March 4, 2006
Slow box office and harsh reviews hurt Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM -- One might expect Israelis to be rooting on Oscar night for "Munich," the Steven Spielberg film lauded for its moral complexity and wrenching depiction of events surrounding the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.
But here on its natural home turf, the film has proved a lackluster box-office draw, savaged by critics and publicly derided by normally close-mouthed members of the Israeli intelligence community.
Very little of the negative Israeli commentary about the film, which centers on the hunt for the Palestinian masterminds of the Munich murders, involved accusations of anti-Semitism, a charge raised by some American groups that support Israel.
Instead, "Munich," which is in the running for five Oscars, including best picture, at Sunday's Academy Awards, was critically flayed here for committing the ultimate sin in the eyes of many Israelis: being boring.
"There is something slovenly about the way Spielberg constructs the film," Uri Klein, the country's premier film critic, wrote in the Haaretz daily.
"Chatty and long," critic Yakir Alkariv wrote in Tel Aviv magazine.
"Muddled, inept," opined the conservative Jerusalem Post.
The mass-circulation Maariv daily spoke of the film's "failure as an action movie."
The film attracted about 70,000 Israeli viewers in its first month of play, a fairly tepid showing for a big-budget Hollywood film. Word of mouth appeared to hurt "Munich" rather than help it; about half of that viewership came in the opening weekend.
"It's not that bad," said Shirit Gal, the movie's Israeli publicist. But she acknowledged that the box-office take had not measured up to expectations for such a high-profile film.
"Munich" had wide distribution by Israeli standards, playing in more than two dozen theaters. That said, it often played to only a handful of patrons.
"It's a simple and trite Hollywood film, edited like a low-budget horror movie," said 23-year-old Maor Cohen, emerging from a weekend screening at a Tel Aviv multiplex.
Disconnected from memory
Israelis are little inclined to denigrate Spielberg, who is still warmly remembered for "Schindler's List," the 1993 Holocaust drama that won seven Oscars.
But though the Munich massacre was a national trauma, many viewers seemed removed from his cinematic depiction of what middle-aged Israelis remember as a defining event of their childhood.
Some viewers said they were repulsed by a controversial sequence portraying the protagonist, the emotionally conflicted Israeli agent Avner, having sex with his wife, which was intercut with graphic scenes depicting the athletes' deaths.
"For that reason, perhaps for others as well, I really could not make any connection through the movie to my own recollections of that time, which are very vivid," said Dorit Morgenthal, a moviegoer in her mid-40s.
Spielberg did win praise for his sensitive dealings with surviving family members, staying in contact with them at all stages of the project. In a poignant touch, he cast Guri Weinberg, the actor son of slain wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg, to portray his own father.
"It was the hardest thing I ever did, but also the best," Weinberg, who was only a month old when his father was killed, told Israel Radio from Los Angeles, where he lives.
Retribution is a central element in Israel's national mythology, but Shmuel Amsalem, a 55-year-old Tel Aviv filmgoer, said the film's intellectual heft was insufficient for such a weighty subject. Nor did it succeed, to his mind, as a piece of entertainment.
"I suggest that Mr. Spielberg send over Indiana Jones," he said. "Maybe he can sort it all out."
"A cowboy movie"
Although the film describes itself as being "inspired" by events in Munich, rather than as a factual depiction, Israel's spy establishment, including some storied but rarely heard-from figures, reacted with anger and indignation.
Zvi Zamir, who was the head of the Mossad Israeli intelligence agency at the time of the Munich Olympic killings, called the film a "cowboy movie."
"Those who understand the subject know the film does not reflect what really happened," he told the Haaretz newspaper.
Other commentators argued that Spielberg's vision was more flattering than damaging to the intelligence establishment, depicting agents as spending inordinate amounts of time wrestling with the morality of their actions.
"In well-documented reality, Israeli retributions and assassinations have been carried out . . . without hesitation," wrote Alkariv, the Tel Aviv magazine critic.
The themes explored in "Munich" echo in today's headlines. Israel to this day carries out so-called targeted killings of Palestinian militants suspected of planning attacks. The practice has been condemned by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has described the hunting of suspected plotters as execution without trial.
Offers no answers
Where some critics saw an unrealistic amount of soul-searching in the film, others assailed what they described as an unacceptable degree of moral equivalency.
"Spielberg poses a question to the viewer: Does revenge for a despicable act not lower the avengers to the moral level of the criminal attackers?" Yaron London asked in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
"He refrains from the answer, but gives the viewer enough hints to persuade him to think that the murderer and his murderer are of equal standing . . .
"I prefer honest movies, which identify evil and call it by name."