When Steven Spielberg's frustrating courtship of Oscar finally reached consummation, it was for the one-two punch of 1993. A monstrous (in more than one sense) summer blockbuster, Jurassic Park, followed up, in the year-end awards season, with the epitome of the Prestige Picture, Schindler's List. Dinosaurs on the one hand, the Holocaust on the other. A man of many parts, an artist of vast range. A similar game plan appeared to have been mapped out this year. War of the Worlds in the summertime, just to prove that Spielberg can still pack them into the seats, and then at the holidays a hugger-mugger film of such gravity, such bravery, such integrity, that it refused to stoop to the sort of crass marketeering that got Spielberg to the top of the pedestal he sits upon today. For Munich, an account of the terrorist massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and the bloody aftermath, the Best Picture Oscar might not suffice. Nothing less, perhaps, than the Nobel Peace Prize will do.
But something went wrong with the game plan. A pre-release Time magazine cover ("Spielberg's Secret Masterpiece"), coupled with an exclusive interview inside, seemed to deviate, even to stoop, and in response the left-out members of the press got defensive. Early editorials on the film found fault with it, at least from the perspective of the Zionist hard-liner, for its perceived appeasement of terrorists, its evenhandedness -- its virtual equivalence -- in the treatment of Palestinians and Israelis, its unwillingness to take sides, its avoidance of a point of view, its political naivety. Meanwhile, Brokeback Mountain, which had not been hiding its Roman candle under a bushel, jumped out to a big lead in the amassment of prizes from critics' circles. The go-slow strategy of Munich -- or in the sports metaphor of the season, the grind-it-out ground game, disastrously abandoned for one single backfiring forward pass -- has put it in a hole. Which has put me, in turn, in the unaccustomed position of coming to Spielberg's defense.
The essential thing to be said about the film is what shouldn't need to be said, that Munich is no more a peace plan, no more a Middle East policy statement, than Brokeback Mountain is a referendum on gay rights or a vote of censure on homophobia, although such extrinsic considerations always will cloud critical judgment. Munich is first and last a story, a thriller, a tale of revenge, albeit "inspired by real events." The historical starting point is of course well known, but not so well that we can't benefit from a refresher: the breach of security at the Olympic Village by a commando team of the then unknown Black September group (getting unwitting assistance from some drunken American athletes), the taking of hostages in the Israeli dorm and the issuing of demands, the televised standoff (with archival commentary from ABC's Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, Peter Jennings), the springing of the trap at the airport, the initial reports that all the hostages were safe, and then the sad truth: "They're all gone." This is handled economically, with some nice supplementing of familiar news footage (the famous shot of the ski-masked terrorist on the balcony is ingeniously viewed on a TV screen and restaged simultaneously from a different angle inside the apartment), and a legitimately heart-wrenching clip of each of the actual eleven victims in previous good health.
The rest of the story -- this story, as scripted by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, never mind the true story -- is apt to be a revelation: the assassination contracts on eleven suspected Black Septemberists -- an eye for an eye, eleven for eleven -- authorized by Prime Minister Golda Meir herself ("Forget peace for now. We have to show them we are strong"), the team of five Mossad hit men selected for their unfamiliarity in intelligence circles rather than their proven efficiency in the field (the actors, accordingly, selected for their low candlepower, their distance from Tom Cruise: Eric Bana, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, and the man ironically selected later to be the next James Bond, Daniel Craig), the adoption of tactics that bear a marked resemblance to terrorism (a commando assault in Beirut clearly echoes the original assault in Munich), the inevitable transformation of the hunters into the hunted, the mounting deaths, the rising doubts, the growing paranoia, and the final tally, at the end of the game, of six targets eliminated, three team members lost, and untold collateral damage. Additional details of what happened in Munich will run through the mind of the tortured team leader, in two separate installments along the trail of vengeance, as if to strengthen resolve. A third and final installment will run through his mind when he's off the job and on top of his wife in bed, dripping with sweat and straining with effort, looking like it's Round 12 in a Rocky movie, a mortifyingly overwrought sequence.
For a very large fraction of its two-and-three-quarters hours, however, the action is tense and unpredictable, kept within the straits of credibility by various means: by a consciousness of, if not a strict fidelity to, the factuality of the case; by a care not to let the thrills overpower the aversion to violence; by an accent on the human factor. I have had plenty of occasion to note, over the years, how suspense can be heightened by proximity to life and paradoxically lowered by pumped-up exaggeration of it. I wasn't sure that the director of the Indiana Jones films had ever noted that. I was pretty sure, nevertheless, that he knew a thing or two about directing. And his low-slung camera here, tilting the plane of the image backwards, tipping the axis of the world off-kilter, recalls the Germanic influence on American filmmakers from Orson Welles through Anthony Mann through John Frankenheimer. For the first assassination assignment in Rome, targeting a seemingly harmless translator of The Arabian Nights, Spielberg even borrows a patented gimmick from Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, when the lethal bullets bring forth a gush of milk instead of blood. (This made a big hit in 1962 with one of Spielberg's early critical champions, Pauline Kael.) In the next assignment in Paris, substituting a bomb for bullets, the untimely return of an innocent little girl into the target area may be hokey -- why do we say may be when we mean is unquestionably? -- but the management of space and subjective points of view reminds us why Spielberg used to conjure comparison with Hitchcock. The ongoing difficulty of the team's demolitions expert, a toymaker by trade, to calculate the force of his blasts, demonstrates in a nutshell how credibility, how humanity, heightens tension. And the independent intelligence outfit in France, a shadowy Deep Throat entity, serves not just to facilitate the narrative but also to complicate it. Will the seller of secrets sell out their buyer as well? Michael (sometimes Michel) Lonsdale has a good part as the avuncular head of the organization, a former Resistance fighter, on a convivial estate in the country, but it pained me to see a resplendent European star of the stature of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi thrown nothing but a couple of table scraps.
Incontestably, Spielberg has not rid himself of his grandiosity and his self-indulgence. The overextended running time is simply, contradictory though it sounds to say so, a shortcut to Importance, a direct equation of size with significance. And the assorted lightening, whitening, fading effects in the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, etc.) call attention to themselves in their inconsistency. But of Spielberg's "views" on the Middle East, I know nothing, and need to know nothing, outside the film itself. I did not read the Time interview, let alone the studio press notes, and thus when one of the attacks on the film argues that you cannot sit down and reason with terrorists, I am compelled to protest that the film nowhere says you can. At one point in it, when the assassinations have touched off tit-for-tat reprisals, one of the Israelis grimly proclaims, "We're in dialogue now." So much for peace talks. Somewhere, apparently, because I see it quoted everywhere, the director has described his film as "a prayer for peace." I wouldn't describe it that way. I would describe it as profoundly pessimistic, an outlook verboten among politicians but perfectly permissible among artists -- if I may use the term broadly enough to include Spielberg -- and within the conventions of tales of revenge. (In that respect, the shortcoming of Spielberg's oeuvre overall is that he has been too much the politician and not enough the artist: too much campaigning, too much glad-handing, too much telling people what he supposes they want to hear, not enough telling his own truth.) That a story has connections to the real world and to current events does not require its teller to propose a solution. His only duty is to the story.
This one, making its case strongly, brought back to mind another story of a Mossad assassination plot, The Little Drummer Girl, a John le Carré spy novel put on screen in 1984 by the late George Roy Hill. Though a top-notch thriller, a notch above Munich, it came and went without much of a stir. We can only imagine how the very same film would be received if it were made today. (Provided we can imagine in the first place that it could ever get made today.) To be sure, the world has changed a good deal in the interim. The media blanket is so much more smothering, for one thing. For another, it's now post-9/11. And for another, the conflict in the Middle East has dragged on for precisely twenty-one more years. In Munich, one of the humanized Arabs, a PLO henchman, is heard to say, "It will take a hundred years, but we'll win." If we're marking the days from the birth of Israel in 1948, a hundred years start to sound, at the current pace, like a conservative, an optimistic, estimate. Spielberg's pessimism should not want for sympathizers.