Steven Spielberg‘s new historical drama, Munich, is a well-made film about an important subject that I have no desire to see ever again. The film is good, the story compelling and the acting is solid. In addition, Spielberg has directed the hell out of this material, turning in his best work in a decade. The film is complex, textured and involving without ever seeming self-important or artsy-fartsy (Taylor Hackford, whose Ray fell into this trap, should take note). The story follows the undercover mission to assassinate terrorists responsible for the slaying of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The mechanics of terrorism and assassination are given a fascinating treatment by Spielberg that helps maintain viewer interest in this nearly three-hour film.
What Spielberg can’t overcome are the limitations of the script, co-written by Angels in America scribe Tony Kushner. On the plus side, Kushner recreates the history vividly and the machinations of the mission, but he trips up on the politics. The film keeps hammering a rather obvious point that is made early on: there are no real winners; no good guys, no bad guys, only senseless killing that paves the way for more senseless killing. While not as overtly polemical as Angels, the script is still more concerned with politics than it is with people. Since part of the point is that people are just pawns of the governments and independent organizations they represent, Kushner doesn’t bother fleshing out his characters much?the biggest passions they exhibit are political, which limits the audience’s ability to emotionally engage with them.
The performances are uniformly good. Geoffrey Rush affects his trademark sleaze as the government diplomat spearheading the mission. The mission leader is played by Eric Bana with rock-solid commitment and intensity. Unfortunately, the script never lets us know who he is or why he agrees to perform this mission. We see him as a committed family man, which makes his involvement all the more puzzling and the film never adequately addresses that question. There are hints of father issues, but even that is not truly fleshed out and echoes the paint-by-numbers psychology used to justify the criminal actions in Spielberg‘s much lighter Catch Me If You Can. Daniel Craig (aka the new Bond, James Bond) is charismatic as an operative working for Bana‘s team, but like the others, we never learn anything more about him other than his commitment to The Cause.
As a result, audiences can be intellectually engaged by Munich but not emotionally invested. Some critics have labeled Munich “controversial” for humanizing terrorists and assassins. I wish that were true. Since the film is so balanced in its fatalistic view of everyone involved, it’s hard to care about the tremendous suffering endured by the characters. Even though the violence is potent, frequent and disturbing, its emotional impact is limited because the film is cold, dry and aloof. Although critics love to be intellectually snobby about films like Titanic, it manages to do what Munich does not: make history, no matter how distant or foreign, personal.
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