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Jewish World Review
Dec. 12, 2005
/ 11 Kislev, 5766
The case against Munich
A few days before I read in Time that Steven Spielberg's new movie is so significant that there had been no advance screenings of it, I went to an advance screening of it.
The fakery is everywhere, isn't it, though in this instance it nicely captures the self-importance of this pseudo-controversial film. The makers of Munich seem to think that it is itself an intervention in the historical conflict that it portrays. For this reason, perhaps, they have devised a movie that wishes to be shocking and inoffensive at the same time. It tells the story of the Israeli retaliation for the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972 specifically, of the nasty adventures of a team of five Israelis that is dispatched to Europe to destroy eleven Palestinians.
The film is powerful, in the hollow way that many of Spielberg's films are powerful. He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings. Whatever the theme, he must ravish the viewer. Munich is aesthetically no different from War of the Worlds, and never mind that one treats questions of ethical and historical consequence and the other is stupid. Spielberg knows how to overwhelm. But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me? In other realms of life, this talent is known as demagoguery. There are better reasons to turn to art, better reasons to go to the movies, than to be blown away.
The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is. For long stretches it feels like The Untouchables with eleven Capones. But its tedium is finally owed to the fact that, for all its vanity about its own courage, the film is afraid of itself. It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness. Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil, Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents, Israelis kill innocents.
All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective. (I am referring only to the war between the terrorists and the counterterrorists. The larger picture is darker. Over the years more civilians were killed in Israeli air strikes than in the Palestinian atrocities that provoked those air strikes. The justice of Israel's defense of itself should not be confused with the rightness of everything that it does in self-defense.) No doubt Munich will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexity. But this is not complexity, it is strategy. I mean of the marketing kind: I note that the filmmakers have nervously retained the distinguished services of Dennis Ross to guide the film through the excitable community of people who know about its subject. Munich is desperate not to be charged with a point of view. It is animated by a sense of tragedy and a dream of peace, which all good people share, but which in Hollywood is regarded as a dissent, and also as a point of view. Its glossy caution almost made me think a kind thought about Oliver Stone. For the only side that Steven Spielberg ever takes is the side of the movies.
The screenplay is substantially the work of Tony Kushner, whose hand is easily recognizable in the crudely schematic quality of the drama, and also in something more. The film has no place in its heart for Israel. I do not mean that it wishes Israel ill; not at all. But it cannot imagine any reason for Israel beyond the harshness of the world to the Jews. "The world has been rough with you," the oracular gourmand godfather of an underground anarchist family, a ludicrous character plummily played by Michael Lonsdale, tells Avner Kauffman, the Israeli team leader. "It is right to respond roughly to such treatment." Avner's mother, whose family was destroyed by the Nazis, preaches this about the Jewish state: "We had to take this, because no one was going to give it to us. Whatever it took, whatever it takes." Zionism, in this film, is just anti-anti-Semitism. The necessity of the Jewish state is acknowledged, but necessity is a very weak form of legitimacy.
There are two kinds of Israelis in Munich : cruel Israelis with remorse and cruel Israelis without remorse. One of the Israeli killers recalls a midrash about G-d's compassion for the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, and keeps on killing. Another one of the Israeli killers protests that "Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong. ... We're supposed to be righteous," and keeps on killing.
All this is consistent with Tony Kushner's view that Zionism, as he told Ori Nir of Haaretz last year, was "not the right answer," and that the creation of Israel was "a mistake," and that "establishing a state means f---ing people over." (If he really seeks to understand Middle Eastern terrorism, he might ponder the extent to which statelessness, too, can mean f---ing people over.) When Avner's reckoning with his deeds takes him to the verge of a breakdown, he joins his wife and child in Brooklyn and refuses to return to Israel, as if decency is impossible there. No, Kushner is not an anti-Semite, nor a self-hating Jew, nor any of those other insults that burnish his notion of himself as an American Jewish dissident (he is one of those people who never speaks, but only speaks out). He is just a perfectly doctrinaire progressive. And the progressive Jewish playwright Tony Kushner's image of Israel oddly brings to mind the reactionary Jewish playwright David Mamet's image of Israel: For both of them, its essence is power.
The Israeli response to Black September marked the birth of contemporary counterterrorism, and it is difficult not to see Munich as a parable of American policy since September 11. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," Golda Meir grimly concludes early in the film. Yet the film proclaims that terrorists and counterterrorists are alike. "When we learn to act like them, we will defeat them!" declares one of Avner's men, played by Daniel Craig, already with a license to kill. Worse, Munich prefers a discussion of counterterrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion. This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold.
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Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. Click here to comment on this column.
© 2005, The New Republic