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The events center on the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes, and the subsequent campaign by the Jewish state to hunt down those involved in the murder of its citizens.
Carried out in the presence of the international media and televised live, the "Black September" assault on the Olympic Village helped put the Palestinian Arab war on Israel on the international agenda. And the ability of the Palestinian Liberation Organization to literally get away with murder helped set the stage for much of the carnage that followed.
The film prompts us to ask what Israel should have done in response?
In the film, an actress playing the prime minister of Israel Golda Meir sees the answer clearly: Strike back! If the terrorists respect no limits in their war against the Jewish people, then the killers and those who direct them should not feel safe anywhere either. She orders her intelligence service - the Mossad - to track them down in their European havens and kill them.
Humanize the Terrorists?
If such an order seems vaguely familiar to American audiences, it should. The comparison between Meir's order and the reaction of President Bush when he told rescue workers at ground zero that those who brought down the towers would soon be hearing from Americans is more than obvious.
That sort of blunt threat wasn't well-received in those quarters where our conflict with fundamentalist Islam is seen as a function of America's alleged sins against the world. Rather than seeking out Al Qaeda, some sages told us to look in the mirror if we wanted to see the real bad guys. And that is precisely the message that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who shares a writing credit with Eric Roth) seem to be making about Israel in "Munich."
It should be noted that the film has already come in for justified criticism for being primarily based on a book whose primary source was a fraud. Vengeance by George Jonas purported to tell the tale of a disillusioned Mossad agent, but it turned out the man was just a cab driver with an Israeli accent, and not an ex-spy. But even if we discount this, the film still fails its subject matter. That's because the goal here is not merely to wrongly argue that the battle against Palestinian terror is as criminal as anything the terrorists have done; its purpose is also to humanize the terrorists.
In a Time magazine story on his movie, Spielberg said the insertion of a fictional conversation between the leader of the Israeli team and a PLO operative was essential to his vision of the film. In it, the Arab speaks of his longing to recover his family's dignity and property that he claims they lost to Israel.
Without this and other elements that serve to break down the legitimacy of killing the men behind the attack on the Olympics, he says the film would not have been worth making. What Spielberg seems most proud of is the fact that those who seek to destroy Israel - and either slaughter or scatter its people - are not "demonized." They are, he insists, "individuals. They have families."
To which we can only reply, "So what?" You could say the same of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as the operatives of Hamas, and Fatah (from whom the members of "Black September" - a front for the PLO - came) who have cut down Jews in pizza parlors, bus stops and at Passover seders. And even go on and include the German villains of Spielberg's World War II films.
But the problem with this film isn't just an obsessive refusal to be judgmental about terrorism or the tedious speechifying that overwhelms the action. There's something even more insidious at play here.
The main character, the Israeli agent Avner (played by Eric Bana), doesn't just loose his marbles because of a mission whose efficacy might well be debated. Spielberg's Avner rejects not merely a policy but Israel itself, which he abandons for the apparently more humane confines of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Spielberg even uses an image of a still-standing World Trade Center to punctuate a scene in which Avner rejects Israel to lead us to falsely think 9/11 might have been avoided had America also abandoned the Jewish state.
That "Munich" would have such an anti-Zionist denouement (in contrast to "Schindler's List," which tearfully concluded with the playing of the song "Jerusalem of Gold") is unsurprising due to Kushner's involvement.
Though primarily known for his extravagantly praised plays about the plight of gays suffering from AIDS, Kushner is also a hardcore left-wing Jewish critic of Israel. He has edited a book of anti-Israel essays, and even told Ha'aretz that Israel's birth was a "mistake" he wished had never happened.
As for the director and prime mover of this project, in the years since the release of "Schindler's List" and his subsequent contributions to Holocaust remembrance projects, Spielberg has become something of a secular Jewish saint. As such, he's apparently worried enough about his image to employ former Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross to spin for "Munich," in addition to Eyal Arad, a leading Israeli public-relations torpedo who also works for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
They may well succeed but if there was ever a movie that ought to provoke outrage, it is "Munich." The film concludes with a bizarre scene in which the disillusioned Avner daydreams (fantasizes?) about the actual events of the massacre while having sex with his wife. As their coupling reaches its conclusion, we see the bound Israeli athletes slaughtered by their Arab captors.
By this point, a weary audience that has been subjected to many other obvious and heavy-handed clichés so familiar to Kushner's work is forced to wonder whether Avner now sees himself as one of the killers. At the same time, the audience is also being asked to see Israel and the war on terrorism as forces that are literally screwing the world.
Perhaps the fact that "Munich" is such poor entertainment will do more to limit the damage it does than anything said by its critics. But it would be a mistake to let this film pass without a response from those who care about the survival of both Israel and the West.
You don't have to insist that everything Israel or America does to fight terror is wise to understand that the war they're fighting is just. Judging the murderers and those who fight such criminals as morally equivalent is not wisdom. It is, as Steven Spielberg has now shown us, the ultimate obscenity. u
Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: [email protected].