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Should Stephen Spielberg be preparing himself for crucifixion? Last night I attended a screening of his new film, Munich, which is soon to open. It's a taut and engaging psychological thriller. Psychological in the sense that it examines the mental and moral tribulations of a covert Israeli assassin. It also explores the psychology of revenge, retribution and survival in the post-9/11 age of terrorism. And because Spielberg not only second-guesses the Mossad and glancingly gives Palestinians a say in the film but also dares to question the effectiveness of an eye-for-an-eye response in the struggle against terrorists, conservatives will pounce on him. (Question: who will be the first ideological critic to tie Munich--which is "inspired," not "based on" real events--to Munich, as in Neville Chamberlain?)
Here's the plot: Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, takes Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. There had been acts of terrorism before but this foul deed was the first episode, as I recall it, that gathered attention throughout the world, as people gazed at television sets or huddled around radios to see what would be the outcome. (I remember sobbing on my parent's bed when the news came.) The outcome was tragic. All the Israelis ended up dead, after a rescue operation at the airport went awry. Most of the Palestinian terrorists--or was it all of them?--were killed as well. This all happens in the first minutes of the film.
Spielberg is less intent on recreating that nightmare--though he does show scenes from it throughout the film--as is he is on reviewing what came next. An Israeli security agent is tasked to find 11 Palestinians who his superiors say were the intellectual authors of this attack and others. The agent, played soulfully by Eric Bana, and his team scour Europe looking for their targets and then eliminating them with bombs and bullets. Along the way, they debate and discuss the morality of their exercise--but not in any heavy-handed or didactic fashion. While the moral justification for their actions is a topic for their (and the viewer's) consideration, the more pointed conversation between them (and between Spielberg and the audience) regards a less lofty subject: is this working?
As the agent and his team--the muscle guy, the bombmaker, the forger, the cleanup man--pick off the Palestinian leaders, they see that these officials are replaced by others who advocate even more violent attacks on Israel and Jews and that Black September is stepping up its terror campaign. Are their assassinations prompting this awful response that is leading to the death of hundreds elsewhere? As one character notes, it is expensive to kill Palestinians--and not just because the team has to spend millions of dollars to locate and then kill their prey.
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By the end, the Israeli agent assassinates a majority of the Palestinians on the list--as well as one of the targets' replacement and a beautiful Dutch female assassin. (Hey, this is a Hollywood movie). But he also loses members of his team. And he is tormented throughout. Back home, he is regarded as a hero. But he wants none of that. In fact, he rejects Israel and moves to Brooklyn--a damn serious step in a film in which the motivation driving all (the Israelis and the Palestinians) is the desire for a homeland. There the agent even comes to believe--with cause or not--that Mossad might be pondering his untimely death. And when his case officer--played by Geoffrey Rush--comes calling, the agent demands to see actual evidence that his victims were involved in killing Israelis. He wants to know--to believe--that he is not a murderer. The case officer can only provide that's-what-the-intelligence-says assurances. The agent is not assured. Still, he asks the case officer to come to his new home for dinner, clumsily citing a Jewish tradition of offering food to travelers. The case officer turns him down and departs. The agent--who killed to protect his homeland--has abandoned that home and has been rejected by its representative.
This film is not only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the screenplay, written by Tony Kushner (who penned Angels in America) and Eric Roth, deftly handles. The Palestinian thugs at Munich are never humanized, nor are their murderous actions and motivations explained. But later in the film another Palestinian speaks for the cause of a Palestinian homeland. Conservative pro-Israel hawks will be peeved by this. But what prowar hawks might find more offensive is the ambiguity that Spielberg assigns to the results of the Israelis' just-kill-them approach. The costs--including the alienation and disenchantment of the agent--are high, and it's clear that these actions, while perhaps morally justified, are not going to do anything to address the longterm and deeper challenges. Spielberg offers not much of an alternative. But at the minimum, he suggests this sort of work, even if necessary, is dirty and troubling business that cannot go unquestioned in both moral and pragmatic terms. It might even be too difficult for good people--or people who aspire to be good.
Such gray could well upset those who depict the war on terror in white-hats/black hats style. Spielberg's insistence on facing the difficult and hard-to-resolve ambiguities in the struggle against violent extremists will be read by some as a sign of weakness--or worse. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser writes:
Spielberg proves two things in his film, due in theaters just in time for Hanukkah:
1. Steven Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival.
2. Spielberg is a decent enough filmmaker to persuade some people that Israel has outlived its usefulness and should--as enemies in Iran maintain--be wiped off the face of the earth.
The backlash has begun. The Jewish Action Alliance has already called for a boycott of "Munich."
Oh, it's going to be a pain to be Stephen Spielberg, in a way, for a little while. He's going to be accused of being a self-hating Jew and Israel-basher. The less hateful of his critics will see this movie and ask of the agent (and Spielberg), why all the handwringing? Why all the worry? It's us-versus-them. In a fight for survival, you do what you have to do. You kill them. You do what it takes. But Munich notes, it's just not that simple.