I finally saw Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” yesterday, and I emerged–after a way-too-long 2 hours and 44 minutes–about as ambivalent about it as I was beforehand. Certainly, as a suspense-thriller flick, it works. The acting is top-notch, the production values strong, the story compelling (though would be more compelling if Spielberg had shaved half an hour off it). Politically, it was, as many critics pointed out, fairly incoherent, making some vague point that violence begets violence, as if the absence of violence from one side would bring world peace.
I am not sure, however, how so many people could have seen the film and called it in any way “anti-Israel,” unless any depiction of ambiguity about, or negative consequences from, Israeli policies or actions is somehow inherently anti-Israel. “Munich” showed a young nation, scarred by 2,000 years of displacement that culminated in the Holocaust, struggling for survival against violent enemies who kill randomly and without remorse. And Israel is shown waging that battle with heated debate, qualms, moral compromises, and (for the most part, at least) restraint–even as it pursues its enemies with brutal, unrelenting focus. It’s not clear what the film is trying to say about all this, and there’s plenty to criticize in its depiction of Israel, but its sympathy for Israel and its need to defend itself was, to me, clear.
One reason I believe it has taken so much heat is the imbalance in its portrayal of the Israeli assassins and of the Palestinians they’re sent to kill, 11 men who allegedly planned the 1972 Olympics massacre. The Israelis are full-fledged, three-dimensional characters: They have relationships, they miss their kids, they cook and share meals together, they have serious discussions and share in fun moments. They also have differing viewpoints on the justice of what they’re doing, and are indelibly changed by their mission–pulling the trigger becomes easier and their grip on reality erodes, even as the mission becomes harder emotionally for them to continue.
On the other hand, we see brutal Palestinian terrorists committing the Olympics massacre, and then we see gentle Palestinians being killed for planning it, without any line drawn to connect them. This one’s a poet, that one’s got a loving wife and cute daughter–all intended, no doubt, to heighten the moral ambiguity of the Israelis’ mission. The assassins need to take it on faith from their commanders that these men are guilty, and so must we. But in his effort to leave it ambiguous, Spielberg has swung too far the other way. We never see the targeted Palestinians as anything but gentle souls, reading poetry, discussing their longing for home, even denouncing the Munich massacre. Where’s the ambiguity there? The Israelis are ruthlessly murdering sweet, innocent men who are working peacefully for a homeland just like the Jews have.
If we would have seen the dreamy poet planning the next terrorist attack or the loving family man rejoicing at the violent death of a Jewish child, then it would truly have been an equal fight, and maybe we would have actually felt ambivalent about the Israelis’ mission, truly had a reason to debate the justice and morality of this sort of violent response to violence. Instead, we’re left feeling disgust at what the Israelis did, even if we might be rooting for their ultimate victory against terrorism and for national survival.