Tuesday, December 27, 2005

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What are the lessons of Munich?

Encouraged by the positive reviews it has received from film critics, my wife and I went to see Munich today, and perhaps the most accurate thing I can say about it is that it is, in every way, a lesser movie than the one in Spielberg's prior oeurve it most resembles, Saving Private Ryan.


A movie based on or inspired by historical events is always judged on two levels -- the extent to which the film hews to historical accuracy, and the larger meaning that is derived from the current context through which the film is viewed. Munich fails pretty badly on the first point -- as Aaron J. Klein points out in Slate, "Munich is not a documentary. Indeed, it is full of distortions and flights of fancy that would make any Israeli intelligence officer blush." (Check out Klein's interview with NPR as well.) The idea that the Mossad relied exculsively on a private organization for its intelligence and logistics is pretty absurd. The biggest difference might be that the Mossad agents who engaged in the Munich response did not evince any of the moral qualms that Spielberg assigns to his assassination squad. Ironically, this is less of a problem with Saving Private Ryan, even though the main narrative of that film is complete fiction. It is through the journey of trying to find Ryan that the protagonists and the movie-watching audience is exposed to the abject brutality of war.

So, what is Spielberg's larger meaning? There's lots of evidence here. As Edward Rothstein points out in the New York Times:

"There's no peace at the end of this," warns Avner, the morally anguished Mossad assassin, as Steven Spielberg's new film, "Munich," draws to a close. And by "this" he means the targeted killings that Israel is said to have begun after 11 of its athletes were murdered at the 1972 Olympics by members of the Palestinian Black September offshoot of Fatah.

But Mr. Spielberg, in collaboration with his screenwriters, Eric Roth and the playwright Tony Kushner, also has a different "this" in mind. The camera pointedly settles on the period's skyline of lower Manhattan, showing the World Trade Center in sharp relief.

The warning and image 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.

It's not just movie critics who have interpreted Munich in this way. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, after viewing the film, said:
My reaction to it in some ways is less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more about the larger context of dealing with terror. In many ways this is a historical event. And for the Israelis and Palestinians, while it will move many, you look at the demographics of both peoples and you'll find this is ancient history for them. So, it doesn't have an immediate relevance for them per se, but it does have a relevance in terms of highlighting what happens when you're confronted with a horrific act of terror and you have to do something about it. My reaction to it from the beginning was much more about terror and the responses to terror, and much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And I saw dilemmas built in here. And what I liked about it from the beginning, Steven came to me and wanted my reaction to this. And I told him, my reaction was much more related to this contextual relationship with what happened then, but what was relevant for today. And the fact that it's a movie that suggests that you have to respond - it's understandable that you respond - but when you respond, you're actually confronted with real dilemmas. And the choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives. And it has an effect on the people who do it.

In the movie, Spielberg suggests two dilemmas with the Munich response. The first is that terrorizing the terrorists carries with it a moral and ethical price that cannot be easily dismissed (ironically, this is best demonstrated in the film not through any speech but through the last murder the team successfully carries out). The second is that the practical results of such an operation are counterproductive -- they merely encourage one's adversary to escalate its campaign of terror, and those involved in the mission succumb to the grip of paranoia.

The problem with Munich is that neither of these dilemmas is accurately portrayed. Practically, there is evidence that the gains of the campaign outweighed the costs. Klein says that, "The numbers show a steep slide in the frequency of terror attacks against Israelis and Israeli institutions abroad from 1974 to the present." That fact matters in any utilitarian calculation of these actions, but it is never mentioned in the film.

As for the moral dilemma, none of my fellow moviegoers bought the idea that the Israelis would develop any remorse or inner conflict over what they did, and the historical record bears them out. This doesn't mean that in a world of Abu Ghraibs, the question shouldn't be asked. But just as critics of recent wars have argued that what happened at Munich in 1938 is an imperfect metaphor for policy responses, what happened after the Munich tragedy of 1972 is a badly flawed metaphor for the ethical dilemmas we face today.

Ross gets it right when he says, "the choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives." Not even Steven Spielberg, however, can turn that lesson into a compelling movie.

posted by Dan on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM


I'm going to see the movie before i make any judgements on it. As a larger matter, however, Munich is an event ripe for analysis at this point in our history. It was a seminal event that in many ways foretold the conflicts within the West on how to react to global terrorism. Anyone who thinks Europe jumped ship after 911 because Bush wasnt nice to them needs to examine its reaction to Munich with a careful eye. The German response to 11 Israeli atheletes murdered on their soil under their eyes is instructive. I'm hopeful to see how/if the movie deals with the devil's deals Germany and other European states made with the PLO post Munich, and the impact the dismissive attitude Germany took towards the massacre had on the Israeli mindset when launching the operation. Its curious to think what our reaction would be if a terrorist group murdered our olympic atheletes and were allowed by an 'ally' to walk free, very likely in a premeditated quid pro quo. Do I expect Speilberg to explore this? Not likely, but we'll see. That being said, i'll have the excellent documentary One Day in September on standby to remind me what the facts actually were.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

This tedious and phony retelling of the Munich story courtesy of George Jonas' equally phony novel "Vengeance", is really shockingly bad. Quite aside from the historical inaccuracies it's simply a boring movie.

Spielberg appears to subscribe to some naive notion that if we stop making waves and make nice with terrorists, everything will be fine and dandy. Like-minded pundits who are quick to point out the dangers of direct action and the weakness of the Bush position, seldom attempt to come up with an alternative solution to the problem of terror that is even marginally convincing. They just come off as naive and at times downright silly.

I saw Spielberg's War of the Worlds prior to Munich and it also suffered from a credibility problem. While the special effects were spectacular, dramatic scenes involving the lead characters at times shaded into farce and I came close to laughing, when I should have been in the grip of suspense.

Munich says more about Spielberg's fallacious thinking than it does about the actual event.

posted by: Aidan Maconachy on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

If “Munich” receives any Academy Awards will it demonstrate that the Academy is racist?

I say that because one of the reasons given for Denzel Washington not winning an award for his performance in “Hurricane” was that the movie was not an accurate portrayal of Hurricane Carter’s life.

posted by: ROA on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

The main problem that I have with a movie like "Munich" is that unless it relies exclusively upon evidence in historical evidence, it says far more about the beliefs of the filmmaker than it does about the nature of reality. As Daniel points out, no Israelis have expressed any remorse for their actions, and there is at least a colorable case that the assassinations helped reduce further terrorist attacks.

Even beyond that point, however,
Munich provides little reason to believe that Spielberg's thesis is true, because a(n intentionally)fictionalized account of an historical event provides no basis for drawing conclusions in the real world.

posted by: Jeff B on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

All good points. The Klein piece in Slate makes the point that the assassination program was not about revenge but rather about preventing future attacks. That campaign, like the War on Terror, has not produced peace. But is it in our power or the Israelis’ to produce peace? Isn’t the likelier outcome of inaction the same ongoing war, only one in which we or the Israelis suffer greater casualties than we have by going on the offensive?

As Aidan points out, if you push the “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” crowd, what they eventually come up with as an alternative is the proposition that if we act peacefully, everyone else in the world will reciprocate. This is an almost solipsistic delusion. It suggests that we act and that everyone else in the world simply reacts. This is both wrong and, ironically, insulting to the very people the pacifist left claims to be championing, reducing them to automatons with no will to act independent of our own.

posted by: ken on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

Folks, it's Steven Spielberg.

Why would anyone imagine that he has anything worthwhile to say about anything?

This is the guy who made Always.

posted by: Anderson on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

The "spoiler" warnings are hilarious. When Spielberg releases his upcoming Lincoln biopic, I certainly expect the benefit of a spoiler warning so I don't accidentally learn who wins the election or wins the war or whether or not anybody important dies. Of course, if the Lincoln movie is merely based on historical events . . ., well the mind boggles.

posted by: PD Shaw on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

Are all the people annoyed over the historical inaccuracies in Munich also annoyed over the historical inaccuracies in Saving Private Ryan (and to be fair in Amistad as well), not to mention Blackhawk Down.

Or are historical inaccuracies in rah-rah films considered artistic license, but not those in other films ?

posted by: Jon on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

Almost every movie is a lesser movie than Saving Private Ryan, that doesn't mean it's bad.

posted by: Dimmy Karras on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]


I guess I don't know exactly what Stephen Spielberg's inner gnawing intentions were when he filmed Munich, but I am stunned that really you all only see it in terms of potential geopolitical statements...or....I don't know, I find I feel you miss the heart and soul of the film.

The film is an extraordinarily complex look at what befalls A MAN in the pursuit of vengeance. I don't think the movie takes a final stance about the morality of revenge, although it makes the suggestion rather strongly that the cycle of vengeance leads nowhere, and really, no matter how viscerally satisfying, who can seriously disagree with that?

I can certainly agree that from a power-crazed geopolitical point of view that determining the line to walk between retaliation and non-retaliation is a line of power difficult to determine - "an eye for an eye makes the world blind" is good rhetoric, and excellent on a personal level, but complex in a complex power-balanced world. All the same, it remains true that and eye for an eye will make the whole world blind and so some steps somewhere in our fundamental thinking and feeling and reactions in humanity as a whole will have to be taken or total destruction is pretty well guaranteed.

But that's still not what the film is ABOUT --- that's just a potential theme or interesting discussion point that can emanates from it.

I think we can all agree that revenge is a basic human emotion and also that cycles of revenge don't work. In terms of geopolitics, it's not working. In terms of every day life, it doesn't work. But, while that is one of the themes of the movie, and the events around Munich in 1972 are the story, neither of those things are what the movie is ABOUT. The movie is ABOUT what befalls a man's soul when he pursues a path of vengeance even in the name of righteousness.

It's about you and me and each of us....it's ABOUT every individual's soul and what can occur within it...it's about fear and God and country and beliefs and mirrors and the screaming question "What have I done, what have I become, is the horror I experienced worthy of the horror I inflicted, Does this path make sense, have I murdered myself?"

posted by: karen on 12.27.05 at 09:53 PM [permalink]

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