Shortly after “Munich: The Edge of War” opens, a young couple have an anniversary lunch at a restaurant. It’s 1938, and the husband, who works in the British Foreign Service, tells his wife that Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia, and if that happens Britain and France will be obliged to respond militarily. Just as the husband delivers this sober news, the wife — wearing an indulgent smile and the openly bored look of someone listening to the weather report — perks up. The waiter has brought their Chablis finally.
Unlike that wife, Hitler at least gets some grudging respect and decent dialogue in this potboiler about the diplomatic efforts to stop Germany. Based on the best seller by the British novelist Robert Harris, the movie weds fact with fiction for a story about estranged friends, Hugh (George MacKay) and Paul (Jannis Niewöhner), occupying opposite sides of the geopolitical divide. Hugh works at 10 Downing Street and is married to the aforementioned cliché, Pamela (Jessica Brown Findley). Paul serves in the foreign ministry in Berlin and has a tart, politically astute lover, Helen (Sandra Hüller).
For the most part, this movie comes across as a feature-length attempt to glorify Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who engaged in the much-debated diplomatic strategy of appeasement in the run-up to World War II. Played by a sadly juiceless Jeremy Irons in funereal mode, the Chamberlain here is a quietly heroic figure who perceptively negotiates with Hitler to avoid another war. Yet while Chamberlain is the story’s champion — a noble defender, historical bone of contention and revisionist argument rolled into one phlegmatic figure — the movie’s more energetic and visually engaging heroic duties have been relegated to Hugh, Paul and the supporting players in their orbits.
The movie opens with a glimpse of the good old days at Oxford when Hugh and Paul were in love with the same Jewish free spirit, Lena (Liv Lisa Fries). Years later, Hugh is in obsequious functionary mode at Downing Street and hovering attentively over Chamberlain (“well navigated, sir”) while Paul is busily conspiring to boot out Hitler (a spidery and strange Ulrich Matthes). For much of what follows, Hugh and Paul occupy their respective narrative territories. As the plot thickens, the filmmakers — the movie was written by Ben Power and directed by Christian Schwochow — try to build tension by cutting back and forth between the two lines of action that eventually, predictably converge.
All this editing busywork doesn’t help enliven “The Edge of War,” a plodding bureaucratic procedural that features many, many characters strategizing in various spaces with furrowed brows and clenched jaws, mostly in relentless medium close-up. Every so often, these talking heads prove they have bodies and rush or just walk down a corridor and into an office, car or plane, where they continue to scheme, furrow and clench. On occasion, someone has a drink or makes love or goes outside for a breather. In Britain, ordinary citizens are either agitating for peace or preparing for war; in Munich, German soldiers salute one another, hailing Hitler in front of shop windows defaced with anti-Semitic threats.
As the story grinds to its spoiler-free finale, it becomes increasingly clear that the movie would have been vastly improved if the filmmakers had ditched the dueling band o’ brothers story line and instead focused on Paul and his efforts to assassinate Hitler, always a surefire audience pleaser. Hugh is largely a reactive character — a minor planet orbiting Chamberlain’s fading star — and enough of a dreary presence and conceit that you start to feel grudging sympathy for his ridiculous wife, if not the people who put such snortingly terrible dialogue in her mouth. For his part, MacKay is playing a witness to history, which may explain all his energetic eye widening; too bad the character has no detectable inner life.
Paul is the better, more effective figure partly because he faces the more obvious and immediate threat, one that’s largely conveyed through Hitler’s paranoia (and, well, Hitler himself), Nazi iconography and your own knowledge of history rather than the reams of dialogue or the filmmaking. This danger gives Paul’s part of the story juice as does Niewöhner’s fine impression of a pressure cooker leaking steam. Adding much-needed interest too are the women in Paul’s life. They’re stereotypes and certainly objectionable — Lena is more symbol than person — but at least they don’t read as insults to half the world’s population. As Helen, Hüller may not have much to do, but her vitality and intelligence are irrepressible.
Munich: The Edge of War
Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. Watch on Netflix.