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Friday, April 21, 2006

A Film

Reviewed by Muhammed Abdelmoteleb **

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ciaran Hinds

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriter: Eric Roth, Tony Kushner, Charles Randolph

Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel

"Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."

This line from Munich, said by the former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, sums up the message behind the film. Had the film supported this view, it would have been shallow and thoughtless. However, the inherent immorality and ruthlessness of the quote is demonstrated as the story unfolds.

Preceded by the disclaimer that states the film was "inspired by real events," the film opens with a night scene at the 1972 Munich Olympics as 8 Palestinians take 9 Israeli athletes hostage. All nine athletes are eventually killed. In an act of reprisal, Israel bombs Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases inside refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, killing and wounding over 200 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians.

This is not enough though, and the Israeli government, at the behest of Prime Minister Golda Meir (in a brilliant scene-stealing performance by Lynn Cohen), organizes a more targeting revenge. Meir bemoans the fact that Jews were killed in Germany and yet the Olympic Games still went ahead. She explains that after Munich, she started hearing with new ears and that in order to "bring peace," the deaths of the Israeli athletes had to be avenged. A four-man hit squad, which doesn't officially exist, is put together to assassinate eleven Palestinian men who have tenuous links to the Munich massacre. The hit squad is led by Avner, an up-and-coming Mossad [Israeli secret service] agent, and his role is played with conviction and yet vulnerability by Eric Bana.

The Story of a Man and a Homeland

The film is as much Avner's story as it is Israel's. He starts off starry-eyed and enthusiastic to serve his country and slowly descends into paranoia and self-doubt as the killings and bombings smear the screen with blood. He eventually doubts his country's moral high ground that enables it to "compromise with its values." Initially, he seemingly kills without compunction but, later in the movie, when wracked by guilt and fear, he ends up threatening to kill other people's children if his family is harmed.

A recurring theme in the film is that of the homeland. Avner's mother makes it clear that the Jews were in need of a homeland after the suffering of the Holocaust, recounting how most of her family had been wiped out. For her, the birth of Israel was a new start, a new beginning. She is proud of Avner for doing his duty to defend and protect his homeland.

When Avner offers to tell her the grisly details of what it is that he actually does for Israel, she doesn't want to know; it is enough that he is doing something. Here, the desire for the maintenance of the homeland land is so strong that it creates a new moral high ground, a Holocaust redemption theory - whatever is done by Israel is done to prevent another Jewish Holocaust and therefore cannot be criticized.

In a conversation with Avner, who is posing as a member of ETA (basque separatist organization), a PLO member named Ali goes on to lament his lack of a homeland, "The IRA, ETA, the ANC, we all pretend we're interested in the international revolution . but you all have a home to go to. You don't know what it is to have no home." The narrative here shows how people's desire for a homeland is so strong that it leads them to kill. Ali's words haunt Avner, not only because he hears a Palestinian describing the Palestinian case (the opposite of his mother's view), but also because these words eventually come to apply to Avner as he spends his time in hotels in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Athens, until he eventually finds a home away from home in New York.

Munich and Media

Steven Spielberg

Media coverage of the Munich massacre is skillfully interwoven with actual archive news footage, which lends the event an air of immediacy. We see the media circus descend in a feeding frenzy on Munich with cameras, lights, and journalists fishing for the latest news on the hostages. We hear at one point that the Palestinian kidnappers were watching themselves on TV and when they see snipers moving in around them, the terrorists tell the authorities to call them off. This scene raises the question of the morality versus sensationalism of the media.

The media, at least according to the film, is amoral and seeks only to bring the story to its viewers and readers. This is also highlighted as viewers view actual footage of three of the surviving Munich operatives who were granted amnesty in Libya. "They're turning them into stars," remarks Steve, one of the members of the Israeli hit squad, as the team stares with disbelief at the TV screen. One of the Palestinians avoids answering a question about whether he killed any of the Israeli athletes and in bad taste starts to make the case for the Palestinian people. Should such men be allowed prime airtime to put forth their views? A pertinent question today as Al-Jazeera broadcastings of Usama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri tapes cause much controversy.

Steven Spielberg was branded as being "no friend of Israel" by the Israeli consulate in the United States after the film's initial screening. The consulate also claimed that Spielberg showed that the Israeli hit squad was no better than the Palestinian assassins. This is quite a shocking charge to level at someone of the caliber of Spielberg, who is known to be a supporter of Israel and who even owns historical film footage of the founding of the state of Israel.

The Munich perpetrators are shown to be terrorists who do not hesitate to kill civilians in cold blood. Yet members if the Israeli hit squad also do not hesitate to kill in cold blood, despite the lack of concrete evidence that links the men they kill to the Munich massacre. Nonetheless, although we are shown the Israeli's and Palestinian's callousness, we are also shown their humanity; neither side is purely evil.

Intelligent Script and Direction

Maybe it is also because Tony Kushner's intelligent script - which surely should have won the Oscar for the Best Adapted Screenplay - that veers out of the narrow, acceptable, and mainstream American discourse on Israel. The film does contain some surprising lines, such as the following:

"Do you think the Palestinians invented bloodshed? How do you think we took the land from them?"

"The only blood I care about is Jewish blood."

[On the creation of the state of Israel] "We had to take it because no one would ever give it to us"

Particularly poignant is the scene between Avner and Ali. Ali makes a hyperbolic case for the Palestinians in which he envisages Israel's eventual destruction. However, he also manages to castigate Israel's exploitation of Holocaust guilt to keep the Palestinians in submission - a brave cinematic moment for the director who brought us the moving and tragic Schindler's List.

Spielberg, not having given us much in the last few years (only last summer's The War of the Worlds, Catch Me if You Can, and The Terminal), once again demonstrates that he is a master filmmaker who can make classic cinematic entertainment (Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Jurassic Park) and who is also capable of producing in-depth cinematic art (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan).

Munich is beautifully shot, with an adroit use of editing (which creates what is tempting to call Hitchcockian suspense, but which can comfortably be called Spielbergian suspense) and cinematography. Shadows, rain, dark, light, slow motion, awkward camera angles, and John Williams' tense and haunting score are all effectively used to show the tragic undoing of a man. Avner, who originally believed he was doing the right thing for his country, eventually finds that his country turned its back on him. By the end of the film, Avner reaches the conclusion that the murder of the eleven Palestinian men on the hit list would only result in more bloodshed and revenge.

Munich is Spielberg's only film that doesn't have heroes. The movie is a world of tragedy, deception, ruthlessness, and murder. Its final shot of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, as a broken and exiled Avner walks off, is the last mournful touch that leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth.

* For those who may be encouraged to watch the film, it is the writer's wish that our readers know about the presence of some nude scenes interwoven with the plot.

** Muhammed Abdelmoteleb is the head of the English department at an international school in Cairo. He is a graduate of both the University of Wales, Cardiff, and Cambridge University, and has been a contributor to Q-News, the British Muslim magazine. He resides in Cairo with his wife. You can contact him at mabdelmoteleb@gmail.com.


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