I was initially hesitant to see ‘Munich,’ after reading Spielberg’s interview in Time, but after several people whose opinions I respect gave it a good review, I decided to give it a chance. Unfortunately, my initial instincts proved correct. I admit that I am somewhat biased against the movie for political reasons, which is why I’d like to evaluate it on four levels: purely as a film, as an historical piece, as a morality play and as a political statement. When I say it fails on every level, this is what I mean.
The movie itself was weak. I just didn’t find the characters all that compelling and I didn’t feel any suspense during the parts when they were killing off the terrorists. In a movie that is supposed to explore moral complexity, I thought that most characters lacked any subtlety. Even though the film is nearly three hours long, I don’t think any of the characters other than Avner (Eric Bana), the leader of Israel’s Mossad team, come off as anything but cardboard. The dialogue was also atrocious, with characters constantly spouting out their moral and political philosophy in convenient pronouncements. Also, I thought Spielberg made some rather odd cinematic choices that I personally didn’t feel worked. For instance, Spielberg waited until nearly the end of the movie to show a reenactment of the actual explosion that killed the Israeli athletes at the Munich airport, and he intercut it with a sex scene between Avner and his wife. It comes off as bizarre and arguably distasteful.
As for the film’s historical value, it does cover itself by saying “inspired by real events.” Certainly, I don’t get my history from Hollywood, and I understand that making a good historical movie often requires taking some liberties. Typically, I take historical films with a grain of salt and try not to be a purist. But while I’m willing to excuse historical liberties taken concerning Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” or in “Capote,” I’m more uncomfortable when it is a movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason is that, as it is, one of the primary problems to understanding the conflict is the amount of misinformation that is disseminated. It’s upsetting for this film to come out, because it adds yet another prominent bit of misinformation out there that further fogs the truth. As Brett Stevens wrote:
“Vengeance,” the George Jonas book upon which the film is largely based, is widely considered to be a fabrication. The book is based on a source named Yuval Aviv, who claimed to be the model for Avner but was, according to Israeli sources, never in the Mossad and had no experience in intelligence beyond working as a screener for El Al, the Israeli airline.
Sure, you can argue that the mission was secret and that there’s no way of knowing what actually happened. But when it comes to creating a fictional version of Prime Minister Golda Meir and fabricating the quote that was used in all of the previews, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values,” it becomes troubling.
What’s even more frustrating is that in the film, Spielberg adopts the Palestinian narrative for why Israel exists (i.e. that Jews took the land and the world allowed it because of the Holocaust). The truth is that Jews started peacefully migrating to Israel in large numbers in the 1880s and had a large population there even before the Holocaust (not to mention a presence in the area dating back thousands of years). In once scene, an Israeli Mossad agent on the team says, “How do you think we got the land, by being nice?” And later Avner’s mom, after recalling the Holocaust says, “We had to take it, because nobody will give it to us.” So in other words, according to this film, there is no denying that Israelis took the land from the Palestinians by force, and the only dispute is whether Jewish suffering during the Holocaust justified it. This is precisely the attitude of anti-Semites who talk about how Jews exploit the Holocaust. But even if Spielberg wanted represent both points of view, he at least owed it to the Israeli side to have the Israeli characters make the best argument for their country’s existence.
It is true that the film portrayed the Mossad agents sympathetically and showed the great lengths they go to to protect innocent life. But while Avner and his fellow Mossad agents are portrayed sympathetically, the Israeli government itself is not. The government officials (especially Geoffrey Rush’s character) come off as soulless amoral bureaucrats who are just using the agents as pawns. When Rush’s character tells Avner to avoid killing civilians when he’s explaining the mission, he seems more concerned that it would complicate the mission than he is about actually protecting innocents. By the end of the movie, the Israeli government becomes so morally contemptible to Avner that he refuses to go on another mission, moves to America, and even suspects the Israeli government of trying to kill him and his family.
On a moral level, I have a problem with the film as well. Characters say things such as “Just because Palestinians do wrong, we don’t have to do wrong as well.” Or other such comments that seem to suggest that assassinating terrorists involves moral compromises (again, look at the fabricated Gold Meir quote). Sure, some of the compromises in the film deal with paying despicable characters for information, but that’s not the only thing that there seems to be moral conflict about. I guess one reason that I had a problem enjoying this movie is that I simple see no moral problems–zero–with killing terrorists who have plotted to kill your civilians in the past and are continuing to do so. Especially since the rest of the world is caving into terrorism, with Germany releasing prisoners who were a part of the Munich massacre.
The other major problem I have with the film is the whole idea that if you kill a terrorist leader, he’ll just be replaced by somebody worse, so what’s the point? This is absurd. Clearly, if an organization keeps on having leadership changes, and its leaders are always in constant fear of being killed, and they have to hide out and go to great lengths (and use more manpower) to protect themselves, they will be less effective than they would otherwise be. Real world evidence clearly demonstrates this. Targeted assassinations by Israel during the Second Intifada were instrumental in reducing the number of suicide bombings. Al Qaeda, too, is clearly having more trouble carrying out large scale attacks against America now than it did before we started going after them.
Essentially, at the end of the movie, after all that Avner has been through, he evolves into a modern day liberal. While in the beginning of the movie, he accepts the mission out of patriotism and duty, at the end of the movie, he refuses to go on another mission. In the final scene, Avner is:
a) Distrustful of his government (he asks, how do you know the people I killed
were really terrorists? What was the evidence? How can you be sure the
evidence was right?).
b) Naive (He asks, why couldn’t we just arrest them?)
c) Defeatist ( He says, if you kill a terrorist, you just create a new terrorist, so it will never end).
Having reached all of these conclusions, he decides that there’s no point to stay in Israel and fight terrorism, he may as well give up the futile battle, move to America, and live out his life in a fool’s paradise in Brooklyn.