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Munich among a series of new political films
The conscience of a killer

Review by Geoff Bailey | January 13, 2006 | Page 9

Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush.

"HOME ALWAYS comes at a price," says a character midway through Steven Spielberg's new film Munich. But what price is too high? What happens if, in protecting what you love, you end up destroying it?

Munich follows a group of Israelis who are hired by their government to assassinate 11 Palestinians believed to have planned the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The movie is based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas, a conservative, pro-Israeli columnist for the Canadian National Post. But the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America.

Kushner is a socialist and an anti-Zionist, with the ability to write moving, emotional, political fiction. Together, Kushner and Spielberg have created a powerful film critiquing Israel and the wider strategy accepted by the Bush administration for dealing with terrorism.

Prior to its release, Munich had already generated a storm of controversy. The Israeli government, for whom Spielberg organized advance screenings, blasted it for "rewriting history." Israeli officials attacked Spielberg for creating a "moral equivalence" between the killing of terrorists and the murder of Israeli civilians.

Conservative critics in the United States weren't far behind. Jack Engelhard, the author of that morally scrupulous novel, Indecent Proposal, wrote a scathing attack on Spielberg: "If, as our enemies say, we own Hollywood, well, here's the plot twist--we have lost Hollywood, and we have lost Spielberg. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth." The New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks devoted a column to attacking the film.

Yet for all the media frenzy surrounding its release, Munich's criticisms of Israel are rather mild. Spielberg focuses on the way in which violence begets more violence. When one of the Israeli assassins witnesses footage of a Palestinian attack on the Athens airport, meant to be retaliation for Israel's assassinations, he mutters, "At least we are having a dialogue now." The absurdity of the statement is obvious, but it's hardly a radical critique.

And Spielberg shows nothing of the Palestinian side. We witness the killing of the Israeli athletes and the subsequent assassinations, but not the killing of Palestinian civilians, the checkpoints or the refugee camps.

But this is criticism that wishes Spielberg had made a movie other than the one he did. Spielberg's focus is narrower. He is concerned not with the roots of the Palestinian conflict but with the effect the "war on terror" has on those who claim to fight it. His concern is not with the victims, but the killers. In that, he and Kushner have created a chilling and moving film.

The most powerful parts of the film come when the team leader, Avner, returns to the home he believed he was fighting to protect. Paranoid and desperate, he barricades his doors at night and sleeps with a loaded pistol. He can even imagine himself committing the very crimes he thought he was avenging.

That is ultimately Spielberg's point: In following orders, Avner has poisoned what he thought he was protecting.

Munich is the latest in a series of political blockbusters this year. From Syriana's critique of the geopolitics of oil, to Good Night and Good Luck's veiled attacks on the current crop of McCarthyites, liberal filmmakers have decided that it's necessary (and profitable) to speak out on controversial issues.

It's quite a turnaround from just three years ago, when Michael Moore was vilified for criticizing George Bush during his Academy Awards acceptance speech. The change should be welcomed. Parts of Hollywood are attempting to tackle issues of racism, war and global capitalism.

But as these films take on larger issues, they also come up against the filmmakers' political limitations. These are films that are meant to stimulate discussion about changing the world, but the filmmakers' suggestions seem anemic when weighed against the obstacles depicted in their films.

When, late in Munich, Avner suggests that the Palestinian terrorists could have been arrested and tried against the backdrop of the United Nations, the unspoken question is never asked: Which court would ever try an Israeli assassin?

The characters in these films, and ultimately the filmmakers, have no way out. In the end, all they can do is refuse to participate, but they don't change anything. The machinery keeps going, the killings continue. Avner will leave the Israeli Army, but there are other assassins. And people who gave him his orders will never be touched.

These films reveal the powerlessness of the politics that have inspired them, and, ultimately, they suggest looking for more radical solutions than these filmmakers are willing to explore. In the end, a solution will come, not from the killers, but from the victims.

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