Spielberg’s Munich Suffers From Curse of the ‘Significant’ Film

Steven Spielberg’s Munich, from a screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas,

Steven Spielberg’s Munich, from a screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas, resembles other recent “significant” films: It’s overlong, psychologically unfocused, thematically devious and curiously anachronistic in its crypto-pacifism. Even before its official release, it had set off firestorms of controversy between so-called Zionists and anti-Zionists, Israelis and Palestinians, and, as always, between those who believe fervently in an eye for an eye and those who profess to believe that vengeful violence only begets more violence. Indeed, before seeing Munich, I had been led to believe that Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Roth were suggesting that in this instance, Israeli retaliation for the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes has proven to be ill-advised, futile and even counterproductive. It would have followed, therefore, that the horror of the massacre itself would be downplayed in the film.

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I was therefore surprised to discover that Mr. Spielberg had drenched the film from beginning to end with traumatic re-enactments of the Sept. 6, 1972, terrorist attack on Israeli athletes in Munich’s Olympic Village by a Palestinian group self-named Black September, and all this before a television audience estimated at 900 million viewers worldwide.

Certainly, Mr. Spielberg would have assumed that the 33 years that have elapsed since this horrific event may have caused its moral lesson, if any, to fade in the memories of those who were old enough at the time to understand what was happening right before their media-glazed eyes. Hence, people now in their early 30’s or younger must treat the event not as memory, but as history.

In the intervening years, there have been rumors circulated and even books written about the covert Israeli reprisals against the terrorists of Black September. The foreword to the film states that it was “inspired by real events.” The code word “inspired” allows some (but not much) narrative embroidery of the established facts. As Todd McCarthy of Variety notes in his perceptive review:

“George Jonas’ controversial tome Vengeance was adapted once before in 1986, for the well-received HBO telefilm Sword of Gideon, directed by Michael Anderson and written by Chris Bryant, about a five-man commando unit unofficially sent out by the Israeli government to assassinate the 11 Palestinian terrorists identified as ringleaders in the murders of 11 Israeli Olympic team members.”

Mr. Spielberg and his scenarists have combined actual television footage of the time (featuring ABC anchorman Jim McKay and his then-assistants, Peter Jennings and Howard Cosell) with re-enactments of the “retribution” being set into motion by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) and Mossad case officer Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). The man chosen to head the mission is Avner (Eric Bana), a former Mossad agent and bodyguard to Meir, who fondly remembers Avner’s father. The Israeli Prime Minister had refused to negotiate with the terrorists over their demands for the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners, as well as the German leftist terrorist leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In an interestingly slanted conversation between Ephraim and Avner, Ephraim explains the real reason why Prime Minister Meir didn’t attend the public funeral of the slain Israeli athletes. Her official reason was the death of a relative, but her actual reason, Ephraim assures Avner, was that she didn’t wish to be booed in public for her refusal to negotiate with the terrorists for the lives of the Israeli athletes. It is almost as if Mr. Spielberg and his scenarists were trying to establish a parallel between the defiance of George W. Bush and that of Golda Meir when she declared: “Forget peace for now, we have to show them we’re strong.”

Avner is instructed that until his mission is completed, he is disconnected from any tie to Mossad or any other Israeli governmental entity. Avner is completely alone, placed in charge of four colleagues and an unlimited amount of money to be drawn from a Swiss bank as needed. This means leaving his pregnant wife Daphna (Ayelet Zurer) behind without telling her where he is going or anything about his mission. In Europe, he assembles his crew: experienced hit man and occasional hothead Steve (Daniel Craig), more cautious clean-up man Carl (Ciaran Hinds), explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and document forger Hans (Hanns Zischler).

Their first target is a sympathetically presented Palestinian literary translator based in Rome, whom the group dispatches without too much difficulty. Their second target, however, is a more complicated proposition in his luxurious Paris apartment, thanks to the unpredictable comings and goings of a wife and small daughter. We get the first intimations here that the members of the group are not all that ruthless by their reluctance to kill or injure innocent civilians in the course of the assassinations. Also, they can roam throughout Europe, but not in any Arab country or in the Soviet Union.

Even so, one of film’s most entertaining qualities is its simulation of street life in such varied cities as Geneva, Paris, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Athens and London, the essentials of each city expertly reproduced in the production’s actual locations in Malta, Hungary and France. No matter—Mr. Spielberg displays an affinity for the picaresque that is up to the genre’s highest standards. As the killings and attempted killings go on and on, the tensions within the team increase. When three of the Palestinian Black September assassins who had been captured at the scene are released after a Lufthansa plane is hijacked and then hailed as conquering heroes on Libyan television, some of the hit-team members are shown urging Avner to disregard their official orders not to operate in an Arab country. When Avner refuses, the bad feelings within the group begin to fester. It soon turns out that Avner himself is getting information on the group’s targets from a mysterious French agent named Louis (Matthieu Amalric), whose identity is withheld from Avner’s own confederates, much to their displeasure.

Meanwhile, Avner’s wife delivers a baby girl, the news of which devastates Avner and increases his doubts about the whole mission. The trouble with Avner as a character, however, is that aside from his perpetually troubled demeanor, he has no one with whom he can safely communicate his own feelings. This is also the problem with the other members of the team, whose inner feelings are shrouded in the enforced secrecy of the mission. Then there are the mysterious French sources, Louis and Papa (Michael Lonsdale), and the latter’s cryptic lord-of-the-manor aphorisms about his involvement in the international spy game. Mr. Amalric and Mr. Lonsdale, two of France’s brightest talents, seem to monopolize what little ironic whimsy there is in the grim business at hand.

One of the nastiest and seemingly most exploitational sequences involves a would-be bar pickup named Jeanette (Marie-Josée Croze), who tries unsuccessfully to seduce Avner. Avner later warns Carl about the temptress in the bar—but to no avail, for Carl is found dead in his hotel room the next morning with the bar girl’s distinctive perfume all over the room. To locate Jeanette and avenge Carl, Avner turns to Louis again for the tip that places Jeanette in a Dutch houseboat and attributes to her many international connections (including, if I recall correctly, the C.I.A.). Three of the four surviving team members confront Jeanette in her houseboat and kill the half-naked femme fatale very slowly with a bizarre combination of bullets and what appears to be a poison dart. It’s as if we were suddenly plunged into a movie about ritual murderers. Later, one of the team members regrets that they chose to kill Jeanette.

The point is that Ms. Croze’s character seems to have been inserted into the film gratuitously to supply a tiny bit of sensationalism into proceedings that are otherwise monotonously full of gloom and self-doubt. None of the reviews I’ve read so far have mentioned this scene, which for some reason sticks out in my mind for its strikingly sadistic self-indulgence in the pathology of hate.

From this point on, the hunters begin to fall like the hunted and the killings continue on both sides in such trouble spots as Northern Ireland and Vietnam. In a state of complete moral confusion, Avner leaves his team, the Mossad and Israel itself for a new life in Brooklyn with his wife, child and mother (Gila Almagor). But the horror of Sept. 6, 1972, in Munich will never leave him, as is made evident in an already controversial sequence synchronizing the re-enacted slaughter of the Israeli athletes with his own frenzied orgasm at the climax of his lovemaking in Brooklyn with his clearly apprehensive wife.

Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Kushner and Mr. Roth have chosen to show all the doubts and hesitations over the use of terror on the Israeli side, but what of the Palestinian side? Are there any doubts and hesitations there? Mr. Spielberg and company don’t say. They have been deservedly praised for not demonizing the Palestinians and for not exulting mindlessly in the revenge of the Israelis. But is this a sufficient statement about the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians that persists to this day? Mr. Spielberg and company are clearly opposed to violence in the affairs of men and of nations—yet I’m reminded of George Orwell’s famous essay on Ghandi and his call for nonviolence to liberate India from British rule. Orwell noted that Ghandi relied on an outburst of outraged world opinion to assist him. That was all very well, Orwell argued, with a comparatively mild colonial power like Britain. But what if Ghandi had tried the same tactic in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union? He would have been silenced in a Siberian gulag in no time flat.

I am also reminded of another Munich in 1938 when English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Edouard Daladier and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler negotiated an agreement that, as Chamberlain told the cheering British crowds, would bring “peace in our time.” I bring up this other Munich because I think that Mr. Spielberg is presumptuous to preach peace and nonviolence to Israelis and the rest of us in the contemporary Munich, when the first Munich inexorably produced the Holocaust.

Slow West

Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, from a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, turns out to be a literally slow-moving western that plays out as laboriously as its title. In the ongoing debate over illegal immigrants pouring across our border with Mexico, this movie goes out of its way to make the U.S. Border Patrol a collective villain hell-bent on persecuting economically impoverished but spiritually noble Mexicans simply trying to make a better life for themselves in America, the land of immigrants. Tommy Lee Jones plays a laconic ranch foreman named Pete Perkins, who befriends a Mexican ranch hand named Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). The two strike up an unlikely friendship, which includes bedding down willing young women in a local motel. Melquiades makes Pete promise that, if worst comes to worst, he’ll make sure that Estrada is buried on the Mexican hillside that he has so lovingly described.

But when the ranch hand is found after he is accidentally slain by a border patrolman named Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), he is quickly buried not once but twice without any official inquiry into the crime. Pete is not satisfied that his Mexican friend has received just treatment at the hands of the Border Patrol, and he sets out to rectify matters by kidnapping Norton, forcing him to dig out Melquiades from his grave, and then compelling Norton to accompany Pete and the corpse to the victim’s desired burial ground—a place in Mexico that Pete has never seen—using only a crude map drawn by the ill-fated Mexican. And so the long odyssey of two men with a corpse begins.

Mention has been made in some reviews of such supposedly comparable westerns as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962). No way, Jose—those sublime twilight sagas of aging but still indomitable action heroes have little in common with the morbidly quixotic (though commendably progressive) Three Burials. What Mr. Jones’ film resembles more closely is the 1996 Belgian art-house hit The Promise (La Promesse), by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in which the 15-year-old son of an exploiter of illegal immigrants defies his father to keep a promise that he made to an African laborer as he lay dying from a construction accident to take care of his wife and child. Still, The Promise involves a young man’s obligation to a dead man’s living family, not a dead man’s preferred burial site.

What makes matters worse is that Mr. Jones and Mr. Arriaga have grossly caricatured Norton and his ditzy wife Lou Ann (January Jones) in what amounts to a case of reverse racism. Mr. Arriaga is no stranger to convoluted narratives, as is demonstrated in his previous screenplays for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003). Still, Mr. Jones nearly holds all the pieces of the proudly fractured narrative together with the persuasiveness and conviction of his lead performance, and Melissa Leo, Dwight Yoakam and Levon Helm are memorable in supporting roles.

Dame Judi’s F-Bombs

Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents, from a screenplay by Martin Sherman, turns out to be a sloppy vaudeville turn by those glorious troupers Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in what amounts to a silly orgy of nostalgic patriotism and the titillating naughtiness of stationary nudity. Indeed, the saga of the venerable Windmill Theatre, which stayed open throughout the London Blitz, may make some people want to stand up and sing “There’ll Always Be an England,” but I used up most of my Anglophilia on Celia Johnson’s stirring toast to “my worst enemy—this ship and all who sail on it” in David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942) and Laurence Olivier’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Henry V (1944).

Christopher Guest deserves a mention for his fussy lord chamberlain, who permits Botticellian nudity to flourish on the Windmill stage as long as it remains, canvas-like, within its frame, while Kelly Reilly (as the liveliest still-life, Maureen) comes to a bad end in the Blitz to mix a few tears in with all the chuckles.

I must confess that I was somewhat amused by the impunity with which Dame Judy tosses about the once-dreaded F-word and makes a joke about a man’s circumcision these days when, back in 1939, David O. Selznick had to go down on hands and knees to plead with the Breen Office to allow him to have Clark Gable say to Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Oh, how far we’ve progressed in these 60-plus years. But why am I not much happier?

Spielberg’s Munich Suffers  From Curse of the ‘Significant’ Film