As the least Spielbergian film ever made by Steven Spielberg, Munich comes as a both a welcome surprise and a slight disappointment – an appropriately conflicted experience. Spielberg has long struggled in his adult movies to reflect a world more gray than black-and-white, with his more recent films showing progress towards this realization. With Munich, film’s most successful director has made his most emotionally conflicted and morally complex work, reflecting an American sensibility more Robert Altman than Frank Capra. There’s an understated power to this political thriller, which is nonetheless undermined by the suffocating aspirations of the well-intentioned.
Munich details the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palenstians at the 1972 Olympic Games, focusing on a group of five Mossad agents covertly assembled to hunt down those thought to be responsible. Instead of developing each of the agent characters, Spielberg and his screenwriters Eric Roth and (in a prestige-garnering rewrite) Tony Kushner focus exclusively on their leader Avner (Eric Bana) as he wrestles with how their assignment muddles the distance between the political and the moral. The other four team members figure more as different voices arguing in Avner’s head, with Carl (Ciaran Hinds) offering sympathy for the Palestinian point of view. The story alternates between these arguments and the assassinations of the hunted, a stop and go that prevents the film from ever achieving narrative momentum.
But this lack of momentum solidifies the film’s major point: the mission has no real end, as revenge begets revenge, bloodshed begets bloodshed. Spielberg suppresses his natural directorial instincts, denying the comforts of storytelling to explore the aimlessness of retribution. The assassinations are quick, brutal and generally disastrous, lacking the storyboarded grace of Spielberg’s usual action scenes. The film’s violence feels both inexplicable and inevitable.
Yet, beyond an opening sequence where the Munich debacle abstractly unfolds on televisions across the globe, this overly literal film suffers from a lack of evocative imagery.
And the scenes of political discussion reveal that this is undoubtedly a Spielberg film by telegraphing every thought in the script, as if we need all viewpoints clearly spelled out. This tendency to overstate and oversell what is already clear, as if seeking our approval, reaches its apex in a regrettable sequence at the end, where Spielberg crosscuts a sex scene with the Olympic massacre (including the most ridiculous shot of any film this year). At this stage in his career, Spielberg should have the confidence not to film scenes that echo Sally Field’s infamous Oscar speech: trust us Steven, we like you, we really really like you