(R) 3.5 Stars
At several points through Munich, I found myself asking the same question: Is this the point where Steven Spielberg loses his nerve? He's done it numerous times in his more serious movies: the ring scene in Schindler's List, the ending of Saving Private Ryan, the entire last half hour of A.I. Just when he gets genuinely close to the edge, he pulls back and defangs his own message with a needlessly cloying descent into sentimentality.
Spielberg never loses his nerve in Munich, but unfortunately, he never quite finds it, either. His account of the aftermath of the 1972 assassination of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games is expertly crafted and wound with clockwork precision, but it never quite finds the heart it's looking for.
This may be the danger in making a film about the Gordian Knot of Middle Eastern politics. It's easily the hardest thematic job he's ever taken on. That slavery and Nazism are bad things is a settled historical question; not so much the Israeli/Palestinian matter. The few scenes where Spielberg brings out the Hammer of Thematic Exposition to drive the point home are the weakest in the film.
The story follows Avner (Eric Bana), an Israeli secret agent dispatched to lead a team of five experts to kill 11 Palestinian extremists in response to the Munich attacks. As always, Spielberg is at his best when crafting tense re-creations of historical events, and his retelling of the Munich massacre, spread out over the course of the movie, is a match for his harrowing Omaha Beach, slave boat and concentration camp scenes of historical films past. The procedural scenes of the hit squad plotting the death of their targets and desperately trying to keep innocent bystanders out of the line of fire are equally effective.
There's a lot to be said for Munich. The moral murkiness and paranoia mirror some of the excellent spy thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, where our protagonists are so far out in the cold even they don't know whose side they're on anymore. The last act in particular brought to mind Coppola's The Conversation, as Avner becomes increasingly hysterical. The who-do-you-trust undertone of the middle act is probably strongest as Avner becomes disenchanted with his own government and puts perhaps too much trust in the French underground (led by a splendidly paternal Michael Lonsdale) who may or may not be behind surprise attacks on the squad itself.
At half an hour too long, it's not destined for classic status and probably won't clean up at the Oscars, but Munich remains a tight political thriller and a throwback to stripped-down filmmaking that bodes well for Spielberg's future projects.