With "Munich," Spielberg has finally opted to confront the issues he's been addressing obliquely with a more direct approach. The film plunges headlong into the Israeli/Palestinian quagmire, beginning with a taut reconstruction of the Black September terrorist group's hostage operation against Israel's Olympic athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. In one of the film's strongest sequences, this grisly incident and its tragic denouement are depicted elliptically via an expert mix of recreation and actual broadcast footage. The emphasis is on faces, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's prowling camera watching the horror unfold on televisions all over the world, then focusing on individual responses of shock, grief, outrage and anger, each symbolizing the gulf between Palestinian and Israeli, Arab and Jew.
Spielberg's thesis appears to be that Munich lit a fuse that would detonate endlessly throughout the Middle East before erupting in lower Manhattan in mid-September of 2001. This is debatable as history -- the Six Days War in 1967 and the rise of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the Egypt of the 1950s are just two events that illustrated the intractable nature of the Arab/Israeli struggle long before 1972. But as dramatic shorthand, it's an effective gambit. After leading with the terrorist event, "Munich" is poised to become a parable about the response to terror and how it changes a society -- an issue with obvious resonance for the America of 2005.
Unfortunately, what "Munich" achieves is closer to a bad pastiche of James Bond and John le Carré than the drama of ideas its director so admirably aimed for. An elite assassination squad led by Eric Bana is formed at the behest of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir and tasked with hunting down the organizers of Black September's Munich massacre. A gray and ambiguous world of vengeful violence is meant to open up before these hapless recruits, but it never really does; grayness and ambiguity have never been Spielberg's forte. The somewhat redundant assassinations, which quote everything from Hitchcock to John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate," are directed mainly for suspense: something always goes wrong and needs to be solved on the fly, and there are an inordinate number of shots of the crew's bomb expert fingering his remote control while "waiting for the signal" that his quarry is in place. Scenes of action are punctuated by moral, political and philosophical speechifying from pretty much every character, presumably courtesy of Kushner's background as the American theatre's reigning laureate. One by one, Bana's cohorts begin to crack-up and question their calling, in keeping with the grand Le Carré tradition that inside every cold-blooded political killer, the heart of a liberal humanist is yearning to beat free.
It's intriguing to watch the feelgood auteur of "E. T." wade up to his neck in blood in order to warn a contemporary America that openly discusses torture as an extension of public policy about what it is in the act of becoming. But Spielberg's central and somewhat shopworn idea -- that violence also destroys the perpetrator -- is undone by characters who don't develop so much as they are willed to change by the filmmakers, with Bana's conversion from true believer to apolitical man without a country seeming particularly abrupt and false. Motivationless but sequential cutbacks to a fully realized dramatization of the Munich massacre only confuse things further, with Bana waking up from dreams and reveries about events he wasn't a part of at a pace designed mostly to allow Spielberg to preserve the on-camera slaughter of the Israeli athletes for use in a ludicrous climactic montage.
"Munich's" final and rather hamfisted image -- the Twin Towers slumbering peaceful and unknowing against a 1970s-era Manhattan sky -- reinforces the notion that "Munich" sees itself as an important movie with a message for today. How ironic, then, that Spielberg's sincere but muddled cry from the heart is more likely to be remembered for its prescient casting of new Bond actor Daniel Craig as an undercover operative than for any lasting contribution to the great debates of our day. And how quaint and consoling 007's pre-Al Qaeda political clarity seems when imagined against this horrorstricken and baffled reflection of our own horrorstricken and baffled times. Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, Steven Spielberg and Colin Wilson. A Universal release. Political thriller. Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 164 min