Without a hero to elevate his story, a seminal director wades into the politics of vengeance with "Munich"
Steven Spielberg's "Munich" begins during a seemingly more naive time, a time when a group of jovial athletes - Americans from the volume of their banter - might help eight fellow jocks over a fence at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. At least that is who they think they're hoisting.
The year is 1972.
That summer, Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut wowed us at the Olympics. But something more heartbreaking than record-breaking burned those games into our memory.
On the night of Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinians calling themselves Black September took 11 Israelis hostage. Two were murdered early in the siege, the other nine were killed at the airport, 23 hours later.
In "Munich," opening Friday, early scenes of the terrorists overrunning the dorm where the athletes reside are visceral, chaotic, dismaying. Muscular filmmaking unleashed on a jarring event. And, set in the early '70s, "Munich" mirrors the aesthetic of the movies of that era with its willful grit and ad-hoc intimacy.
It's the sort of moviemaking we've come to take for granted from Spielberg - confident, masterful. And it poses a question: What happens when the most important director of his generation takes on one of the most pressing issues of our moment - terror and a government's violent response to it?
The answer impresses. But then Spielberg is so gifted at
Dark images persist
Whenever filmmakers grapple with a subject worthy of their talents, it's hard not to get excited. When that artist is Spielberg the rush of expectations is often followed by fretting. Think back to his prestige projects: "The Color Purple" (black women's lives), "Amistad" (slavery), "Saving Private Ryan" (D-Day and the Greatest Generation). They are ambitious but uneven.
Yet, in his true masterpiece, "Schindler's List," he tackled the Holocaust with grace and hope. His other tour de force, "Jaws," ushered us to our seats in the age of the blockbuster.
Of Spielberg's peers, Martin Scorsese is the only other director who has exhibited the same staying power and breadth of storytelling ambition. But he has chosen quite different stories to tell. Even his epic "The Last Temptation of Christ" wasn't bent on making Jesus larger than life. It reminded audiences of his to-scale humanity and vulnerability.
Contrary to its title, "Munich" is not really about the attacks of Sept. 5, 1972. Instead, based on "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," by George Jonas," it follows five members of a secret assassination squad as they hunt down the Arabs they've been told were responsible for planning the Munich carnage.
Eric Bana plays Avner Kauffman, a Mossad agent who leads the group. Some have worried out loud that "Munich" would be too pro-Israel; other critics have wondered if Kauffman and his team would be too morally tormented by their mission. Why focus on morally conflicted Jews if the terrorists feel no trepidation?
Spielberg has said the opportunity to direct "Munich" preceded the terror attacks of 9/11 by a number of years. But clearly, the director has inched toward the darkness cast by 9/11 in his past few films. The results are mixed.
In 2004's "The Terminal," Spielberg put Tom Hanks' Eastern European everyman Viktor Navorski in limbo at a New York airport. Stuck, thanks to Homeland Security, betwixt his war-torn homeland and a mysterious destination in Harlem, Viktor transforms the cold space of the airport into a site of human connection. Viktor's almost-love story with Catherine Zeta-Jones' flight attendant is secondary. It's the multi-ethnic community of workers that hints at Spielberg's desire to envision a convivial international community.
Americans as refugees
This summer, the director revisited H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds." He and writer David Keep hewed closely to Wells'sci-fi tale, including how the aliens meet their microbial demise.
But the director also borrowed images of New Yorkers in exodus from Lower Manhattan after the the World Trade Center towers fell. Other images from 9/11 include makeshift walls papered with photos and pleas about the missing.
"This is partially about the American refugee experience. It's about Americans fleeing for their lives, about being attacked and having no idea why and who is attacking them," Spielberg said at a news event in June. "Of course the images that stand out most in my mind are of everybody from Manhattan crossing the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11. It was a searing image I haven't been able to get out of my head."
"Munich's" Kauffman also has images he can't shake. When the movie revisits the mayhem of the terror attacks, it's not as flashback but as Kauffman's nightmares and waking dreams.
"War of the Worlds" left us with a nagging problem.
The movie became less vital as it made Ray Farrier (Tom Cruise) and his family's fate its sole concern.
Granted, that was the filmmaker's allegorical intent: Show an everyman doing whatever is required to save his family. But it didn't make the movie emotionally larger. It shrank it.
The salvation of Farrier family may honor the source material (and provide evidence of Spielberg's oft-criticized happy-ending reflexes). But it dishonors audiences who have learned - with 9/11 and the Iraq war - that loved ones perish. Had Spielberg killed off even one Farrier family member, "War of the Worlds" would have been a better film. Coldblooded but true.
Some of this year's best films suggest that the most powerful, resonant stories are no longer the property of one hero. Take "Crash" and "Syriana," in which the weight of drama is carried by multiple protagonists amid a community of characters. Even "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" offers so much more than its youthful magician.
That Spielberg chose playwright Tony Kushner to work with on "Munich" was promising. After all, Kushner's award- winning "Angels in America" soared because of a stunning array of characters.
Yet a fractured narrative has never been Spielberg's style. It is true that his great film comes close, leavening Oskar Schindler's presence with that of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), the Nazi Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) and a strong cast of characters with whom we can connect.
"Munich" puts an exclamation point on a year in which movies refused to shrug off the weight of "now" ("Syriana"), even when they're using the guise of "then" ("Good Night, and Good Luck").
Not one of Spielberg's counterparts in longevity and talent - Scorsese, George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola - has pushed as long to be so relevant to world history as he has. When we wonder and argue about Spielberg's greatness, it's because not only does he swing for moviemaking's fences, he loves engaging the big questions.
Will "Munich" soar from very good to the great?
That we are once again asking the question is what makes Spielberg such a vexing, yet exciting artist.
Film critic Lisa Kennedy can be reached at 303-820-1567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.