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Spielberg's War on Terror Begins in Munich

Steven Spielberg's assaulting Munich is based on a book, though not the Old Testament. Nobody ever utters the phrase “an eye for an eye,” but the sentiment is expressed a hundred other ways.

A big-budget, globe-hopping, explosion-packed spy thriller, Munich is packed to the gills with brutal violence and ethical debates. Its effect on the nervous system is instantaneous and continuous, thanks to Spielberg's talent for suspense, misdirection and manipulation.

The film also has serious issues on its mind, more than Spielberg can effectively accommodate even in two hours and forty minutes (plus credits). Hampered by an inability to elegantly mesh action and philosophy, and marred by its director's trademark heavy-handedness, Munich is an important movie but not a great one.

There is something undeniably alluring about a film--adapted from George Jonas's Vengeance--that follows a Mossad team as it secretly goes about assassinating the Palestinians who planned the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

It's not too difficult to support Israel taking the law into its own hands in this case, or at least to view a hit squad as less of an affront to justice than letting the plotters get away with their crime.

Yet the preeminent commercial filmmaker of our time has no interest in the crass pleasures of a revenge flick. Instead, Spielberg uses his bully pulpit--which dwarfs that of any other living artist, need I remind you--to argue that violence only begets more violence. Going after terrorists doesn't dissuade them from their bloody strategies, the film suggests; if anything, it provokes further attacks.

One can dispute that conclusion--in fact, Spielberg would like nothing more than for every screening to provoke dozens of mini-debates--but that's only one of his theses. Munich also makes the point that dead terrorists are always replaced by new enlistees. In other words, it is an illusion to believe that terrorism can be eradicated by force.

In addition, the film also considers at length the effects of the mission on the Mossad squad's leader.

The young, inexperienced Avner (Eric Bana, the pedestrian Australian actor from The Hulk) is not an Israeli James Bond but an ordinary Joe with a pregnant wife. He's an easy character for American audiences to identify with, especially compared to the ice cold, morally certain Mossad assassin in the recent Israeli film, Walk On Water.

But the killing has a disturbing effect on Avner--there are no innocents in Munich--and we come to see that even a so-called just war has a price. In a larger sense, since covert murder in European cities is not an act consistent with Jewish values, Spielberg is asking whether Israel can still claim to be a light unto the nations. Or, by sinking to the level of the terrorists it's pursuing, has Israel sacrificed its soul?

Whatever stance you take on any of these meaty issues, rest assured that it is articulated by somebody in the course of the film.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, Munich deftly sidesteps coming down on one side and demonizing the other. Each people's needs are given voice, and Spielberg apparently endorses a two-state solution by repeatedly referring in various contexts to the importance of a home.

Further, every Palestinian target is given a scene that depicts him as a family man or artist or sociable fellow, rather than psychopathic villain or Jew-hater. Consequently, we don't get a cathartic thrill from their deaths, but a sense of unease and loss.

That's a risky, admirable aspect of the screenplay by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and Eric Roth, but other bits prompt genuine head scratching. As one example, Avner's operatives are closer to Keystone Kops than The Day of the Jackal. A recruiting video for the Mossad, this is not.

More disturbing is Spielberg's bizarre cross-cutting between a bedroom scene and the culmination of the hostage drama at the Munich airport. For that matter, one can question to what degree the director's reenactment of the horrible Olympic events is necessary or moving.

As only a filmmaker of his international stature can, Spielberg has pushed the Israeli-Palestinian issue to the forefront. It is his declaration of war on terror, but he is calling on all of us to carry the ball.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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