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The more troubled our times get, the closer the old Friedrich Nietzsche quote comes to slipping into the realm of an old saw: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
With the question of torture — and what heading down that road can do to a national soul — on the American mind, it might be the best time ever for the appearance of a film like “Munich.” Stirring, bleak, beautiful and heartbreaking, it is just short of a masterpiece — a guidebook to how putting away morality in pursuit of some greater good can crush out what makes us human like a cigarette in an ashtray.
Here, Eric Bana plays Avner, a low-level member of the Israeli secret service. Recently married, with a wife expecting a child, in the days following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Avner is called to a secret meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir and his country’s highest ranking generals. The mission: Lead an off-the-books team of assassins and kill the 11 Middle Eastern men who planned the Munich attack.
In the hands of anybody but Steven Spielberg, this plot might seem simple in the worst possible sense — the meat and potatoes of every “dangerous-men-in-Europe” potboiler since James Bond was spawned in the dregs of a martini glass. Indeed, Spielberg seems to lead us in that very direction in the first reel of the film, with Bana and his team jetting to the capitals of Europe and employing equal parts ingenious 007-grade bombs and witty one-liners to off their prey.
At all times, however, the shadow of Munich hovers over the proceedings, darkening everything. Soon — and it is a testament to Spielberg’s brilliance that you really can’t put your finger on just when — what had seemed like a cloak-and-dagger lark becomes something much more cumbersome, for both the men involved and the audience. Sin compounds on sin, staining even the best-intentioned of them through and through, eventually rendering Avner — father, husband, lover — into something like a soulless golem, unfeeling and unyielding even to the men who turned him loose on the world. By then, you’ve long since realized that Spielberg is teaching us all a valuable lesson: that vengeance — no matter if it’s sought by a man or a country — must be paid for in heartflesh.
“Munich” is a revelation. While not the feel-good hit of the season, it is a film that should be seen at least once by all — and put on a 24-hour-a-day loop in the White House screening room.
Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you want it to work so badly it almost hurts — even though you know it’s probably going to be a piece of crap. One film like that was “Rumor Has It,” the new Jennifer Aniston vehicle. On the none-of-my-damn-business front, I happen to be in the camp that thinks Aniston got screwed over by Brangelina. To boot, I think she’s a pretty good actress. I was impressed by her in 2002’s “The Good Girl,” and I hoped more little movies like that would help her beat the Curse of the Successful Sitcom that haunts so many small-screen actors and actresses.
Maybe best of all, “Rumor…” has a fairly cool premise: That a regular old Pasadena family is the “real” inspiration behind “The Graduate,” with a Mrs. Robinson grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) who seduced a college student (Kevin Costner) who also slept with her daughter a couple of days before the daughter’s wedding.
Aniston plays the part of family detective here, sniffing out the family’s dirty little secret. Back home for her sister’s wedding with her own fiance (Mark Ruffalo) in tow, Aniston figures out “The Graduate” connection, and — suspecting she might be Costner’s child — goes on a trip to seek out mom’s (and grandma’s) old flame, now a dot-com bubble billionaire (the movie is set in 1997. Why? I don’t know, other than making the ages work out for everybody involved). Aniston finds Costner, and — convinced he isn’t her papa — proceeds to sleep with him. In short order, Ruffalo catches her cheating, and it all goes downhill from there.
While this all might sound like madcap fun, it ain’t. Shirley MacLaine is mostly wasted in a role that turns her into a cardboard shrew (as is Kathy Bates, in a purposeless cameo). Aniston looks shell-shocked, and Costner’s performance is so vacant that he might as well have been acting to ping-pong balls on sticks like the green-screen actors in “Jurassic Park.” Also — “The Graduate” references aside — would you really want to get romantically involved with a guy who thought it was fine and dandy to bang grandma, mom and daughter, even 20-odd years apart?
Perhaps worst of all, I kept waiting to laugh. And waiting. And waiting. In a movie that bills itself as a comedy, that’s never a good thing. In the end, “Rumor Has It” is a one-trick pony, one that can’t even work up a good trot. Wait for the DVD, and rent.