ca2005 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

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

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.

8.7 out of 10