Steven Spielberg's film "Munich" is the sad disappointment of the year. It would be easy to crack jokes about the many ways it fails, except that it is a serious attempt to deal honestly with one of the great tragedies of the past fifty years. But we can start with the script, by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth - think "Forrest Gump" meets "Angels in America" - which is too flabby for the topic and never really coheres into anything more than a sequence of episodes, each given equal weight and none moving the film forward. Then there is the strange casting of Eric Bana as the lead. Bana has no screen presence; he seems here to be a puppet reciting lines and stumbling through his role.
But the culprit, if there is one, must be Mr. Spielberg's direction. This master of the action film has, I believe, been seduced by the importance of his topic into thinking that merely showing action is enough to give the film a viable shape and impel its thrust. The story itself is simple and believable and apparently close to the truth. After the Black September Palestinian terrorists murder nine Israeli athletes and trainers at the Munich Olympics of 1978, Golda Meir orders a five-member hit squad formed, to assassinate the eleven terrorists who planned and executed the attack. The squad is disowned by the government and even by the Mossad, and will operate on its own, with contact maintained only through safe deposit boxes at a bank in Geneva. The film is the story of how the group goes about its business.
Avner (Mr. Bana) is the leader of the group, though why anyone would trust him with a job of this importance is beyond me. Although we're told he's been in the Mossad, he is presented to us as callow and totally lacking in the kind of experience needed to run a group of assassins who must track down sophisticated and protected targets scattered across Europe. Moreover, his wife is seven months pregnant and he is informed that he will not be allowed to see her for months and perhaps years, until his task is done. Even assuming this was, in fact, what happened, all it shows is bad thinking on the part of the Israelis - yet it's presented as good thinking. The choices for the rest of the group are even stranger: the bomb-maker who's never made a bomb; the accountant who scrubs the murder scenes to remove traces of identifiable materials; the hot-headed South African shooter. Only the driver seems as though he knows what to do.
Neither the script nor Mr. Spielberg's direction ever tell us how the group makes contact with its first targets; only later do we meet a mysterious young Frenchman, and then his father (the best performance in the film, by Michael Lonsdale), who sell information about the targets to anyone who can pay. And the Israelis pay up to $200,000 for each name.
But essentially this is the gang that couldn't shoot straight; Avner freezes at the first and second assassination attempts, bombs are either too big or they don't go off; the group waits too long before it shoots at another target, instead of simply doing the job; and so on. More important, Spielberg's camera never seems to be in quite the right place for us to see what's going on, and his editing is slack. Shots that should be quick are held too long, connecting sequences are slapped together or omitted needlessly, and the film keeps stopping between events; there is no forward thrust at all. And Spielberg makes another mistake, I believe: He opens, properly, with the terrorist attack itself, but then cuts away at every stage of their hostage-taking and escape, inserting the footage periodically into the film at later points. He would have been better served to present the entire episode first, and then make his film be the response.
The film presents the Palestinian case against Israel as well, which is surely appropriate; but an infinitely better portrait of both sides is found in John Adams's opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" and the remarkable film that Penny Woolcock made of it in 2003; you would do well to find the DVD and screen it for yourself.