By now the filmgoing world knows that Steven Spielberg has three selves. First is the self most frequently summoned, the maker of superlative entertainments (Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial). His second self applies his talent seriously to serious subjects (Schindler's List, Amistad). The third self produces hybrids, films that use both of the other two selves (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan). Spielberg's new film, Munich, was made by the third self. The subject could not be more serious, but the picture moves quickly into Filmland.
When Spielberg first announced Munich, which begins with the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in 1972 and then traces the retribution against the responsible Palestinian terrorists, he was also announcing difficulty. The project obviously involved political and moral daring. But the very difficulty of the subject, we could hope, might summon the best of Spielberg, which would mean thematic and cinematic fulfillment. Which is what some of us waited for.
The opening credits announce, a bit skittishly, that this film "is inspired by real events." The license could hardly be broader: how many films are not thus inspired? The screenplay is by Eric Roth, who wrote Forrest Gump, and Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, but the result is more Roth than Kushner--more of the dialogue was written by a pro than by a sizzling talent. Their script was based on George Jonas's book Vengeance (1984), unread by me, but I have read the recently published Striking Back by Aaron J. Klein, a captain in the IDF's Intelligence. Even if we allow for the dramatization that any screenplay entails, the material in Klein's book is Spartan compared with the screenplay apparently drawn from Jonas.
After the electric opening sequence about the Olympic crimes, we meet a young Mossad agent named Avner who is picked to head a team that will hunt down and kill the terrorists--those who survived the Munich bloodbath and those who planned it. (Golda Meir herself insisted on retribution. According to Klein, she said to the families of the murdered men, "I've decided to pursue each and every one of them. Not one of the people involved in any way will be walking around on this earth for much longer.") Presumably a list of names is given to Avner's team, a list diametrically opposed to Schindler's--men marked for death, not for life. That list is the core of Spielberg's film.
We follow Avner and his team to various cities--Paris, Rome, London, Beirut, Athens--as they track down one after another of the men on the list. Inevitably there are waverings of intent in the team, unforeseen knots in their plans, quarrels among themselves. Purpose is refreshed by a chief who visits them in various places. (These meetings usually take place at a laden dinner table. Israel finances the retribution team generously.)
The film is long, and as it progresses it seems to get longer. We think, as one Palestinian falls, of how many more there are still to go. But the film's troubles are larger than these recurrent hints of tedium. As the picture proceeds, a mist of moral quandary rises around the flashes of action. Some commentators have noted that to follow day by day, month by month, the tracking and killing of the perpetrators is to be pressed into a parallel with the Munich crimes. At first, there is a swift natural surge for "striking back," but to live for so long in the métier of murder becomes in itself a problem. Edward Rothstein writes that Munich "fully acknowledges that terrorism is morally grotesque. The question is how to respond to it. The film tries to show that Israel made the wrong choice." The right choice is not patent in Munich, but the film does verify that the price of vengeance is steep. At the very end Avner has been so torn by the experience that he forsakes Israel.
And even this moral dilemma is not the root trouble: it only accompanies the film like incidental music. Essentially the film declines because it is not a moral drama: before long it begins to relish--is forced to relish--the fact that it is a thriller. Before seeing Munich I looked again at Schindler's List. (Disproportionate as it turned out to be, this re-visit seemed in order.) It was my fifth viewing, and yet again I was wonderstruck. Whatever else can be said about it, Schindler's List is masterfully directed. Every scene, every shot has been conceived with an almost angry simplicity, with a passion for truth that discards both the trite and the clever. I know few other films--and I'm remembering Bergman and Bresson and Antonioni, among others--that more authentically elevate form to the level of content. The very making of Schindler's List incises its subject powerfully.
This is woefully untrue of Munich. Partly this is because it is trapped in its story: whatever the original ideational motives, the material (bombings, shootings, chases, etc.) is that of a thriller--a genre that, in its formalities, exists independent of any theme. We have had dozens of thrillers based on important ideas--the trade in nuclear weapons, for instance--and in most cases, that theme soon seems only an excuse to make a thriller. In Munich Spielberg seems to have accepted this genre fate.
I cannot remember a moment in this new film that compares, simply in directorial originality, to the work in Schindler's List. The familiar thriller strophes flow by: for instance, the panning shot that reveals assassins in a parked car across the street from their intended victim. Near the end comes one attempt at a flourish--Avner's mind reverts to Munich while he is having sex with his wife--but it is more clumsy than affecting. At the close we are left with a thought that would have been impossible after Schindler's List: many a competent professional could have directed Munich equally well.
The cast supplies more verity than does any other element. Eric Bana, the Australian who plays Avner, is vigorous and as complex as is possible. Geoffrey Rush, another Australian, is the Mossad officer in charge of the team and, in this supporting role, is more at ease than in his past attempts at stardom. Daniel Craig, who will be the next James Bond, has no trace of heroics as a stalwart member of the team. Mathieu Amalric is impressively mysterious as a Frenchman who supplies the Israeli team with data about their victims. His father, the patriarch of a family that makes money by obtaining useful secrets and peddling them, is Michael Lonsdale, native of French and British films, whose very appearance promises that at least one role will be juicy.
Throughout Munich there are scatterings of ideas about Israeli and Palestinian principles. I suppose that if those remarks could be extracted and weighed, they would be about equal. So Spielberg cannot be indicted for partisanship, only for using these matters as décor. His irredeemable misstep here was not political: he did not foresee (we must assume) the trap of cinematic cliché that would inevitably snap shut. At any rate, he did little to compensate for it.
Stanley Kauffman is The New Republic's film critic.