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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? MUNICH.  
   
   
 

It's an exercise used by creative-writing teachers and film-school professors. The student will be inundated with tough assignments and given impossible deadlines in which to complete them -- write a short story in an hour, make five short films in one week. The idea is not for the student to succeed; the idea is for the budding young artist to be pushed out of his comfort zone, forced to

 
 

think on his feet, go with his gut. You don't have time to worry over every little detail -- you have to produce and you have to do it now. Under such intense circumstances, what often results are these surprising little feats of ingenuity and desperate energy that the student normally would have bypassed if he had more time to shape a work. The mistakes and on-the-fly compromises are fine; all we want is to reveal the student's personality and artistic temperament without filters or self-consciousness stepping in the way of the creative process.

Such exercises are meant to loosen up the typical teenaged undergrad, but not a recommended practice for the

       
 

most popular commercial filmmaker living. But that's exactly what Steven Spielberg has been doing this century.

With his new Munich, the man has now directed six films since 2001. Six. Where most filmmakers of his stature wait a couple years between projects, allowing each to seem like a major cultural event of high importance, he's been a workhorse like Woody Allen or Robert Altman -- essentially racing from film to film, burning with ideas. What we've gotten in the process are some of Spielberg's nerviest, most instinct-driven movies of his prodigious career. Since Spielberg has such natural showman abilities, his mistakes and compromises are more interesting than other people's ponderous insights, but from A.I. to Munich, his films have been flawed but always captivating -- pure Steven, for better and for worse, unquestionably him. In some ways, his seemingly unbridled energy as he pushes 60 is more impressive than his huge box-office numbers.

Part factual, part speculative, Munich recounts the years of vengeance after the 1972 Olympics when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Eric Bana leads a team of five Jewish men sent to assassinate those who orchestrated the killings. Most Oscar-sniffing directors would proceed with caution, relying on a carefully mapped-out shooting schedule to cover every base. One of the perverse delights of Munich, then, is how kinetic, how go-go-go it is. A docudrama with a page-turning pulpy zest, his film creates a world the gents from Ocean's Eleven would love -- exotic locales, colorful characters, dangerous babes -- and he turns the assassinations into white-knuckle rides, cruelly efficient and inordinately confident.

Some might find it offensive to call Munich an exciting entertainment. But that's to misunderstand Spielberg's skill as an action director and how his talent has already served him very well twice with serious subjects. Whether with the menacing roundup of Jews in Schindler's List or the grisly opening battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan, he deftly incorporated the same scare tactics and blockbuster techniques he had finely honed after Jurassic Park and Jaws. In his dramas, he uses the conventions of suspenseful filmmaking while managing to drain the giddy pleasure and leaving only the sickening tension.

And so with Munich, we watch these men operate through an international thriller of elaborate set pieces and daring getaways. With his team he uses on every film -- editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski -- Spielberg conjures up atmosphere and place so effortlessly that you get lost in it. (Whether it was the doomsday scenario in War of the Worlds or the true-life paranoia of Munich, I found myself disappointed that the film was going to end, no matter the horrors and fear produced by the narratives.) But, again, there's nothing glibly "entertaining" about Munich's thriller persona -- the violence seems weighed-down, considered, grim. It's an utterly bravura piece of staging, pace, and camera movement. Spielberg's twitchy exuberance for storytelling is addictive -- the headlong rush of this new film (as well as Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report and War of the Worlds) evokes the hectic, impatient haste of life itself, and in a small way mirrors Altman's improvisational, we'll-figure-it-out-as-we-go style of character development and plotting. Nothing feels sloppy in terms of execution, and yet the film has a loosey-goosy flow to it, a sense that anything could happen. Technically, Munich is flawless, extraordinary.

Thematically, though, it's a whole other story, and it's here that the off-the-cuff Spielberg makes interesting choices but not always the best ones. The director's 21st-century films have a consistent flaw, which makes them fascinating but also frustrating: The emotional undercurrents don't feel thought through. A movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park didn't need to worry over the small details -- they're machines made for audience pleasure and nothing else. But since 2001, he's aspired to a more thoughtful vision; War of the Worlds and Minority Report may get asses into seats but they're also rife with postmillennial tension.

Munich shares the tormented dread of some of his recent films, but he again fails to make his characters' arcs come through coherently. A.I. , which he wrote himself, was the best example of Spielberg's stunning ambition thwarted by his difficulty with story beats. Since then, he's relied on others to do the typing, but even Munich with its condemnation of eye-for-an-eye retribution feels less a political commentary than a technical primer. (You just know that the behind-the-scenes piece in American Cinematographer is gonna be great.) As the lead character, Bana is our P.O.V. into this realm of assassins and terrorists, but he remains an oblique figure, and the breaks between killings where the characters sit around and debate the morality of their actions seem perfunctory. The emotional toll of revenge comes through most harshly, not surprisingly, in Spielberg's expert action pieces, not in the on-the-nose discussions. (Other "character" moments, including an unfortunate sex-scene montage, also fall flat.)

Usually, such a major deficiency would turn me off, but Spielberg is perhaps that one filmmaker whose technical mastery is so great I'm willing to forgive the things he can't do so well. Like with that school exercise, the clear flaws in his work feel intertwined with his enormous gifts -- I find myself in a more forgiving, encouraging mindset, rooting him on. Munich is the closest Steven Spielberg has come to making a great film this century, and he hasn't made a boring one during that time. (Even A.I. gets to me, no matter how off-the-rails that film goes about halfway through.) Jumping from project to project with such fury has probably hurt some of the finished products, but their near-excellence is part of their charm. They're a sign of a director who has achieved everything but still has more to prove, who doesn't want to get bored, who wants to keep trying new things. His work ethic seems to be a conscious slap in the face of the notion that Hollywood giants should be cautious when strategizing their next move. In a fabled career that's gone through many stages -- boy wonder, earnest sermonizer, Oscar royalty, industry icon -- he's never been quite as inspiring as he's been lately, the occasional mistake or compromise notwithstanding.

 

Believe the Hype Rating: 7 out of 10

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.