'Munich' Is a Cautionary Tale, Told Cautiously

By Peter Rainer Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

'Munich' Is a Cautionary Tale, Told Cautiously


Peter Rainer Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Steven Spielberg is one of the few film directors who can make just about any movie he chooses, and so "Munich," which is about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics massacre, presumably speaks for him in a very direct and personal way. It's one of his "serious" films, stretching back to "Amistad" and "Schindler's List." Unlike most directors who attempt politically charged themes, however, Spielberg is first and foremost an entertainer with a full arsenal of cinematic skills.

This facility of his cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means that great and necessary subjects - the Holocaust, the slave trade - are brought to life in ways that are far more vivid than the usual waxworks approach. But it also means that Spielberg sometimes lets his moviemaker's instincts override the richest resonances in the material. Technique trumps depth.

There is another problem with Spielberg's serious side, and it is especially pertinent to "Munich": He has a reformer's instincts, which are admirable in a politician but can be detrimental to an artist, who almost by definition sees life in more complex colors.

As a piece of filmmaking, "Munich" is rarely less than gripping. As a political essay, as a brief against despair, it is far less convincing. Spielberg, along with his screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, wants to show us the way out of the cycle of violence in the Middle East, and in essence his answer is, "Give peace a chance."

The movie begins with the storming of the Olympic Village dormitory housing the Israelis by the extremist Palestinian group Black September. Two athletes are killed and nine are taken hostage in an effort to secure the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Twenty hours later, after a botched rescue attempt by German police, the nine hostages, as well as five terrorists and a German policeman, are killed.

Because the events unfolded live on global TV, the Munich tragedy is often referred to as the beginning of modern-day terror tactics, where media coverage is all-important. The official Israeli response was the Air Force bombing of PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon. Unofficially, Prime Minister Golda Meir dispatched a five-man commando unit, dubbed "the Wrath of God," to assassinate the surviving 11 Palestinian ringleaders of the massacre (as outlined in George Jonas's book "Vengeance," upon which "Munich" is based). It is their story that Spielberg chooses to tell.

The commandos are led by Avner (Eric Bana), a former Mossad agent and bodyguard to Meir, who leaves his pregnant wife to team with a diverse quartet that includes Steve (Daniel Craig), the most rabidly gung-ho of the bunch - "the only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood" - and Robert (Matthieu Kassovitz), a Belgian bomb expert whose growing qualms about the human cost of the operation are a harbinger of things to come. Their operations carry them across Paris, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Athens, Geneva, and Frankfurt to hunt their targets down. …

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