more so by his unit's gallery of mildly colorful types: the neurotic bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz), nervous diplomat (played as Abba Eban by Ciarán Hinds), bellicose muscle Jew (Daniel Craig), stolid forger (Hanns Zischler), and their manipulative handler (Geoffrey Rush), all primed to answer one question with another.

Avner's men are given 11 targets. However, they inadvertently kill other people, add more names to the list, and refuse to terminate the operation. (The Lillehammer fiasco in which an innocent Moroccan waiter was shot dead is not included; in Vengeance, it was blamed on another Mossad unit.) While point-blank shooting is the rule on both sides, Palestinians are humanized as nice neighbors or caring parents. Collateral damage, on the other hand, is usually reduced to some stray arms and legs.

The action ranges from Rome to Paris to Cyprus to Beirut to Athens to London, yet nobody seems to know what Avner's men are up to—except the omniscient French outfit that sells them their information. In Vengeance, this family-run spy service is known as Le Group. In Munich, they're more like Lutece, serving up pretentiously "traditional" cuisine even as they plan Avner's menu. (Turns out he's quite the chef himself.) These gourmet anarchists function as the inadvertent comic relief in what is essentially a half-baked action film, studded with philosophical raisins: "How do you think we got control of the land—by being nice?"

As the quest for vengeance continues, Munich becomes an increasingly dark and rainy nightmare, intermittently illuminated by flashes of anguish. "We're supposed to be righteous—that's a beautiful thing," the bomb maker wails even before his colleagues take it upon themselves to murder a freelance Mata Hari (Marie-Josée Croze). Avner winds up permanently haunted. "You are what we prayed for," his mother reassures him in the movie's ultimate expression of Jewish patriotism, but even she doesn't want to know just what he did.

Burdened by moral ambivalence, Munich is a tough slog through a morass of unconvincing human interactions. (At one point, Le Group tricks the Mossad men into sharing an Athens safe house with a group of PLO operatives: "You don't know what it is not to have a home," one tells Avner, as Al Green sings "Let's Stay Together" in the background.) But late in the movie, there's a moment of coarse, if undeniable, authenticity: Attacking his material with far less finesse than demonstrated in the opening sequence, Spielberg completes the circuit by flashing back one last time to bloody '72. The remaining Israeli hostages are driven to the airport and then, in a paroxysm of panicked violence, massacred by their captors.

As the German police bungled their rescue operation, so Spielberg mangles this sequence by intercutting it with Avner's agonized conjugal relations and scoring the montage with a strident reprise of the film's opening lament. Is this the filmmaker's big bang theory? His tantrum? In a textbook case of abuse, Spielberg surrenders to his own despair and lashes out . . . at the audience.

 
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