In Spielberg's `Munich,' the thriller is gone Broad strokes of `Munich' drain film of its punch

December 23, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The best gag in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park came when the T. rex popped up in the rearview mirror of a speeding Jeep over the words, "Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear."

In their turgid, sermonizing anti-thriller Munich, Spielberg and Tony Kushner (Angels in America) look in history's rearview mirror and aim for the same effect. Their movie is ostensibly about the aftermath to the Palestinian terrorist slaughter of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic squad during the 1972 Summer Games. But from the moment the Israelis decide Munich has changed everything to the final shot of the World Trade Center, the whole picture says, "Munich may be closer to 9/11 than it appears."

Munich reduces Israel's response to the Black September Movement to an analogy of America's response to al-Qaida. The movie strongly implies that when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir empowered her intelligence and covert-operation agency, the Mossad, to eliminate 11 Palestinian leaders, their decision furthered that opinion-page cliche, "the cycle of violence." This is a subject for historical debate, not this movie's tortured, pseudo-humanistic propaganda.

Munich is so broad-stroke it cuts itself at every turn. It's also a thoroughly lifeless movie.

Viewers may expect Spielberg to dramatize the Munich debacle in urgent detail. But Spielberg relegates that harrowing event to bloody snatches. He uses it as a touchstone for a round of political horror that includes Israel's targeted assassinations. In one abysmal anti-climax, Avner (Eric Bana) - the leader of the unacknowledged Mossad hit squad - makes love to his wife as his mind flashes to Black September's annihilation of nine of the Israeli athletes at a German air force base (two others were killed in the Olympic Village). "The love that heals" never looked so ludicrous. A sequence this incompetent and senseless insults real-life tragedy.

Avner, a Sabra (or native-born Israeli), functions as the anti-hero, enlisted by Mossad case officer Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) to head a team that seeks out and destroys Palestinian leaders based in Europe. Avner tries to establish brisk bonhomie and positive group thinking. But the movie sets a different beat and tone. It shambles along in a glum and gory sing-song rhythm. First comes a quasi-suspenseful execution. Then comes verbal hand-wringing about the ethics and efficacy of knocking off enemies in cold blood.

Eventually, Avner, too, becomes despondent. The audience despairs much more quickly. Rarely has Spielberg been hazier about staging action; the final raid is a fiasco in more ways than one. Obviously, Spielberg had his mind on higher things than tension or lucidity - always a peril for an entertainer or an artist.

The Mossad assembles Avner's squad to function secretly, independently and often in the dark. So these men have no idea whether the agency gathered solid evidence against the targets. And Avner locates their designated prey with information that he buys from mysterious French brokers. So he and his fellow agents register as nothing more than stalkers and killers - cute, tormented stalkers and killers.

No Hollywood-studio Resistance film ever had as quaint a group of undercover ops. There's the cultured forger with the antique-dealer front; the vulnerable toymaker turned bombmaker; the fussy cleanup man with an untidy conscience; and the blond-and-blue-eyed man of action (Daniel Craig, the new James Bond).

Each assassination arrives complete with a trumped-up question adding to the narrative clutter and moral overcast. Does the toymaker have the know-how and the guts to calibrate explosives so they blow up targets and not innocent bystanders? Can Avner gun down a Palestinian with whom he's shared a civil conversation?

The team's catastrophes become predictable, their slow uptake embarrassing. When drunken Americans interrupt a hit in London, viewers think "CIA" immediately. Avner and his cleanup man - and Spielberg and his clean-up man, Kushner - waste a precious minute or two spelling out this suspicion. Moments later, a mysterious and available beauty hits on Avner at a bar and then moves on to his meticulous colleague. You wonder whether these characters have seen a single espionage film.

The talk itself is the worst - full of self-conscious anguish among Avner's men over whether Israel's bloodshed will tarnish the mantle of Jewish righteousness, as well as forced parallels between Jews and Palestinians as displaced people compelled by destiny toward violence.

The overkill in this movie is Spielberg's, not Israel's. The simple decision to portray the aftermath of Munich in the manner of the original The Day of the Jackal (1972) carries its own political ambivalence. When an assassination-procedural works - as Jackal did - you're equally enthralled and anguished as the plan unfolds. Yet Spielberg and Kushner pile editorials on top of already-charged action.

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