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Tragedy Re-Revisited

Spielberg's Munich rehashes a tale we've heard before.

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Those who sit around wondering whether Munich is the work of an anti-Israel or just self-hating Jew — which is to say, Steven Spielberg, who has been branded both by Israeli officials and newspaper columnists in recent weeks — give the movie and its maker far too much credit. The story of how Israel's government retaliated for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes — among them an American expatriate and other foreign-born athletes who moved to the Promised Land — at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games is less a treatise on the history of Middle East violence than an inert, overlong thriller. It has more in common with Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven than with Costa-Gavras' Z. It certainly attempts to make a profound statement on the endless cycle of bloodshed begat by terrorism, but it's too turgid and redundant to have any real impact. As a thriller, it barely thrills; as a lecture, it has nothing new to say.

The movie, written by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), is based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas — the same book that provided the basis for the made-for-HBO film Sword of Gideon 19 years ago, in which Steven Bauer played an Israeli soldier appointed by Prime Minister Golda Meir to kill Arabs responsible (and, in some cases, not) for the Munich massacre. In fact, Munich is very much a remake of the forgotten Sword. Whole scenes and sequences and even dialogue from the 1986 movie appear again in Munich, rephrased in the elegant, kinetic cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, a Spielberg collaborator since 1993's Schindler's List.

Sword, too, wrestled with that most Jewish of themes: guilt. Spielberg and his collaborators are careful not to revel in the revenge wrought by the Israeli government, which created a special branch of its intelligence agency, Mossad, called Caesarea to assassinate the planners responsible for Munich. They suggest, as have others who have written about this subject (including Aaron Klein in his stark new book Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response), that not all of the targets chosen for elimination were members of Black September, the group responsible for the Munich killings. Some were PLO sympathizers or financial backers leading quiet lives in Europe, where they hid in plain sight; indeed, many of the Black September agents survive to this day.

At first that doesn't bother the Caesarea agents, especially their leader, Avner (played by Eric Bana). Avner, whose father was a military hero, is a bored soldier with a beautiful wife and a child on the way. Only after they've blown up or gunned down a few folks does Avner come to have a crisis of conscience, demanding to see evidence from the secretive superior (Geoffrey Rush) who keeps his proof locked away.

Munich is far more wishy-washy about its intentions than Sword. It wants to be a terse, blow-'em-up thriller, but it also wants to show remorse for having such a good time. Throughout most of the film, Avner merely shrugs off his colleagues' protestations that Jews "are righteous" and that to act as terrorists do is to lose one's soul. Suddenly, though, Bana turns pale and gaunt, the sure sign a movie hero is no longer into his job.

Munich also contains perhaps the most misguided sequence Spielberg has ever filmed. After shying away from revealing too much of what actually happened in Munich, Spielberg finally puts us on the runway at Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield, where the German police botched a rescue effort and killed only a few terrorists — but not before members of Black September executed all of the Israelis. He intercuts these grisly flashbacks with scenes of Avner violently screwing his wife. Whatever the filmmaker's intentions, to show us Avner's need to connect with his wife or disconnect from his actions, it plays only as overwrought and foolish.

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