Uneven Steven

Natural born handwringer: Spielberg's 'Munich'
Universal Pictures

There's no filmmaker on the planet who understands framing, editing, color, rhythm, music, and the comic whiplash between big and little as Steven Spielberg does. Unlike Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, the billionaire Spielberg keeps growing, keeps challenging himself with new tasks, keeps raising the bar with every movie. In a quartet of recent works--A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Terminal, and this year's War of the Worlds and Munich--Spielberg has fused the event movie and the art-house one-off like no one before. Who else but he would have cast Tom Hanks as a cross between a Palestinian refugee and Jacques Tati, or fused his own childlike brand of sentiment with Stanley Kubrick's arctic remove to make the strangest sci-fi film since 2001?

Spielberg has forgotten more about moviemaking than just about any other filmmaker has ever known, and he has evolved to a level of skill so advanced that he can throw away dazzling set pieces that Peter Jackson would kill to achieve on the best day of his life.

And yet somewhere inside this superhuman titan lies a nice Jewish boy from Phoenix, Arizona. Perversely, the closer Spielberg comes to the spirit of Sam Fuller or Don Siegel, the more he feels the urge to be the after-dinner speaker, the dedicator of memorial plaques, the blue-ribbon charity fundraiser who leaves a string of good deeds in his wake. Infamously, Spielberg felt the need to interrupt the strongest battle scenes ever committed to celluloid with boilerplate tributes to the courage of the Greatest Generation in Saving Private Ryan; and in Amistad, his memorial to the African American Middle Passage, he stopped the parade of images cold to speechify on the indomitable power of the human spirit. The most painful manifestation of Spielberg's schizoid nature is Munich, in which a chilly, abstract film noir on the checkmate between terrorism and counterterrorism gets waylaid by a series of theatrical pontifications on the nature of human ethics.

In the first two-thirds of Munich, Spielberg seems to be minting an entirely new film genre. As Avner (Eric Bana), onetime bodyguard for Golda Meir and Mossad tough guy, tracks down the terrorists who killed nine Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, the director finds a fresh way of working with his longtime editor Michael Kahn: The rhythms are jagged and startling, with all the seams showing. Few of the emotional indicators we expect from a Spielberg film are present as Avner and his team stalk the killers one by one, dispatching them in a brace of set pieces that the Hitchcock of Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent would have to applaud. It's not just that we aren't told how to feel; indeed, it isn't clear that we're meant to "feel" at all.

But then Spielberg's collaborator, the playwright Tony Kushner, kicks in. A sterling essayist and speechmaker, Kushner possesses a gift that is also a curse: a near-pedantic preoccupation with the history of religion, philosophy, and politics. And so in the middle of a lean, taut action movie in the tradition of Frankenheimer's Ronin, characters begin to expound on Herbert Marcuse's reading of Hegel, the moral essence of Jewishness, and--I kid you not--the psychological properties of angels. When the footnotes wane, Arthur Miller dashes in from the wings: A morally anguished bomb maker warns of the danger of becoming what you behold (just like David Mamet's Eliot Ness), and Avner starts to lecture on a world where an-eye-for-an-eye leaves us all blind.

Like a Kubrick character yearning to become one with the machine, Spielberg aches to join himself with cinema--to make a movie where the dance between sound and image creates a trancelike state, an experience between dream and idea. But the wealthy liberal do-gooder inside often gets the better of him, stepping on his most dizzying moments with the explicative powers of an earthly schoolteacher. A friend who accompanied me to Munich had a novel assessment of Spielberg's predicament: "Wait until his mother dies--you'll see! He'll make his Natural Born Killers!" Till then, I fear we may see many more superegoist smackdowns in the manner of Munich.

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