The war on "Munich"

Neoconservatives launch a preemptive strike on Spielberg's latest, which dares to break the rules of post-9/11 political correctness.

Published December 20, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

Steven Spielberg's "Munich" doesn't open until Dec. 23, but a backlash charging the film with fuzzy-headed liberal naiveti and moral relativism began weeks ago. Political critics are berating the movie for suggesting that the violence wracking the Middle East is a cycle that both sides have a part in perpetuating. Spielberg, ironically, is accused of being insufficiently Manichaean, and the charge threatens to ossify into conventional wisdom before the movie's audience can get to theaters to see how misguided it is. As New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote in his awards-season blog, "'Munich' finds itself in a seemingly endless spanking machine."

Spielberg's film tells the story of the Israeli response to the massacre of its athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The killings were the work of Black September, a terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization. Determined to both wreak vengeance and to project a message of strength to the world, Israel deployed hit squads from Mossad's Caesarea unit to find and assassinate those behind the attack. Often, the men who were directly responsible could not be located, and so other Fatah activists with more ambiguous involvement were targeted instead. The story is full of moral ambiguities -- few would dispute that Israel had the right to retaliate, but its pursuit of revenge became an end in itself, sometimes compromising both Israel's ethics and its own security.

The analogy to our own time is obvious, and in some ways the argument about "Munich" is really one about America. Post-9/11 political correctness, which demands that stories about terrorism and counterterrorism be limned in starkest black and white, seemed to have dissipated these last few years. In the debate over Spielberg's movie, though, it's returning with a vengeance. The result is not just the mischaracterization of a movie; it's the resurrection of the taboo against depicting the war on terror in shades of gray.

The campaign against "Munich" started Dec. 9, when the New Republic made Leon Wieseltier's biting takedown of the film available early on the magazine's usually subscriber-only Web site (and the Drudge Report gave it a prominent link). Wieseltier called the film "pseudo-controversial" and said it is "desperate not to be charged with a point of view." Then he excoriated its politics, his angry tone suggesting the movie's message isn't so blandly inoffensive after all. "No doubt 'Munich' will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexities," Wieseltier wrote, trying to preempt praise for the film by dismissing those impressed by it as bien-pensant fools.

New York Times columnist David Brooks followed two days later with a condescending column lamenting Spielberg's failure to portray the "evil" driving Palestinian terrorism. "Because he will not admit the existence of evil, as it really exists, Spielberg gets reality wrong," Brooks wrote, continuing, "In Spielberg's Middle East the only way to achieve peace is by renouncing violence. But in the real Middle East the only way to achieve peace is through military victory over the fanatics, accompanied by compromise between the reasonable elements on each side."

The same day, Variety editor Peter Bart published a dispatch about awards season campaigning. Noting that Spielberg was lying low, he wrote, "Having gone to such excruciating pains to explain that there is no 'right' and 'wrong' in the Middle East (thus adding to the film's exhaustive length) the filmmaker understandably wants to avoid the angst of the interview circuit." (Variety had already given the movie a scathing review.) The following day, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, airing similar criticisms. "According to Danoch, throughout the film Spielberg equates the Mossad agents and the terrorists," Haaretz wrote, quoting him saying, "This is an incorrect moral equation. We in Israel know this. There is also a certain pretentiousness in attempting to treat a painful, decades-long conflict by means of quite superficial statements in a two and a half hour movie."

As the political attacks pile up, the real meaning of "Munich" -- a flawed but powerful and, yes, complex movie -- threatens to get lost amid all the huffing and bleating. (Spielberg, it was reported Monday, has even hired a top Israeli politico to help cushion the film's release over there.) "There's been a huge push from the people who have that kind of neocon attitude about it to make sure that it doesn't get grounding, to try to keep it from getting its footing," says David Poland, editor of Movie City News, an online magazine about the film industry. "There is a public push to hurt the movie before it even gets seen."

That push won't be entirely successful -- "Munich" has already made the 2005 top 10 lists of Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People and Entertainment Weekly. But the political discussion around "Munich" has already been framed in a way that obscures the film itself.

Spielberg's movie bears little resemblance to the piece of mushy leftist agitprop its critics describe. It does not suggest that terrorists and counterterrorists are morally equivalent or that Israel is wrong to defend itself. It is nonsense to say, as Wieseltier does, that there "are two kinds of Israelis in 'Munich': cruel Israelis with remorse and cruel Israelis without remorse." I can't imagine how Wieseltier thinks Israelis ideally should be portrayed, because many of those in Munich are, if anything, slightly unbelievable in their constant self-interrogation and closely guarded humanism.

"Munich" is about the way vengeance and violence -- even necessary, justified violence -- corrupt both their victims and their perpetrators. It's about the struggle to maintain some bedrock morality while engaging in immorality. Spielberg goes out of his way to be generous to Israel -- omitting, as I'll explain in a moment, one of the Caesarea assassins' most high-profile mistakes. But his film, co-written by engagi liberal playwright Tony Kushner, does mourn the way Israel has compromised its values in the fight against terrorism, while leaving open the question of whether the compromises were worth it. "Some people say we can't afford to be civilized," says Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen) early in the film, after the murder of the Israeli athletes. "I've always resisted such people. Today I'm hearing with new ears." Meir makes a conscious decision to cross a moral line. "Munich" is about the implications of that choice, and its unintended consequences.

The film weaves this ethical drama into a jet-setting spy thriller. It begins in the titular city, where a team of Palestinian terrorists break into the apartments housing Israel's Olympic delegation, killing one and taking 10 others hostage. The media concentration at the 1972 Olympics was unprecedented, and the drama was broadcast around the world in real time. Spielberg largely lets it unfold as a media event, showing it from the perspective of rapt spectators, including horrified Israelis and proud, ebullient Palestinians. It all culminates in a firefight at a German airfield, seen as an explosion in the background of a TV correspondent's report. The movie includes the cruelly hopeful early reports, broadcast worldwide, that the hostages were freed, which made the truth -- that all were massacred -- even more devastating.

The Munich massacre is but a prelude to the film, which follows a five-man assassination team led by Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) as they track down and systematically kill a list of Palestinians provided by the Israeli government. The squad is scrupulous about protecting innocents -- more scrupulous than their real-life counterparts who, in a notorious 1973 case of mistaken identity, killed an innocent Moroccan immigrant in Norway, an incident left out of "Munich." But some of them are also wracked with doubts and questions about whether their mission is futile, whether it is just, and whether they corrode the righteousness of their own cause by aping their enemies' tactics.

The characters' deep ambivalence about the revenge killings they commit is actually profoundly flattering to Israel. It is impossible to imagine such doubt, and such an ardent desire to adhere to a higher standard than that of one's enemies, among the film's terrorists. Indeed, I would guess that many Palestinians would find the movie unbearably self-congratulatory -- its central concern, after all, is the effect of retaliatory Jewish violence on the Jewish soul, not on the Palestinian flesh.

One of the film's most clarifying moments occurs when two members of the team kill a European hit woman. She has previously killed a member of their squad, and they take time off from their official duties to have their revenge. They find her at home, wearing a robe, and she dies with it open, her naked body sprawled out pornographically. Avner tries to cover her, but a colleague yanks the robe back open. Later, this bit of spite torments him -- "I wish I had let you close up her housecoat," he tells Avner. These scenes encapsulate "Munich's" concerns with the way violence degrades both perpetrators and victims. Spielberg isn't equating the Caesarea agent with the assassin-for-hire he kills, but he is showing the way the former loses a bit of his soul to hatred.

Yet even this much introspection and regret is considered verboten among some of Israel's most doctrinaire (or at least its loudest) partisans. The movie's reckoning with the consequences of violence is being derided as mushy, can't-we-all-just-get-along liberal pablum. Apparently, people who really know how the world works -- people like Brooks and Wieseltier -- know there's no room for such sentimental qualms in wartime. "'Munich' prefers a discussion of counterterrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion," Wieseltier wrote in conclusion. "This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold."

Puffed up with realist wisdom, Brooks informed us that a film about targeted assassination is a "misleading way to start a larger discussion," because the tactic was one that Israel soon left behind. "In 1972, Israel was just entering the era of spectacular terror attacks and didn't know how to respond. But over the years Israelis have learned that targeted assassinations, which are the main subject of this movie, are one of the less effective ways to fight terror." Israel, he continued, "much prefers to arrest suspected terrorists. Arrests don't set off rounds of retaliation, and arrested suspects are likely to provide you with intelligence, the real key to defanging terror groups."

As with so much Brooks writes, it's hard to tell whether he's being intentionally or accidentally misleading. Leave aside, for a moment, Israel's many assassinations of Palestinian militants in the occupied territories in recent years, including that of Hamas leader Sheik Yassin in March 2004. As Aaron Klein -- a captain in Israeli Defense Forces Intelligence -- reports in his new book, "Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response," the hit squads targeting the Munich plotters, far from being an immediate and short-lived response to that horror, continued operating for two decades. They killed Atef Bseiso, the last man on their list, in Paris in 1992.

As Klein reports, Bseiso, the PLO's liaison officer, had relationships with many security agencies, including France's Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. His assassination in Paris enraged the French. "The Mossad is convinced that the French responded by deliberately leaking the name of a high-ranking Palestinian source in Arafat's Tunis office," Klein writes. "The agent, Adnan Yassin, had been working for the Mossad for years, informing them of all that transpired in the office and among the Diaspora Palestinian leadership. In October 1993, Yassin was arrested, and never heard from again." The French retribution, writes Klein, "handicapped Israel during the sensitive negotiations leading up to the Oslo Accords in 1993."

This episode doesn't appear in the film, but it demonstrates that the questions raised by "Munich" are not simply fodder for dilettante cocktail parties. These are questions that are freely discussed within Israel itself -- indeed, they obsess the nation's thinkers -- and pondering them is in no way anti-Zionist. JJ Goldberg (no relation), the editor of the Jewish newspaper the Forward and an unequivocal supporter of the Jewish state, called the movie "as close as I've seen to an American film that's inside the Israeli head." He's somewhat baffled by the attacks on "Munich," which he suggests represent a knee-jerk response by people used to defending Israel against its global legions of denouncers. Describing their thinking, he said, "The world has condemned Israel, the world is blaming Israel for the rise of Arab terrorism, there's this conventional wisdom out there that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians has created this international wave of jihad terrorism, and so they're looking for it" -- "it" being anti-Israel sentiment. "They see the name Tony Kushner, and it's like the script is written before they even get in the theater."

Goldberg cited an apocryphal quote from Golda Meir: "We can never forgive them for making us kill their children." "In a way, the whole movie was an elaboration of that line," he said. "There's never a moment or hint that the Palestinians didn't start it by doing something awful. And it keeps on reminding you, the way Golda Meir did, that the people on the other side, whatever else they are, they're also human beings. "

In certain circles, apparently, simply calling attention to the fact that the people killed by counterterrorists are, in fact, people, is at best maudlin, at worst disloyal. "It's very disturbing," said Goldberg. "Something bad has happened. It's almost as though Spielberg's warning about the corrosive effect on the soul is all too true."

This story has been correctedsince it was originally published.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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