As might have been expected, zealous partisans on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides have been sniping at Steven Spielberg’s new film, Munich. Positions are so firmly entrenched that neither side can tolerate the thought that the other might have a credible point of view–surely part of the very point that Spielberg wishes to make.
The intelligent and incisive screenplay by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Ali, The Insider) takes off from the murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 by the terrorist group Black September. A hawkish Prime Minister Golda Meir approves a covert, elite Israeli hit squad to hunt down and assassinate the perpetrators. "Every civilization finds it necessary to compromise with its own values," she says. And that is the crux of the issue.
The squad, headed up by Avner (Eric Bana), proceeds to plan and carry out one assassination after another in cities across Europe–Rome, Paris, Athens. Unsurprisingly, there are major retaliations by Black September. Violence, after all, breeds violence. During the course of the story, various characters make the case for their side–the need for a Jewish state after the Holocaust; the miseries of the displaced Palestinian refugees. But the ruthless killing has superceded any chance for reasoning or compromise.
As the assassinations proceed, Avner and his squad find growing difficulties in the execution of their mission, including the dubious loyalties of their principal source of intelligence about the whereabouts of the target terrorists. The Israeli government breaks faith at one point and betrays the group with a raid on Beirut which further complicates their relationship with their all important informers. Meanwhile, members of the squad are killed and Avner grows ever more disillusioned.
Spielberg is at his best in Munich, demonstrating once again his unique talent for filmic storytelling. The exposition is clear, there’s plenty of tension, and the story is well-paced. Perhaps constrained by the hard-edged screenplay, the director avoids here the sticky sentimentality that has marred otherwise fine films of his like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.
At least Meir acknowledged that her death squad was a compromise, more than some current leaders are willing to do as they brazenly flaunt the law in the pursuit of an elusive opponent. But the more important point is that responding to violence with violence, to terror with terror, only escalates the problem. In doing so, it also dehumanizes the participants and puts them all on equally amoral footing. One character tries to convince Avner of the futility of his mission–lose your righteousness, he says, and you lose your soul.