Killing is wrong, no matter what the motivation, since we're all human beings. That's the message of Steven Spielberg's Munich, so you can skip the extraordinarily muddled, inept and in some ways offensive new film. Spielberg, in portentous and preachy mode, proves that a great deal of talent to entertain does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with political sophistication or original thinking. This movie fails on so many levels that if someone who had never seen any of Spielberg's work were to see it, he would never guess that Spielberg had ever made a good film, or might make one in the future. The simplistic moral bookkeeping in Spielberg's highly speculative account of the Mossad agents who killed those responsible for the 1972 massacre of the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics makes films such as Jaws and E.T. look like Kierkegaard.
By now you've probably read that the film is very much an apology for Arab terror groups. Knowing how many millions Spielberg donates to organizations in Israel each year, I found it hard to believe - until I actually saw the film. The movie opens with the Munich massacre, and revisits that event in increasing detail as the film progresses. In the beginning, Spielberg (who is big on recreating spectacle) painstakingly shows the media circus that erupted as world news organizations scrambled to cover the incident. As the names and photos of the murdered athletes are shown one by one, we see the tearful reactions of their relatives. Then, immediately following this, photos of the terrorists are shown and their names are read as their relatives cry.
The two sets of grieving family members are presented as mirror images of one another. It would be as if a film about 9/11 were to focus as much on the grief of the families of the terrorists who hijacked the planes as on those mourning their 3,000 victims. And speaking of 9/11, surely it's no coincidence that in the last shot of the movie, Avner (Eric Bana), head of the Mossad counter-terror squad, talks with his Mossad handler Efraim (Geoffrey Rush) while walking through Brooklyn, where he has fled out of disgust with Israel. Guess what building suddenly looms in the background? Yes, the World Trade Center. We get a good long look at it. So Spielberg opens by finding absolute parity between the Israeli Olympic hostages and their PLO murderers, and ends by making a reference to 9/11. What is his point, that the Mossad's revenge killings led to the 9/11 attacks? It's hard to imagine what else he might mean. After the 1972 massacre, the scene moves to a meeting of the Israeli cabinet. The film opens with the disclaimer, "Inspired by true events" rather than "Based on a true story," and the dialogue that screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, who based the movie on the much-criticized book Vengeance by George Jonas, wrote for this cabinet meeting rings especially false. The most-quoted lines from the movie are spoken by Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) in this scene, where she says, "Forget peace, for now we have to show them we're strong" and "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."
Oddly, in the midst of all this heavy-handed speechifying, no one ever raises the idea - perhaps proven wrong by now but one that might have seemed plausible then - that killing those responsible might deter the PLO from trying more attacks. No, this is all about a civilized nation making moral compromises that destroy its soul; intelligent reasoning has no place here.
Once the film establishes that the Israeli government has descended a slippery moral slope, there's nothing to do but let the killing begin. To this end, Meir and her cronies recruit Avner, a bewildered young Mossad agent, to kill the 11 Palestinians who Efraim, his handler, says are responsible for the massacre. Efraim, who like all the characters in the movie is not especially well developed, gives him his instructions: A team has been assembled, money will be placed in a Swiss deposit box, most of the 11 are living in Europe, etc. Avner is excited about his mission, not realizing (as we in the audience do) that it won't be the life-affirming lark that whatever he's been doing for the Mossad up to now has been.
The bulk of the movie settles down into an almost traditional spy format, with a crucial difference. In an ordinary spy movie, when the bad guys get blown away, you are supposed to cheer. Here, there are no good or bad guys, only tormented ones, and every killing adds to the moral decay of Avner's squad. It's almost like a movie about the spread of a disease. For a couple of minutes, it resembles the beginning of Ocean's 11 as the team of experts is assembled. Daniel Craig looks good in his tight Seventies T-shirts and jeans as Steve, a South African who says, "The only blood I care about is Jewish blood." Ciaran Hinds (an Irish actor who plays a lot of villains) is Carl the clean-up man, whose only role seems to be picking up bullet casings after assassinations. Hanns Zischler is Hans, a document forger, and French director Mathieu Kassovitz plays Robert, a bomb expert.
Then there's Avner, the cipher at the center of it all. Eric Bana does his best to give the character a personality, but there's not much he can do, given the absurdities of the script. He's saddled with a pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer, the star of Nina's Tragedies) who provides some unsubtle speculation about his psychological motivations. The son of a war hero, Avner was abandoned by his mother as a child; "Now you think Israel is your mother," his wife says. In an attempt to give Avner something to do in the many scenes in which the five men debate the morality of their actions, the filmmakers made Avner a cook. He shops for produce in lovely European markets and, during the endless conversations, keeps busy chopping and dicing for feasts that no one will consume, since they are too tortured about their mission.
In terms of portraying that mission, Spielberg has created the five most inept assassin/spies in the history of movies. You don't need espionage experience to know that after you shoot the guy next to the elevator of his apartment building, you don't run away, you walk. They misjudge the strength of the explosives and nearly kill each other and many bystanders. They run back and forth between phone booths and bulky getaway cars. In an extended sequence, they nearly kill the lovely daughter of a Paris-based PLO official. The girl, who is a long-haired, big-eyed, piano-playing scene stealer dressed in a school uniform, underscores the message: Even in the best-planned hit, you can end up offing a cutie. And, in an extended subplot, they pay $600,000 for information on each name on their list to a bizarre French father-and-son duo who make a big show of refusing to sell information to the representatives of any government.
The holes in this subplot are glaring. For one thing, the French guys must know they're dealing with the Mossad, or representives of Israel in some way; who else would be after these people? In the second place, since the vast majority of the Palestinians they seek are living openly as PLO representatives, they could probably have been tracked down by opening a phone book.
These may sound like minor objections, but as the nearly three-hour movie drags on, you have to have something to think about.
The centerpiece of the film is a meeting between Avner's gang and a group of Palestinians sent to the same safe house by the French guys. The PLO men accept the explanation that the Israelis are Basque terrorists (which doesn't say much for their competence either). There, Avner gets to debate his Palestinian counterpart (and it goes without saying that, as gruff and as crude as the Mossad squad is, the Palestinians are all unfailingly polite, articulate, soft-spoken and kind), who tells him: "You don't know what it is not to have a home."
After spending the night under the same roof, the men go their separate ways.
This encounter, and several others, gradually wear the crew down, and they begin to talk about their doubts that they are really acting on behalf of a just cause, as well as whether their targets really planned the massacre. The squad's bombmaker articulates Spielberg's main theme, saying: "We're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing, that's Jewish. If I lose that, I lose everything; I lose my soul."
THIS MOVIE hits more false notes than I can mention in a single review, but at least one was unintentionally amusing. In a Beirut sequence, the killings are to be a joint project carried out by army commandos and Avner's team. As the IDF frogmen get out of the water and start dressing in Arab clothes, one small man disguises himself as a woman. Before you can say, "Is that supposed to be Ehud Barak?" the man introduces himself to Avner, saying, "I'm Ehud Barak."
This drew the only laughs the movie got during the screening I saw, in spite of Spielberg's strained attempt to squeeze humor out of some of the banter among the team.
It's also jarring to hear the Israeli characters speaking English throughout (except for a few snatches of Hebrew in a couple of crowd scenes). Eric Bana has really mastered Israeli-accented English - a skill it is unlikely he will be called upon to use again. But one of the few pleasures of the film is watching some of Israel's best actors in a Hollywood production. In addition to Zurer and Almagor, there are brief appearances by Moshe Ivgy (as Mike Harari), Sharon Alexander, Amos Lavie, Makram Khoury (as one of the targets), Hiam Abbass (as the wife of the PLO head in Paris), Samual Calderon, Alon Abutbul and others, as well as a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss them cameos by Yehuda Levi, Liron Levo and Ohad Knoller.
ALL IN ALL, it's an incoherent film, as if Spielberg desperately wanted to say something important and could only come to the conclusion that killing is bad and we're all human. Why Spielberg chose to abuse this set of historical facts to make that point (why not do an anti-death-penalty movie set in the US?) is an unanswerable question. The shot of the World Trade Center at the end leads to the conclusion that he was trying to say something about the war on terror, possibly to criticize the US response to 9/11.
"There's no peace at the end of this, no matter what you believe," Avner tells Efraim as they stand in the shadow of the twin towers. Although Spielberg criticizes the Israeli response to the Munich massacre (as well as the American response to 9/11?), the only other response he seems to be suggesting is to congratulate the PLO on its publicity coup.
I was reminded of the quip New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby made, commenting on the disparity between the brilliance of Michael Cimino's The Deerhunter and the ineptness of his follow-up, Heaven's Gate. To paraphrase Canby, you would think Spielberg had sold his soul to the devil to make his earlier films and that, with Munich, the devil has come to collect.