The Schindler’s List Spielberg is back, but this time he’s not so righteous. A Jew of good standing, he is getting a great deal of criticism from within his community for showing the slippery slope of Israel’s war on terror. This movie is probably about more than Israel. The parallels between the story — about a Mossad agent hunting down and assassinating the architects behind the massacre of Israeli atheletes at the Munich Olympics — and our present-day war on terror are as obvious as a child’s tears. I will not belabor them.

“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values,” says this film’s Golda Meir, in a clunkily thoughtful line that could only have been written by playwright Tony Kushner. Kushner shares the screenplay credit with Eric Roth. According to Writer’s Guild practice, the “and” rather than “&” between their names means they didn’t work together, which means Kushner was rewritten. I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the verbose Kushner turned in an over-long, unfilmable draft. I just wish the resulting film didn’t feel so gutted.

The minor characters, especially the French Papa (Michael Lonsdale), Steve (the next James Bond, Daniel Craig) and Ciarán Hinds (HBO’s Julius Caesar), impress in little screentime. The stonefaced Eric Bana, however, never brings his emotion anywhere near the plane of the movie screen, staring with the same level of inscrutability while assassinating, cooking, or making love with his wife. There hasn’t been a performance this restrained since Mozhukhin met Kuleshov.

Read more about Munich… – minor spoilersWARNING: Minor spoilers ahead.

When the movie is caught up in the excitement and moral labyrinth of political assassination, it is a terrific, absorbing film. The only thing to remind us we are watching a movie is Oliver Stone-like use of extreme film stocks. But it only serves to remind us of Spielberg’s otherwise impeccable directorial taste. No one can direct an actor to die more dramatically in a hail of bullets, and a clip of the numerous such deaths in this movie would make for a perverted tour de force. Certainly, too, der Spiel breaks into new territory for himself with a healthy dollop of sexual revulsion. Spielberg may be Jewish, but there’s a lot of American Puritan in him.

For a five-act movie, three of the acts are at least very good, making this a solid recommend. I just wish the final act wasn’t so dramatically inert. Avram’s ultimate rejection of the state of Israel has none of the power that it should. You get the sense that Kushner, Roth and Speilberg’s hearts aren’t in it. How ironic that they should be blamed, then, for an ideology they can’t bring themselves to profess. They should instead be praised for bringing humanity to the other side. In one contrived but excellent scene, stage actor Omar Metwally, as a Palestinian agent, sets the screen smoldering with the intensity of his conviction. He will die without hesitation for a homeland. His look is scarily believable; its analog can be seen on the faces of young Arab men on your nightly news.

Kushner, who knows well the history of drama, must’ve had somewhere in his mind the lessons of The Persians, by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. Shortly after the Greeks dealt a stunning defeat to longtime enemies the Persians, Aeschylus had the temerity to mount a public drama that showed the suffering of Persian mothers and children, the soul-searching among Persian leaders. Not for nothing was it called the golden age of Greece. Not for nothing, saith Munich, civilization.

UPDATE 1/16/06: This movie has engendered more discussion among my friends than any other movie. A lot of that discussion is about what the movie was meant to say, or disagreement with what the movie is percieved to have said. This discussion seems to have been Spielberg/Kushner’s goal. So, as clunky as the narrative can be, at least it is doing what the filmmakers intended.

UPDATE: Kushner defends the movie in an L.A. Times Op-Ed

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