2016-06-30
With all the pomp and hype surrounding the newest Steven Spielberg film and with major news magazines freely referring to it a masterpiece, it may be something of a shock to discover that, after all, "Munich" is just a movie. Neither a disquisition on Middle East history nor "a prayer for peace" (as Spielberg described the film to Time magazine) "Munich" owes less in its scope to Spielberg's own "Schindler's List" than to its clear antecedent--the tense, paranoid spy thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, often adapted from novels by John le Carré or Eric Ambler. Crammed full of foreign capitals, rainy streets, classical architecture, shady dealers, and free-floating intrigue, "Munich" is precisely what meets the eye and nothing more--although given its mournful John Williams score and Oscar-bait sheen, it appears to be unaware of that fact.

Being that "Munich" will, nonetheless, be interpreted as some grand statement on world affairs, what is its take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Rendered here as a paranoid cat-and-mouse game of action and reaction, "Munich" depicts a world far from the workaday concerns of average Israelis and Palestinians. It is no accident that this commentary on the famously tangled relationship between two peoples competing for control of a tiny state in the Middle East takes place primarily in the great cities of Europe. Avner (Eric Bana) is the Mossad agent assigned by Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) and a case officer played by Geoffrey Rush to avenge the murder by terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He is at the head of a crack team of operatives given carte blanche to dispatch the remaining ringleaders of the Black September Palestinian organization behind the massacre.

Spielberg swiftly and efficiently sketches the events of "Munich," terrifying in their unexpectedly banal brutality. "Munich" returns again and again to Bana's imaginings of Munich, but the effect is an inoculation, meant to shield viewers from the full realization that "Munich" is a film about Israelis killing Palestinians. This accounts for why the Palestinian characters, wanted terrorists and murderers all, are so much more alive onscreen than their Israeli counterparts, though they're all rendered equivalent by the film's simple-minded politics of killing. It is not a full treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regardless of its pronouncements on the importance of home or its depiction of a German leftist's oracular pronouncement that "free will inevitably causes struggle."

"Munich" is a dour suspense thriller, one that seeks to punish its viewers, or at least reprimand them, for enjoying its carnage, its carefully planned, precision horror. Spielberg is one of the master craftsmen of the American cinema, and everything here is in its right place: Janusz Kaminski's camera work is rapid, precise, and sharp; the color palette, while schematic (cool grays and blues for Europe, sunny yellows for Israel), is effective; Michael Kahn's editing is razor-sharp.

So why does the film, for all its expert artisanship, feel so curiously devoid of import?

An answer may lie in that initial sketch of the Munich Olympics. After a foray into implicating viewers in what they see, making them feel the full shock of the Olympic terrorist attack, "Munich" retreats from its subject, depicting it primarily on television screens. In the back-and-forth dialogue of bombs that the Israelis and Palestinians engage in, the latter's attacks are only shadowy presences on television sets, glimpsed on news programs. The Israelis' efforts, by contrast, are the very guts of the film, with each action lovingly detailed with models by the participants before being carried out.

Neither pro- nor anti-Israel; neither pro- nor anti-Palestinian
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  • The small details are all well executed, and memorable: the red stream of blood that infuses the whiteness of the milk spilling from the first victim's dropped groceries; the Hitchcockian suspense of the second victim's pre-adolescent daughter's near brush with death; the looming, ominous lamp lurking at the foreground of a shot, as Bana waits in the background, knowing that when he turns the light off, a man dies. It is not in the small details that "Munich" slips, but in the larger picture. Incapable of making any sort of coherent argument for the significance of the events it depicts, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's script retreats into details, and hoary bromides about family and sacrifice.

    Political commentators of all stripes will attempt to read significance into the ultimate meaning of "Munich," but their efforts will remain fruitless. "Munich" is neither pro- nor anti-Israel; at the same time, it is neither pro- nor anti-Palestinian. It professes to anti-violence of a sort, but its distaste does not extend as far as the violence of the film, rendered in full-on fireballs-and-shattered glass summer-blockbuster style. It is neutral, studiously adding and subtracting to ensure the equality of all actions, Israeli and Palestinian, in the film. "Munich" makes this literal, cutting from televised images of the dead Israelis to snapshots of the wanted Palestinians slapped onto a table. This moral calculus, reminiscent of nothing so much as the tangled relationship of money and human life in Spielberg's "Schindler's List," only serves to emphasize the comparative vacuity of his latest film. In its studious (though unsuccessful) avoidance of controversy, "Munich" invites the notoriety of mediocrity.

    One of the terrorists, giving a reading at a Roman bookstore, speaks stirringly, with regard to "The Thousand and One Nights," of "the relationship of narrative to survival." "Munich" is, to some extent, about the stories people tell each other about their tribal allegiances. But Spielberg, Kushner, and co.'s understanding of the Israeli (or Palestinian) narrative is far too schematic to allow them to adequately question its underlying assumptions. Its idea of unity is Mossad agents and PLO operatives blissing out together to the strains of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Speeches about Jewish blood and Jewish righteousness litter the stage of the film like so many used candy wrappers, but their effect is negligible, surrounded as they are by such patently unrealistic Israelis and so half-hearted a narrative.

    Channeling the jaw-dropping final shot of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," "Munich" ends in a Queens, N.Y., park with a clear view of Manhattan's east side. As a closing image, Spielberg's camera frames the World Trade Center's towers. Coming after Bana and Rush's final debate on the efficacy of violence--and whether killing "for Munich, for the future, for peace," as the film has it, is a contradiction in terms--the presence of the Twin Towers is clearly intended as a reminder and a rebuke. This, the film is telling us, is what happens when we choose to ignore terrorism. It is a fair reminder, but "Munich" has not earned the right to make such statements. For all the blood spilled, its narrative of survival is curiously bloodless.

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