Steven Spielberg once designed his studied manipulations with no desire other than to make audiences jump, bite nails, cry, laugh, and gapingly wonder. The results may have been sophomoric, but they were rarely pretentious. In the mid-'80s, Spielberg took off in pursuit of the golden statuette, with impressive results. But if pictures like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun—and in the '90s, Schindler's List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan—succeeded, they did so by grabbing for the gut far more often than the brain.
The Spielberg of today has not yet entirely repudiated popcorn movies, but remains hungry for the intellectual respect accorded his cinematic heroes: Kurosawa, Lean, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles. And yet, in promoting Munich to the eager audience of Time magazine, Spielberg enthused that he told screenwriter Tony Kushner, "You speak the words, and I'll provide the pictures." Though he surely intended to be bluntly literal in the comment, Spielberg revealed himself as a man who recognizes and exploits other people's smarts. Not that there's anything wrong with that (but consider Hitchcock, who contentedly hired top writers to pen smart but unpretentious entertainments the reach of which rarely exceeded their grasp).
Spielberg's gift, then, is his eye, but his curse is his ambition. He intends Munich as a film to tackle our issue of the moment—terrorism—in all its complexity. Why do we suffer it? What does it do to men, on both sides of a conflict? Can it ever be justified, as statement or as revenge? These are worthy questions (so too is the larger question, which Spielberg skittishly avoids: What is the appropriate response to terrorism?), but Spielberg cannot decide what kind of film he is making: a political thriller with provocative undertones or a heavy-handed drama with global overtones. Refusing to decide, Spielberg once more produces a technically rigorous but intellectually undisciplined frustration.
The film's opening title places "Munich" in a context of other cities historically hit by terrorism; in doing so, the director immediately announces his intention to broaden his canvas (he bookends the film with a pointed reveal of a modern terrorist landmark). Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), a Mossad officer and former bodyguard to Prime Minister Golda Meir, accepts Meir's indirect directive to take out the men responsible for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. As his handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) explains, Avner must do so off the books, unacknowledged and disavowed by his own government (ironically, Munich plays more like an R-rated Mission: Impossible than either of the Mission: Impossible films).
Uncomfortably leaving his wife and newborn child behind, Avner assembles his crew: South African hitman Steve (Daniel Craig), Belgian toymaker-bomb expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), German-Jew forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), and cleanup man Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Methodically, they will assassinate the men they believe to be responsible for Munich, though their assumption is based on faith in the list supplied by the state and confidence that the men served up by their French-underworld intelligencers are the right men. (The "inspired by real events" plot was sourced from George Jonas' much-questioned non-fiction book Vengeance and the filmmakers' purported interviews with the unnamed inspiration for Avner.)
The script, credited to Kushner and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), ably avoids easy righteousness and generates tension by removing trust from the equation. The table-talk scene of Meir (Lynn Cohen) and her advisors is surprisingly sharp-tongued ("Dead Jews in Germany and the world couldn't care less," Meir muses ruefully), as is Ephraim's initial briefing of Avner ("You do what the terrorists do. You think they report back to home base?").
Kushner and Roth purposefully confuse patriotism and family loyalty. Avner's "the son of a hero," but obliged to show familial loyalty to the state ("You think Israel is your mother," says his wife). "Home is everything," says the PLO operative who chats with the undercover Avner, who earlier tells his wife, "I can't do what I'm doing if I can't see you" (religious motivations, however, go carefully unexplored).
Hans keeps a running tab of the great monetary expense of killing their targets, but the cost to Avner is clearly his soul. He claims to be "comfortable with confusion," preferring to evoke war and not question the intelligence by which he acts (sound familiar?). But with each apparently nice guy he kills, Avner grows less confident that he is a soldier-hero. "We are tragic men," says French-spy paterfamilias "Papa" (Michael Lonsdale). "Butcher's hands, gentle souls."
Unfortunately, Spielberg labors to make the targets sympathetic and fretfully repeats the film's few themes visually (obviously directing the on-set Kushner endlessly to reiterate them verbally) without ever developing the ideas. You've never seen a cheerier bunch of intellectual, sociable, family-oriented terrorists as these. Everyone's a good guy, Spielberg asks, so why can't we all just get along?
And yet Spielberg seems to get a real kick out of the film's action. It's something less than matter-of-fact when the bombs arrive in carefully calibrated Dolby Digital jolts and digital effects lovingly render blood spilling from a woman's throat onto her exposed breasts. Despite the effort by Janusz Kamiski to make the film seem colorlessly "grown-up," Spielberg jangles Munich's thriller thread with spy-film glee.
The most frustrating aspect of Munich isn't its clash of intentions for its audience; it's Spielberg's pot-calling-the-kettle-black contempt for his audience's intelligence. At the outset, for example, he needlessly intercuts images of the Israeli victims with the marked-men terrorists (get it? if not, there's more where that came from).
Later, in a scene that plays like an outtake from Team America: World Police, sweat flings off Avner in slo-mo as he has sex with his wife while "flashing back" to the tarmac where the Israeli athletes met their horrible end. You feel the blows of Spielberg's "Hebrew Hammer," but just what do they signify? That grasping for life is the true response to death? That Avner will never be normal again? At this point, Avner is supposed to be more haunted by his own actions than those of the terrorists, but never mind: intercutting makes things more interesting!
Obviously, Munich is made with a great deal of extraordinary skill by a man who has movies in his blood and in his bones. But the film is skilled to a fault, and men who are just as talented, if not more, than Spielberg—editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, and especially Pulitzer-Prize winner Kushner—are pulled down by the director's lowest common denominator. The man's increasingly crazifying attempts to make serious films are still nothing more than good movies. Perhaps only Spielberg could fail so spectacularly well.