Victoria Segal - Patriot games

Film - Hollywood's top director makes a troubled foray into politics, writes Victoria Segal

Mun

Steven Spielberg has called Munich, his controversial new foray into Arab-Israeli relations, "a prayer for peace", but peace is the one thing the film does not seem to have brought him. Accused of moral relativism and "humanising" terrorists by one side, and blamed for glamorising Mossad death squads by the other, the director has found himself in the kind of trouble that he just didn't get making movies about cuddly aliens or undisputed war heroes. He can't be surprised. In today's climate it is impossible to imagine how Hollywood's leading director could make a film about the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics without somehow affronting the audience. Spielberg's noble intention may be to open up a dialogue around a painful issue, yet the only people who won't find a way of taking umbrage at Munich are those who are prepared to watch it as a straight-up thriller - an approach that defeats the director's lofty aims.

The film starts with members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, brutally taking 11 Israelis hostage at the Olympic village. Spielberg's real theme, however, is Israel's secret (and still largely unacknowledged) campaign of retribution. All but three of the gunmen died along with the hostages on the tarmac at Fursten-feldbruck airfield, but Israel wished to exact revenge on those behind the atro-city. Spielberg shows Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen like a cheek-pinching grandma with a marble cake in the oven) debating the decision to assassinate the supposed leaders of Black September on foreign soil. "Every civilisation," she says, "finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." As a result, Meir's former bodyguard Avner (played by the Australian Eric Bana, best known as Ang Lee's Incredible Hulk) accepts a mission to lead the assassination squad.

The pitfalls are clear. Some will argue that, just by the director choosing to tell this story from the point of view of Avner and his men, the audience will naturally end up empathising with them - especially as the handsome Avner is shown having lovingly flushed sex with his beautiful pregnant wife (Ayelet Zurer), flying home illicitly from secret missions to see the birth of his child and (an essential trait for a government assassin, this) weeping as he hears his baby daughter gurgling down the phone.

But there's plenty of fuel for the other side's ire, too. Geoffrey Rush, playing Avner's chilly handler Ephraim, instructs his charge: "You'll do what the terrorists do. Do you think they report back to home base?" - one of the explicit equations of counter-terrorism with terrorism that has upset Israel's supporters. Similarly, the team are seen killing in cold blood and sometimes taking intemperate and undisciplined revenge; ultimately, they are ineffectual against the hydra-like rise of terror. Meanwhile the significant Palestinian voice in the film is that of Ali (Omar Metwally), a young, smouldering member of the PLO whom the Mossad men meet in an unlikely mix-up over a safe house. With the help of the scriptwriter Tony Kushner, Ali gets to articulate the Palestinian cause in poetic terms: "Home is everything . . . It will take one hundred years but we will win . . . Then the world will see how they have made us animals."

As politics, therefore, Munich is doomed to inflame those eager to be inflamed. As cinema, however, it is slickly seductive, an elegant, old-fashioned thriller with its Bond-like global locations, brooding men in long coats, tense set pieces and growing paranoia. Spielberg is a master of detail, and gets numerous little touches right - the food that Avner cooks, the honeymoon couple in the hotel room next to a victim, the way blood and milk spill on a floor after an assassination.

Equally, Avner's team are all defined as individuals: Daniel Craig stands out as the bellicose South African driver Steve, a man who cares only for the lives of Jews; Mathieu Kassovitz plays Robert, a hairy Belgian toymaker-turned-bomb-maker who is bothered by the need for righteousness; Hanns Zischler is Hans the implacable German; while the excellent Ciaran Hinds brings a troubled weight as the conscience-heavy fixer Carl.

Nevertheless, there are some weird misfires, suggesting that Spielberg's passion for his subject has overwhelmed his judgement. A bizarre scene at the end intercuts the terrible denouement of the Munich siege with Avner having anguished sex with his wife. The point is presumably to show how violence affects even this act of love, but it seems tasteless and lumpen. The closing shot of the twin towers also leaves a sense of queasiness: it's far too loaded an image to be deployed in such a vague, finger-wagging way.

Munich's passion is clear, its intention good, the skill behind it immense; there is something brave about its decision to take politics into the multiplex. Yet even as it portrays these morally compromised characters, Munich seems a compromised film, a drama where there should perhaps only ever have been documentary.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, A new sort of superpower