Those who will sit around wondering whether Munich is the work of an anti-Israeli or just a self-hating Jew -- which is to say, Steven Spielberg, who has been branded both by Israeli officials and newspaper columnists in recent weeks -- give the movie and its maker far too much credit. The story of how the Israeli government retaliated for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes -- among them an American expatriate and other foreign-born athletes who moved to the promised land -- at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games is less a treatise on the history of Middle East violence than an inert, overlong thriller that has more in common with Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven than Costa-Gavras' Z. It certainly attempts to make a profound statement on the endless cycle of bloodshed begat by terrorism, but it's too turgid and redundant to have any real impact. As a thriller, it barely thrills; as a lecture, it has nothing at all new to say.
The movie, written by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, be warned), is based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas -- the same book that provided the basis for the made-for-HBO film Sword of Gideon 19 years ago, in which Steven Bauer played Avner, an Israeli soldier appointed by Prime Minister Golda Meir to the task of killing Arabs responsible (and, in some cases, not) for the Munich massacre. In fact, Munich is very much a remake of the forgotten Sword, which likewise assembled a team of five to avenge the deaths of more Jews on German soil, 20 miles from the site of the concentration camp at Dachau. Whole scenes and sequences and even dialogue from the 1986 movie appear again in Munich, rephrased in the elegant, kinetic cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, a Spielberg collaborator since 1993's Schindler's List.
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But most important, Sword, too, wrestled with that most Jewish of themes: guilt. Spielberg and his collaborators are careful not to revel in the revenge wrought by the Israeli government, which created a special branch of its intelligence agency, Mossad, called Caesarea to assassinate the planners and plotters responsible for Munich. They suggest, as have others who have written about this subject (including Aaron Klein in his stark new book Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response), that not all of the targets chosen for elimination were members of Black September, the group responsible for the Munich killings. Some were PLO sympathizers or financial backers leading quiet lives of respectability throughout Europe, where they hid in plain sight; indeed, many of the Black September agents survive to this day.
At first that doesn't bother the Caesarea agents, especially their leader, Avner Kauffman (played by Hulk Eric Bana). Avner, whose father was a military hero, is a bored soldier with a beautiful wife and child on the way; who is he to turn down Meir (Lynn Cohen), who rationalizes assembling a death squad by insisting, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values"? Only after they've blown up or gunned down a few folks does Avner come to have a crisis of conscience, demanding to see evidence from the secretive superior (Geoffrey Rush) who keeps his proof locked away.
This is not, despite the hullabaloo surrounding Munich's release, Spielberg and his writers' novel invention; in Sword of Gideon, Bauer, like Bana, begs out after finding himself knee-deep in blood, insisting that the longer countries resort to eye-for-an-eye justice, the more likely they are to go blind. Spielberg, perhaps, has received so much grief because Munich is far more wishy-washy about its intentions than Gideon: It wants to be a tense, terse, blow-'em-up thriller, but also to show its remorse for having such a good time. Throughout most of the film, Avner merely shrugs off his colleagues' protestations that Jews "are righteous" and that to act as terrorists do is to lose one's soul. But, suddenly, Bana grows pale and gaunt, the sure sign a movie hero's no longer into his job; his transformation is so sudden, we don't quite believe his penitence.
Munich also has the grim pleasure of containing perhaps the most misguided sequence Spielberg's ever filmed, and it comes near the very end. The movie has shied away from revealing too much of what actually happened in Munich; it shows us only brief, though grisly, scenes from the Olympic Village, and much of what we see and hear comes in snippets from ABC's coverage with Jim McKay and Peter Jennings. (Sword of Gideon, too, was structured similarly.) But at the end, Spielberg puts us on the runway at Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield, where the German police botched a rescue effort and killed only a few terrorists, but not before members of Black September executed all of the Israelis. And he intercuts these grim, grisly flashbacks with scenes of Avner violently screwing his wife, soaking her in spit and sweat as he roars a silent, slow-mo orgasm. It's a disquieting moment -- and not a little sickening -- because whatever the filmmaker's intentions, to show us Avner's need to connect with his wife or disconnect from his actions, it plays only as overwrought and foolish. You'd be tempted to laugh, if not for the bile rising in your throat.