I almost didn’t go to see Steven Spielberg’s latest film “Munich.” I wouldn’t have been alone in that decision; many of my friends had already refused to attend. The film was biased against Israel, bordering on anti-Semitic at worst; difficult and violent at best, they’d heard.
In the end, journalistic and Zionist curiosity won out. So after two hours and 46 minutes, my verdict: “Munich” doesn’t paint Israel as particularly insidious nor the Jews as overly dastardly. It is certainly no more violent that a film I saw earlier in the same evening – the latest Harrison Ford big budget thriller “Firewall.”
The real problem with “Munich” is its underlying “why can’t we all get along” message: Spielberg has decided in this film to take a political stand proclaiming the popular but, I believe, essentially irresponsible and revisionist mantra of moral equivalency; that every act of violence is essentially on the same level.
In the moral equivalency of “Munich,” evil begets evil begets evil and it doesn’t matter where it all started, since everyone is equally guilty. To Spielberg, there are no true terrorists; only misunderstood combatants on both sides of a conflict that the director, it would seem, would like to believe can be wished away through a couple of well placed sessions of late night talk therapy in a seedy hotel stairwell.
Which would have been to an Israeli like me absolutely infuriating but still debatable, had I seen the film in Israel. Indeed, I would have probably spent much of the evening after seeing “Munich” arguing with my seatmates or raging against a world view I find misguided and imprudent.
But I didn’t see “Munich” in Israel. I saw it at the Altamonte 18 multiplex in a suburb just north of Orlando Florida where I was recently on a business trip. Sitting in a comfortable theater with stadium seating far from home gave me an entirely different perception of the inherent danger of Spielberg’s approach.
“Munich,” if you haven’t read a review either condemning or praising the film yet, tells the controversial story of Israel’s response to the Palestinian Black September terror attack on Israel’s athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.
The movie starts with glimpses of the kidnapping of the Israelis from their dorm rooms and the rescue attempt that left all 11 Israelis dead, but quickly moves to its main focus: Avner, a seemingly prototypical prickly Sabra who is chosen to head the hit team that will take out those who planned and executed the massacre.
For the rest of the film “Munich” painstakingly describes how the Israeli team tracks down its targets across Europe, while buying shaky information and building bombs ultimately accomplishing most, although not all, of its mission. The plot, based on George Jonas’s controversial and (in many circles) discredited book “Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team,” has all the makings of a Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge flick: man loses all his family, goes after the bad guys, kicks some terrorist butt.
To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t color Avner’s team as cold-hearted killers, nor are the Palestinians the Israelis pursue portrayed as either caricatures or overly sympathetic as those who see the film as fatally biased would have us believe. In one pivotal scene, the detonation of a bomb planted by the Israelis in a telephone is stopped at the last minute when the target’s young piano playing daughter unexpectedly returns.
On the other hand, Spielberg makes a point of showing, after every killing, the Israelis cooking and eating what can only be described as a festive meal. Is Spielberg trying to bring to life that old joke used to describe nearly every Jewish holiday: “they came for us, we killed them, let’s eat.” If so, it’s not particularly funny.
The movie’s heart belongs to a dramatic juxtaposition where Avner and his team are inadvertently placed in what they believe is a safe house from which they can plan their next action. Unbeknownst to them, their French “handler” has booked a Palestinian team in the same hotel room.
The Israelis, pretending to be Basque separatists, strike up a tense camaraderie with the Palestinians, one of whom gives an impassioned speech on how all he wants is his home back, is that too much to ask for? Avner tries to argue, but the Israelis true nationality is discovered, a gun battle ensues, and Avner shoots the speaker dead. Symbolism doesn’t come dripping much more blatantly.
All of these are, ironically, only minor annoyances. As is Spielberg’s telegraphing of emotions at times where a better director (a better Spielberg) would have left more on the editing room floor. A much talked about scene where then Prime Minister Golda Meir sets the stage for Avner’s mission contains far more expository speech-making than would be realistic in a room full of Israelis. However, one cannot assume audiences around the world will have the same grasp of history and context, thus Spielberg can be forgiven for this slight excess.
Where “Munich” goes seriously – and dangerously – off track is in Spielberg’s repeated intercutting of the Israeli story with unfolding events on the political plane. And so, throughout the film, after nearly every successful Israeli assassination, we hear about a Palestinian attack on an airport here or the murder of the Israeli ambassador there.
This message is neither subtle nor ambiguous: all this killing adds up to a never-ending cycle of violence. No one really started it, everyone’s to blame. I suppose Spielberg should be given extra credit for not dishing out a Hollywood ending with a bunch of big explosions and a hero miraculously surviving a free fall from a helicopter over shark-infested waters. Characters with complexity are far more interesting that a brooding Arnold or silent Rambo type saving the girl and killing all the bad guys.
But when Spielberg puts forth a message of moral equivalency, does he also bear some responsibility for how that message will be internalized by his audience? Can we dismiss “Munich” as a mostly well made albeit flawed piece of artistic movie making adding up to an entertaining evening out on the town? Or is the filmmaker trying to set an agenda?
In truth, I’m not so worried about how Israelis will relate to the film; our cinema culture regularly skewers even the most sacred of local cows. The final scene in “Munich,” where a disillusioned Avner essentially renounces any connection with Israel and perhaps even Judaism, would not be out of place in an Israeli production directed by Assi Dayan.
Rather, my concern is for the moviegoers at the Altamonte 18 theater. I read the local Orlando Sentinel while I was in Florida for the week; the only news appearing from the Middle East was at its most stark and headline grabbing. There’s little room for nuance and certainly no exploration of daily life. It would be nice if everyone read “This Normal Life,” but I know they don’t.
Please don’t take this to sound supercilious or superior. We do exactly the same thing in Israel. The local Jerusalem Post, in its recent weekend edition, devoted exactly one small box on its front page to the Dubai Ports scandal that has all but consumed recent U.S. politics.
So, as I walked out of the theater, I imagined that most people would accept at face value what they had just seen on the screen. Yes, that’s the way it is in that far off troubled land, they’d think. After all, Steven Spielberg made the movie. End of story, move on.
I’m glad I saw “Munich.” And I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience what it was like to watch it outside of Israel. I truly hope that the film sparks debate about the nature of the conflict, about the cycle of violence, about the legitimacy of revenge and the intellectual honesty of a moral equivalency approach.
But I doubt it will. And that’s the true danger.
Brian Blum is a journalist and entrepreneur based in Jerusalem. He writes the weekly column This Normal Life (www.ThisNormalLife.com). His latest startup Bloggerce (www.bloggerce.com) provides online publishing solutions for budding bloggers. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.