"Munich" and the Sin of Ambivalence
Evidently, some with a stake in the so-called culture wars aren't satisfied to keep the weaponry relegated to gay marriage, intelligent design and the insidiousness of non-exclusionary seasonal greetings. In recent weeks the long knives have come out over a movie, and one not even directed by Mel Gibson.
Despite being a helluva film, Steven Spielberg's Munich has ticked off a bunch of folks, most of whom subscribe to the notion that supporting Israel/opposing terrorism means rejecting all suggestions of ambivalence and complexity in the big ol' universe.
Based on the controversial book Vengeance by Canadian journalist George Jonas, the film stars Eric Bana as Avner, a quiet and contemplative Mossad agent. After Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Avner is directed by then-Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir to track down and assassinate a number of Palestinians who helped mastermind the slayings.
Spielberg's other flick of 2005, War of the Worlds, was a slick summer thrill ride, but its mosaic of U.S. cities under attack adroitly mined America's post-9/11 fears. Munich, an obviously more solemn picture, is the logical bookend to that earlier work.
While Munich's most direct subject matter is the aftermath of the Olympics tragedy, there's no denying that its depiction of vengeance, responding swiftly and decisively in the face of barbarism, is particularly apt in today's global environment. Spielberg underscores that fact with a scene toward the film's end, in which two characters are talking in Brooklyn, circa 1973. Behind them is Manhattan, and it is impossible to miss the Twin Towers looming like ghosts over the famed skyline.
Clearly, the filmmakers find legitimate linkages between Israel's response to terrorism in 1972 and the U.S. reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Less certain, however, is whether Spielberg and company are judging the latter response, or simply pointing out the moral quagmire that results from an eye for an eye. The movie explores shadings of morality; it does not instruct.
But lack of certainty hasn't prevented some critics from lashing out at Munich.
In The New York Times, for instance, Edward Rothstein displayed the nearly supernatural ability to place himself inside the heads of the moviemakers:
"The warning and image [of the World Trade Center in the movie] are meant to suggest that militant attempts to destroy terrorism lead not to peace but to cycles of violence, and that the 9/11 attacks may even be consequences of Israel's response to the Munich massacre. A war on terror amplifies terror. Moreover, the movie teaches, opposing sides begin to resemble each other. Moral credibility is destroyed along with hope."
The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier was so venomous in his shredding of Munich, you'd have thought that Steven Spielberg himself had taken a dump on the guy's lawn:
"The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is. For long stretches it feels like The Untouchables with eleven Capones. But its tedium is finally owed to the fact that, for all its vanity about its own courage, the film is afraid of itself. It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness. Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil, Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents, Israelis kill innocents. All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective."
Wieseltier must've seen a different Munich than what I saw. Spielberg's film is not Oliver Stone sanctioning far-flung conspiracy theories, nor is it Mel Gibson fanning anti-Semitism. Instead, Munich makes the evidently serious transgression of humanizing its antagonists. It presents Palestinian terrorists as ... people.
Not particularly good people, mind you, but people, nonetheless. Munich hardly sympathizes with the Palestinian terrorists who committed murder. In fact, Mohammed Daoud, who planned the '72 kidnappings and murders, has accused Spielberg of "serving the Zionist side alone." The director makes no bones about his condemnation of terrorism. The audience has a rooting interest in seeing Avner and his cohorts assassinate the masterminds behind Black September. Nevertheless, the film makes the very point that violence, no matter how righteous, comes with consequences. Whether it is a soul in turmoil or the dangers of becoming one's enemy, there are ramifications.
One suspects that some of the savaging of Munich was inevitable because Spielberg had tapped Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to write the screenplay. Kushner, the author of the celebrated Angels in America, is well-known for his leftist politics and harsh criticism of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Kushner, incidentally, is Jewish).
But Munich does not purport to be -- and should not be confused with -- a deep political treatise. It is too engrossing as a thriller to hold such lofty aspirations. Spielberg's take on the story is simple, but unequivocal. As he told The Los Angeles Times, "Sometimes we have to choose from bad options. And sometimes there are unintended results." How can you argue with that?
Ultimately, the LA Times' Rachel Abramowitz hits it in her assessment of Munich:
"Politically, the film is a Rorschach test -- almost impossible to view except through the lens each individual audience member brings to the theater. There are those who will see a glamorized Israeli Mossad squad, dispatching villains with ingenuity, fiercely committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish state, while others will be infuriated that any of the Israeli commandos express any qualms about their mission. Some will be troubled that the Palestinian terrorists have been humanized, and others will be sure that they haven't been humanized or validated enough.
"At the end, it's a visceral, emotional piece of work that doesn't offer any specific solutions — a fact that will anger a whole other set of viewers."