Steven Spielberg

From E.T. to Munich, the boy wonder of the movie industry grows up.

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Based on a controversial memoir by an ex-Mossad agent, Munich details the hunting down and killing of each of the terrorists associated with the Munich disaster by a crack team of Israeli secret agents. Spielberg's technique in Munich is as fine as it has ever been; there are moments that rival the best of Hitchcock for suspense, and Janusz Kaminski's photography is exceptionally beautiful. But the movie that Spielberg thought he was making is very different from the one he actually made, and Munich functions far more smoothly as a tense action-thriller taking place on the margins of reality--and plausibility--than a philosophical drama of Israeli and Palestinian cycles of violence and counter-violence.

Munich desires to be taken seriously, to be Spielberg's equivalent of Schindler's List for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But some combination of the dubious source material, Spielberg's shaky grasp of the roots of the violence, and the film's own unconscious taste for bullets over broadsides makes for a movie more adrenaline-fueled than thought-provoking. Wonderfully stirring, Munich has little at all to say about the seemingly endless battle between Israelis and Palestinians, and the little it does offer is jumbled and tentative. Part of the problem is that Munich takes place in the 1970's, which may as well be another century for its relevance to the contemporary landscape of the Middle East.

All in all, Munich is more proof of Spielberg's desire to be taken seriously than impetus for us to actually do so, and it is only a successor to Schindler's inasmuch as it marks yet another step away from the entertaining but unintellectual adventurism of his early career. In one of the more unlikely and wonderful transformations in film history, the boy wonder has turned himself into the great historical chronicler, taking American film on a guided tour of the past, and leaving no stone unturned in the process.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.