Steven Spielberg’s Munich

How the mighty have fallen. Ten years ago if you’d told me that the day would come when I would be encouraging people to avoid watching a Spielberg film, more, that I would be actively warning them against watching it, I would have laughed. Yet avoidable may be the kindest thing I can bring myself to say about his new film, Munich.

Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times calls Munich the toughest, most anguished film of Spielberg’s career [1]. This is true – but the anguish belongs entirely to the audience. This is the toughest film of Spielberg’s career only if by tough we mean flat, incoherent, rambling and predictable. Understand that I haven’t been particularly impressed with anything Spielberg’s done in the last five years or so: AI was tepid, Minority Report was trenchant but fast paced, Catch me if you can was pleasant but unexciting and War of the Worlds didn’t quite make up in vision what it lacked in intelligence. These were all good, average films, mediocre only in that they came from Spielberg. Munich, on the other hand, is a truly BAD film, anyway you cut it (cutting it, unfortunately, is something Spielberg clearly never thought to try;. the film is over two and a half hours long, a good third of it barely sentient)

Not that the movie doesn’t seem promising to start with. The film opens with a quick montage of the events at Munich – and this is easily the best part of the film, the scenes shot with the kind of fast paced panache that we remember from the old Spielberg (comparisons with the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan are inescapable). It’s when these scenes are over that we’re introduced to the central plot of the film – a covert operation, sponsored by the Israeli state, to assassinate those behind the Munich killings. A young Mossad officer, Avner (Eric Bana) is summoned, given a list of eleven Palestinian names, made head of a five member task force and sent off to Europe to kill as many of the people on his list as he can, whatever the expense (though it would be good if he brought back receipts).

This is a storyline full of fascinating promise. There are so many things this movie could be: a fast-paced assassination thriller, a gritty exploration of the reality of political terrorism, an insightful and moving story about conscience and hatred, an astute commentary on the politics of revenge. In Spielberg’s hands it is none of these (though there are times when it seems to try to be all of them) – what comes out is a schoolboy’s fantasy of a serious political film, a sort of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less in a minor key, with some solemn bits added in the hope of making it ‘thought-provoking’.

To begin with, there’s the sheer idiocy of the plot. In trying to strike this all important blow against Black September, who do the Israelis turn to? One soulful but otherwise unimpressive young officer who would seem to have little to recommend him except that his father was some kind of war hero, and who has no training as a field operative. Oh, and four other such amateurs drawn from all over Europe including a bombmaker who, it turns out, can’t actually make bombs, and a blonde-haired thug, who it seems can’t do much except drive and act macho. This is the DIY version of political assassination – a light-hearted coming together of novices reminiscent of Harry and Walter go to New York – hardly the appropriate tone, you would think, for the enterprise they’re engaged in. Worse, not only are these novices sent into the field by themselves, they are given no help by the Israelis, except for a steady supply of money. Israeli intelligence, which knows enough about the 11 people on the list to know that they helped plan Munich as well as what they’re planning next, can’t find out for our intrepid adventurers where their quarries are hiding, so that these five men, with no leads to work of and no contacts in the field are now expected to find out what the presumably dozens of trained Israeli agents in the field have been unable to.

No problem, their leader says. All he has to do is call up an old school friend and before you know it his friend has put him in touch with someone who’s led him straight to the one person in all of Europe who knows where all his targets can be found. Just another day’s work for Avner and his merry band.

This contact (who Mossad has never heard of so far, btw), it turns out, is a family operation that is like Thomas Cook for assassins – it provides explosives, sets up safe houses, basically does all the things that our five heroes would be incapable of doing on their own. There’s just one catch – the family won’t work with governments. They’ve very strict about it. So strict in fact, that when Avner and his buddies violate that agreement and pass on the whereabouts of Palestinian terrorists in Beirut to Mossad commandos, the family deals out the terrible retribution of inviting Avner over for a lazy countryside luncheon, making him pick berries with the patriarch of the family, and then, because Avner is such a clean cut young man and loves his Daddy so much, forgiving him for lying to them about his involvement with Israel and even giving him some cheese and blood sausage to take home with him.

The movie is full of such non sequiturs, the worst of which, ironically, come out of half-hearted attempts to make all this lunacy sound credible. Avner cannot be associated with Mossad because the Israeli government cannot be seen to participate in such terrorist activity, we are told. That’s good reason why there can’t be an official link between him and the Israeli state, of course, but this is the secret service, for God’s sake, passing on information without leaving any way for it to be traced back to them is what they do for a living. And I mean 11 Palestinians are going to die violent deaths in the span of a few months – how long do you think Israel’s involvement in that is going to stay secret?

But wait, it gets worse. Once they start making progress on their list, Avner and co. suddenly discover that they have become targets themselves. This apparently comes as a complete surprise to them (imagine that! all we’re doing is going around killing people because they killed our people. Who would think that someone would want to try to kill us for that?) – our heroes suddenly realise that what they’re doing might actually be dangerous! They have crises of conscience, crises of nerve. Avner in particular becomes a man haunted by nightmares, fearful of his own shadow. So afraid does he become, in fact, that he chooses to go live in Brooklyn, because clearly Brooklyn in the mid-70s is the safest place on earth to be. The movie is riddled with this sort of incoherence – it’s as though the script-writers were so caught up in spinning their little Peter Pan fantasy that they didn’t feel the need to bother with things like logic or common sense. It made you feel as though the kindest thing someone could do for them would be to lend them a copy of Le Carre.

All right, you say, so the plot is ridiculous. But what about the action? Is that at least exciting? Not really. To begin with there isn’t that much of it. Or rather there is a lot of it, but it’s all interspersed with scenes of Avner cooking, Avner crying on the phone because he hears his baby daughter’s voice for the first time, Avner joking about with his buddies, so that there’s no real tempo to the film. The bigger problem with the action sequences, though, is that they’re entirely unsurprising, entirely predictable. Watching them, you have the sense of having watched the same thing happen at least a dozen times before in at least a dozen movies. It’s like you’ve already read the script – you know that something will go wrong with the plan at the last minute, there’ll be some running about, some panic, some desperation, then someone will be a hero, or the ‘good’ guys will get lucky and things will all work out fine in the end. The only cliche from the genre that Spielberg leaves out is the one that could actually have contributed to the excitement of the film, the classic ‘planning’ scene where you learn what the difficulties are and how they are to be overcome. None of that happens in this movie, nor is there ever any resistance from, or thought given to, local law-enforcement. If anything, assassinations in this movie, are almost shockingly easy – a fact that Spielberg tries to obscure by having his assassins come up with elaborately bomb devices when a simple shooting would have done quite easily, thank you.

Right, well. But what about emotion? What about the anguished inner struggle of the main characters. Well, for starters, what main characters – Avner himself is pretty much the only character that the movie actually sketches out – all the others are caricatures, little more than mouthpieces for some hackneyed point of view that Spielberg wants to represent. As for the anguish – suprisingly, Spielberg never really explores it, or rather, doesn’t explore it at the points when you think it should be explored. The decision to undertake these killings itself is made in a swiftly shot meeting where Spielberg seems more interested in conveying the general sense of discussion than in exploring any particular points of view. At some point Golda Meir (played admirably by Lynn Cohen) says that they need to go ahead with the plot and that’s that. End of discussion. Again, Avner’s decision to take up the mission consists of little more than his saying he can’t bring himself to give this up, accompanied by some psycho-babble from his wife about how he thinks of Israel as his mother – we’re never really shown the conflict Avner must have faced between going on the mission and staying with his family. Or later, there’s a point when the assassins go after someone who wasn’t on their original list but who is active in Black September, and this taking on of additional targets, which you would think would be a big deal, is never even discussed.

The end result is that the characters on screen never come alive as human beings, never really establish any connection with you, so that the disquiet of the last half an hour seems contrived, fake. Avner is now a tortured man, yes, but what exactly is he tortured by? Even he doesn’t really seem to know. Certainly he is frightened for his family, certainly he has nightmares and has become paranoid – but this is neither unexpected nor particularly moving (are we seriously supposed to feel sorry for the man? Poor little terrorist had a bad dream – aaawwww!!). Avner is a man with a troubled conscience we are told – but it’s not clear why his conscience took so long to kick in (except that it’s consisten with the general speed of what one could fondly call his thought processes).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this film, though, is that Spielberg manages to go on for close to three hours without saying a single new or insightful thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is not a thoughtful film because there is no thought in it, all we get are a lot of cliches. There’s a conversation that Avner has with a young PLO fighter, for instance, where the PLO fighter talks lovingly of his desire for a homeland – does Spielberg seriously believe that this is news? Are there actually people out there who haven’t realised yet that the PLO are fighting because they want to have a country of their own and not because they just like killing people? And what’s with all the tortured conversations about Israel in the end. The problem with the movie is that Spielberg sets it up to deliver some sweeping, profound message, but it’s never quite clear what that message is. Instead, Spielberg just lets the movie go on and on, piling closing scene upon closing scene in search of that elusive take-away, leaving it finally in the hope that anyone who sits through 45 minutes of protracted soul-searching will have at least one original thought of his / her own, and will hopefully take that away as the key message of the film.

Bottomline: Munich is a ludicrous and abject failure. It’s a film that has a lot to say but never says it, a fim populated by wooden characters playing out a non-sensical plot through a series of predictable action sequences, a rambling, directionless film that confuses gloom with profundity. Munich may well be the most boring film I’ve seen all year, and it’s a movie I’d strongly urge you to avoid.

[1] Yet another instance of Ms. Dargis getting it, IMHO, completely wrong. When am I ever going to learn to stop reading her reviews and stick to Anthony Lane, who’s review, while not scathing enough of the movie, comes so much closer to my perception of it.