2005 is going to go down in history as the year of bloat. Too many movies have gone too long, and Spielberg’s Munich is the latest culprit. Like many of the other bloat films – The New World, or King Kong – it’s a movie that’s not too long because it needs to be, but because it can be. After all, who is going to demand that Spielberg take 30 minutes out of his serious meditation on the nature of vengeance in a terrorist world?
It’s too bad no one did that, because Munich would have been a masterpiece at a shorter running time. Instead it’s a tragically flawed great film, the serious Spielberg film we’ve been waiting for – not the manipulation of his previous “serious” films, but a movie that presents situations and doesn’t lead you by the nose to conclusions.
Most of the film takes place outside of Munich, but the events there – a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, and all the athletes ended up dead – hang over every frame of the film, and to some extent, Spielberg argues, our daily lives. Munich tells the story of a squad of Israeli hit-men sent out to exterminate people involved (often tangentially, it turns out) with the atrocity, but it’s really about the world we live in today and the choices that face us daily in the “Global War on Terror.”
The film is based on a book called Vengeance, and that definitely is part of what it’s about, but it’s also about the way our reality breaks down when pre-emptive strikes become the order of the day. Eric Bana’s Avner, a regular guy Israeli soldier who is just following orders as he travels Europe killing people whose identities are supplied to him by the Mossad, first takes the path from dutiful citizen to cold blooded killer. But more troubling is the next leg of his journey, into pits of paranoia. As he continues his mission he discovers that maybe the people he’s killing have nothing to do with Munich, and he begins to wonder where the line is drawn – could he be a target next because of what he knows?
A story like that has the makings of a taut, smart thriller, but at three hours Munich isn’t that movie. The problem comes in the second act, which has Avner and his team pulling off their assassinations. It’s flabby, and it feels like we’re seeing all the killings, and each of them feels like it’s taking ten to fifteen minutes to accomplish. The film turns into an assassination procedural, and that’s just not what’s interesting here. The second act needs to be leaner to keep the emotional threads between the first and third acts connected – in the first act Avner is leaving his pregnant wife and in the third he’s trying to live with her and the child she’s been raising and he hasn’t known. But the vastness of the middle act cuts those ties, and makes the third act – which is actually as good a third act as I have seen in a film in years – feel like a clumsy anti-climax. Which it really isn’t.
Bana again proves that he’s one of the great underappreciated actors of our time. The places he takes Avner are astonishing – it’s a complete transformation of the man from the beginning of the film to the ending, and it’s done gradually throughout the story. Bana’s an intense actor, so it isn’t the stuff at the end that impressed me the most – I can completely buy him as a guy freaking out with paranoia. It’s the early stuff, the Avner as a family man, the son of a hero who has never done anything to live up to his father’s reputation, that really showcased his skils.
He’s surrounded by actors ranging from the truly great – Ciarin Hinds in a performance so perfect and strong that he seems to muscle everyone else out of the fram (he’s also saddled with delivering plenty of lines that set up the film’s conscience – Tony Kushner’s screenplay is a little heavy on characters delivering speeches – but he pulls it off with aplomb every single time) – to the very good. Daniel Craig is fun but shallow as another member of the team. Geoffrey Rush reminds us that he’s a real actor, playing Avner’s Mossad contact with gravity and yet also a playfulness. It’s a strong return to form for the actor.
The film looks wonderful. Spielberg has captured the vibe of 70s cinema perfectly, which is sort of ironic, since he was there at the time but barely part of it. The film’s evocative cinematography is all the more impressive when you realize how quickly this movie was made.
The question that people have had about Munich all along is how it would portray the events it’s about. The film is pretty even-handed, which will piss people off to no end, as there’s a contingent out there who only want to see Palestinians portrayed as evil. The movie gives a couple of speeches to the Palestinian cause, but they feel perfunctory. I think the basic theme of the film – that fighting madness with more madness is just madness – transcends the initial origins of the conflict. To me Munich functions as a biting indictment of the GWOT, although others may see it as an elegy for the innocence we had to leave behind when madmen began attacking us. Since the film ends on a shot of the Twin Towers – indicated that the story is just beginning – I tend to think my interpretation is closer to the truth.
In many ways Munich is the sequel to War of the Worlds. The summer blockbuster was about 9/11 – Munich is about how we deal with the aftermath. It’s Spielberg’s first truly intellectual film, and his most mature work – it doesn’t even feel like a Spielberg film in any way, although Avner with his departed hero dad could be any Spielbergian tyke all grown up and gone to war. It doesn’t go for the easy pathos that has turned me sour on Schindler’s List, and it doesn’t have the slackness of purpose that renders so much of Private Ryan a slog. As an entry in 2005’s cinema of reawakened politics, Munich is one of the front runners – better than Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana but not quite as tight as Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck. What’s maybe most exciting about the film is how it begins to eschew morality and convictions – Avner finds himself plunged into a world where the more convictions you have the more evil you are willing to commit to protect them. The lines between good and bad cease to exist as the white hats do terrible things for the best of reasons. Even allies are at each other’s throats, completely at cross-purposes. In the film’s finest irony the only people Avner may be able to trust is a strange French family that facilitates things and finds people for anybody who can pay their fee. The CIA and even the Mossad become enemies, while these mercenaries have the only decency.
With thirty minutes shorn, Munich would be the best Spielberg film. As it stands it’s a tantalizing near miss, a movie that flounders in its own indulgences. But even too long, Munich is a film that you must see. It’s a film that will redefine the career of one of our most overhated and overloved directors. But more than that, Munich is a film that needs to be seen because it’s about our lives right now, and everything it’s saying, and all the questions it’s asking, are the statements and questions that will be defining the world for the rest of the century. To say that Munich is the most important film released this year is putting it mildly. To say that it’s the best is being generous.