The first minutes of “Munich” unfold at speed. Eight Palestinians scale the fence of the Olympic Village, enter the quarters of the Israeli athletes, and take them hostage. We know the consequence, and the director, Steven Spielberg, tells it with a busy blend of news footage—ABC’s Jim McKay saying, “They’re all gone,” as the athletes’ fate becomes clear—and dramatic reconstruction. The events in Germany in 1972 are not Spielberg’s main concern; instead, he looks away from the glare and into the shadows, where a team of operatives sidles around Europe in the ensuing months and eliminates those responsible for the massacre. Munich was merely the starting gun.
The plan of retaliation is set up in Israel with the imprimatur of Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen). Once the team is in motion, however, it floats free. The leader is Avner (Eric Bana), a sensitive soul, brought in from Mossad. The rest, hailing from other countries, are Hans (Hanns Zischler), a document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), who makes toys and bombs; Carl (Ciaran Hinds), a calmative figure with cardigan and pipe; and Steve (Daniel Craig), heavily camouflaged by his blond hair and blue eyes. Normally, I love any film—“The Dirty Dozen” being the template—in which a number of disparate die-hards club together to whack a common enemy. Spielberg himself embellished the genre in “Saving Private Ryan,” and I had high hopes for his band of brothers in “Munich.” And what do we get? The Friendly Five. The precedent is set at the men’s getting-to-know-you dinner: as the dialogue fades out, we watch them laughing and chomping en bloc, with a surge of guitar and strings, courtesy of John Williams, egging them along.
The scene exhibits the torn loyalties of the enterprise. Spielberg wants to make a heart-racer, all popping pistols and howling tires, but he also wants to take his foot off the gas, put a hand to his heart, and deliver a parable on political retribution. There is some attempt at evenhandedness: at least three of the revengers’ victims are carefully cast to seem as kindly, courteous, and literate as possible shortly before they are blown up or shot, and a young P.L.O. fighter, on a dark stairway, gets to lecture Avner on the Palestinians’ right to a homeland. But the only home on which the movie dwells is Israel, and, even though a troubled Avner moves his family to Brooklyn, one of the last phrases in the movie, uttered by his case officer (Geoffrey Rush), is “Come home.” It echoes nothing so much as the closing exchange between Elliot and E.T. (“Come.” “Stay”), and the fact remains that, as anybody who sat numbly through “Amistad” or “The Color Purple” can confirm, Spielberg is not a political artist. He is a humanitarian showman, and most of his audience, despite the fractious accusations of unfairness from both sides, will not go to see “Munich” for the poise of its politics. All the film does is add another tallish tale to the deadlocked mythology of the Middle East, and all the controversies will do is stoke its sense of earnestness, which has to be its least appealing aspect.
There is also the problem of statistics: Avner’s squad has eleven Palestinians in its sights, and, in lieu of a plot, we are basically offered a homicidal shopping list. As number six was ticked off, I glanced at my watch: we were already into the third hour of the film, and there were still five villains to go. Needless to say, some of the set pieces are fluent to the point of frictionless. When a young girl runs back into a building where a bomb has been planted for her father, the countdown to calamity is as smooth and sweaty as the cutoff point is predictable. No Spielberg movie will needlessly slaughter a child—and, by implication, neither will the selfless assassins, who seek an honest revenge. There is some bickering, among the Friendly Five, about the justice of their cause (and the question of whether the right men were targeted burns to this day), but it sounds both puffed up and perfunctory. The screenplay, by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, has a habit of jerking away from the action and landing us in lumpy theatrical harangues. “We’re supposed to be righteous. We’re Jewish,” Robert exclaims. Fair enough, but should he really be banging on about it in broad daylight, in the middle of a Dutch railway station? What happened to deep cover?
“Munich” is a fidgety, international affair, and the cultural clichés come direct from your travel agent: Eiffel Tower for Paris, bicycles for Holland, and feast-laden tables for Israelis, wherever they are—plus a running gag about getting a receipt for expenses, which, to my taste, seemed moldy with prejudice. Spielberg is plainly nervous about the impulse behind this film, which is why he tosses in wisecracks, further flashbacks to Munich, soft chats between Avner and his mother, and anything else he can, so as to honor and legitimatize a series of state-approved kills. If he had told the story straight, without such hedging, and at half the length, it would have borne far more conviction. At the least, we would have been spared the sight, toward the end, of Avner having sex with his wife while images of the hostage ordeal flood his weary brain. How’s that? Is he fathering new life to replace the dead, or getting off on the sound of German helicopters? What a curious arc this movie has described: starting in terror, and ending up on the very brink of kitsch.