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.