Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig
Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language

Munich is Steven Spielberg’s most fascinating film to date. It’s far from perfect, but for a director who has spent most of his career pandering, Munich is a significant anomaly – a film with no obvious blockbuster potential. Too ponderous to succeed as a thriller, too crass to be an “important” film, and too vague to work as a mass entertainment, Munich is a unique work that defies easy categorization.

munich 1The story has been told before, in George Jonas’ 1984 book Vengeance and a 1986 HBO movie called Sword of Gideon. Even for those unacquainted with the previous tellings, the prologue here will likely be familiar. At the 1972 Olympic Games, 11 Jewish athletes were massacred by a PLO-funded terrorist group called Black September. Munich picks up shortly after those tragic events, as a team of Israeli assassins is assembled to track down those responsible for the attack and mete out bloody justice. Despite being hand-picked by the Prime Minister and funded by Mossad, the team is not officially recognized by the Israeli government. They travel in shadows throughout the Middle East and Europe, building bombs and methodically ticking names off their list.

The leader of this team is Avner (Eric Bana), a former Mossad bodyguard with a young wife at home and a baby on the way. Avner accepts the assignment knowing it will be dangerous, but little realizing how much it will cost him, physically, mentally and spiritually.

munich 2The assassins are a surprisingly ragtag bunch. Far from being the suave secret agents of paperback fiction, these spooks have human interiors, and as the bodies pile up, their personal constitutions break down. Doubt begins to color their conversations even as their activities grow more aggressive and gruesome. No matter how noble one’s cause, it is disturbing to look in the mirror and see a killer staring back. How far is too far? What kind of “collateral damage” is acceptable? And what does it mean when you start killing on principle instead of assignment?

The violence here is visceral. Spielberg uses grainy, bleached-out images to create a visually compelling landscape, and his camera mimics the cinematic style of the subject era. The movie is a pleasure to look at, and the performances are compelling. Eric Bana finally proves that there is, in fact, a reason he’s been cast in a string of high-profile projects over the last couple years.

Tonally, the film is a a jumble. At certain times it plays like Tarantino, lingering needlessly over sex and gore, while at others it seems to be channeling Merchant Ivory through Coppola. The story meanders, abandoning characters, suggesting plot threads that never develop, and taking detours through indulgent artistic flourishes (at least one of which is cringe-worthy).

munich 3But it is precisely this reckless narrative abandon that I like about the film. We already know Spielberg can do the formula thing. Here he kicks aside the training wheels he’s been carrying for two decades and barrels straight off the beaten path. So what if he loses his way in the woods? I’d rather see Spielberg spend the rest of his career making interesting films that don’t entirely work (like A.I. Artificial Intelligence) than predictable blockbusters that do (like Indiana Jones and the Search for his Bifocals).

Don’t be fooled by the obligatory controversy that has accompanied the film’s release. Some say the pic is anti-Israel; others say it is too soft on the PLO sympathizers. Both claims are completely irrelevant. Munich isn’t making a point, it’s asking a question: How do we reconcile these disparate passions that have fueled horrors throughout the world for centuries beyond remembrance? For once, Spielberg doesn’t have the answer, but he’s ready to start the dialogue.