Steven Spielberg has always known how to tell a story, but I remember a time when he also knew how to end one. In recent years, his work has been marred by flailing last-minute attempts at redemption, meaning, depth. It started, I’m afraid, with that awful “I could have sold this pin” scene near the end of Schindler’s List, and at the finish of Spielberg’s new film Munich we witness the conflicted hero Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) envisioning the slaughter of Israeli athletes while performing husbandly duties atop his wife. It reminded me of a Morrissey lyric, “In the midst of life we are in death, et cetera,” from a Smiths tune whose title could also describe Avner: “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” The scene is embarrassing. Is Spielberg too powerful now to allow anyone in his sphere to tell him his fly is open?
Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was an old-school war movie that strove to say something larger; Munich is a traditional spy flick that has similar designs on significance (and Oscars). When Spielberg gets down to business, there’s no director more economical. The movie runs two hours and forty-four minutes but goes smoothly and swiftly. In a whirlwind of media, we learn that nine Israeli Olympic athletes have been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists; Spielberg and his longtime editor Michael Kahn turn it into a global nightmare collage, with people all over the world reacting in horror. It’s the first of several parallels to 9/11, which seems to have haunted Spielberg’s work in 2005 (War of the Worlds capitalized on the imagery, Munich considers the wounded, affronted, vengeful aftermath).
Avner Kaufman, an Israeli Mossad agent, is picked to lead four other men in an unofficial campaign, blessed by Golda Meir, to hunt down and kill those involved in the Munich massacre. Avner’s crew includes the pugnacious Steve (future 007 Daniel Craig), the dyspeptic Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), and the nervous toymaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose talents are put to more brutal use building bombs. When the men plot and scam and pay their way towards their targets, and when not one of the assassinations goes as planned, Spielberg is in his pure-cinema element, working with sheer movement and suspense. There’s about an hour’s worth of greatness in Munich.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, Spielberg also genuflects toward the film classics of the period (1972-1973), right down to the naturalistic color scheme out of a William Friedkin thriller. Francis Coppola gets a substantial nod: a thwarted attempt on a terrorist bigwig recalls Vito Corleone’s stalking of the vicious Mafioso in The Godfather Part II, and when Avner rips his phone apart looking for bugs (or worse) it’s right out of The Conversation. Spielberg can still stage violence so that it brings you up short: assassination here is a sticky, ugly business, and when Avner and his men close in on a half-naked Dutch hit woman the movie willingly crosses the line into sickening. What makes the scene all the more hideous is the incongruous humanity of the dying woman reaching for her cat, for a final snuggle.
Munich presents terrorism and vengeful retaliation for terrorism as two sides of the same nasty coin, in perpetual spin. Spielberg knows there are no pat answers and offers none, other than that the Arab-Israeli conflict is foul and unresolvable. He gives voice to all sides and takes none, though there’s more than a hint that America’s retaliatory violence after 9/11 is on Spielberg’s mind as well. (An image at the end shows us the New York skyline circa 1973 — with, of course, the World Trade Center still standing.)
In the end, Munich is a chastened and inchoate work, atoning for the very spy-movie gambits it has thrilled us with. Perhaps the world weighs too heavily on Spielberg for him to be a simple entertainer anymore (his 2002 Catch Me If You Can is about the closest he’s come lately to the fanciful touch he used to have). He has the power and skill to get these muddled, clenched historical films made, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right director to make them.