Volume 18 • Issue 32 | December 23 - 30, 2005


Written by Larry Tony Kushner, based on the book by George Jonas
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Now showing at United Artists Battery Park Stadium 11
102 North End Ave. at Vesey St.
(212-945-4370; regalcinemas.com)

Not much about Munich in Spielberg’s new film

By Steven Snyder

Only weeks after Hany Abu-Assad’s moving “Paradise Now,” the intimate and unnerving tale of two Palestinian suicide bombers, Steven Spielberg offers a more global perspective on the political and societal struggles of the Middle East with his ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – “Munich.”

As a story, “Munich” really has very little do with its supposed subject, the 11 Israeli athletes who were abducted and killed by the Palenstinian Black September organization at the 1972 Olympics. In fact, the scandal of Munich itself is less the focus of the film than an after-thought, depicted only in a series of flashbacks that gradually reveal more of that horrific night watched live by the world. Instead, Spielberg sees those games as the tipping point for the entire Middle East conflict, and the film turns its attention to the day the gloves came off, the battle escalated, and even sane men were willing to toss aside their conscience to wage war and exact revenge.

As a film, it is yet another in a long line of 2005 works like “Syriana,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Crash” that has embraced the chaos of overlapping story lines. But as an experience, it is just too much to process. Which does not mean that “Munich” seeks to be too intelligent, preachy or meditative, but simply that at the end of this 160-minute ride, these stories do not fit together the way Spielberg wants them to fit, nor do they compliment each other the way Spielberg likely believes they do. The final product reads less like an emotional novel than a scattered outline of history’s Cliffs Notes, and while the story is intriguing, we wait for a sense of immediacy that never breaks through “Munich’s” dense surface of plot and structure.

Of all the film’s many characters, the central one appears to be Avner (Eric Bana), since he is the only one with a visualized back story. He is married, is expecting a child, and finds his only solace late at night in the arms of his wife. Avner is the emotional centerpiece of the film, and is used repeatedly as the emotional barometer of Israel itself.

He is approached to lead a team of assassins in tracking down those responsible for the Munich attacks, and he does not so much grapple with this decision as he wonders how he could live with himself if he did not aid his country. But as weeks turn to months, his work soon comes to consume him. The casualties that result from his job, and an intensifying geopolitical battle take a toll on Avner both mentally and physically.

In both the film’s saddest and most shocking sequence, we come to understand how the experience has crushed not only his soul but his marriage, and how his quest to protect his family and his homeland has actually cost Avner everything he once cherished.

Yet his is only one of a half-dozen stories that “Munich” seeks to tackle, and while every plot strand is crafted to near-perfection, together they form a dizzying and disorienting collage.

Surrounding Avner are the four distinctive assassins he will come to work with and the conflicts that will turn this group on themselves when the stakes are at their highest. Their struggles are intercut with the assassination sequences, which are carefully molded to give each murder its own memorable setting. And then there are Avner’s recurring meetings with a head Israeli intelligence officer (Geoffrey Rush), the subplot of the retaliatory attacks against Israel in response to these assassinations, and even a heart-stopping, last-second commentary on the parallels between the horrors that followed Munich and the horrors that have now gripped the world since 9/11.

Technically, the film is the most impressive achievement of the year. From Spielberg’s tense, jagged camerawork to John Williams’ tragic and haunting score to even Michael Kahn’s seamless editing, which almost succeeds in sewing these many threads together, “Munich” is a tour de force achievement of the team Spielberg has collaborated with for years.

But at the end of it all, despite our appreciation for the parts, the whole is less than moving. It’s also a story we’re never allowed to immerse ourselves in. We see the outlines of a drama about a husband, a father, an assassin, a Jew, a team of special operatives, a string of murders, a vengeful country and the evolving tactics of terrorism. But on emotional terms, we’re told more than we’re asked to feel, educated instead of engaged. What’s missing is our own entry point to the film’s larger claim that Munich was the event that changed the Middle East forever.

Art, in many ways, is a process of concessions. And it seems here that Spielberg was never forced to cut anything out. This may be the film he has long wanted to see, but it’s one that keeps the audience at an unmistakable distance.


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