Munich, the Film


Munich: Attack on Israel?


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Why the Jewish right missed the mark on the film "Munich"

By Emanuel Goldman

"Munich" has been criticized by the Jewish political right for not telling the true story (assuming the true story is available) of Israeli retribution for the slaughter of its delegation at the 1972 Munich Olympics, inventing self-doubt among the Israeli hit team, suggesting moral equivalence between terrorists and Israel's vigilante punishment, and others. While there is merit to some of these points, these critics have missed the forest for the trees.

"Munich" is a powerful albeit flawed film that grabs the viewer at the outset and doesn't let go. The essence of the film is that the Israelis are the good guys, the heroes. The story is told from their point of view, and we identify with them. Whatever else one may criticize about the politics discerned in the script, there is no escaping that the Israelis are the protagonists.. This is an enormous advantage for the Israelis, and vitiates the argument that the film suggests moral equivalence.

Critics frequently misrepresent what's in the film, for example, claiming the film implied Golda Meir didn't attend the funeral of the victims for fear she would be booed. But that view is just one person's opinion stated in the film, which also makes clear that Meir's sister had just died and that Meir would not attend any functions. To criticize the film for suggesting that Meir was afraid of being booed without mentioning the death of Meir's sister is dishonest.

Regarding criticism of the statement by Meir that a society sometimes has to "negotiate compromises with its own values," no civilized society including Israel endorses vigilante justice. The statement acknowledges that Israel understood it was going outside the bounds of accepted norms, because in the new world of terrorism, extraordinary action was necessary. So Meir's statement is not in the least bogus.

Others complain that Jews are stereotypically depicted as penny-pinching because the agents are told to get receipts. This complaint seems like ethnic hypersensitivity. Every government and business needs receipts. This criticism epitomizes the banal mentality of those looking for excuses to censure the film.

Another misrepresentation: some have savaged the film for allowing Ali, a Palestinian terrorist, to state the Palestinian case to Avner (not knowing that Avner, the leader of the squad, is Israeli) when they both happen to be using the same safe-house. But Avner counters Ali's arguments. To omit that Avner refutes those arguments misrepresents the film. The Palestinians are given a voice so that the film would be seen as objective. The viewer draws his/her own conclusions. But given the alternatives, terrorism or counter-terrorism, most viewers will side with the Israelis anyway, especially since the Israelis are the heroes.

Some complain that names of Israeli victims and Palestinian terrorists are both read aloud, implying moral equivalence. While there are shots of Palestinian reaction to news stories on Arab TV stations, that doesn't make equivalence. From these criticisms, one would imagine a newscast intoning the Israeli victims' and the terrorists' names together, but there is no co-mingling of names. Showing Palestinian reaction does not change the moral equation, just as newscasts showing Palestinians dancing in the streets after 9-11 conveyed no implication about the attack. The moral equation is set by the film showing the monstrous actions of the terrorists in all its horror. The critics are taking aspects of the film out of context to cast the film in the worst possible light.

Commentators have complained that Israel's motive is depicted solely as revenge (Avner is advised not to become an Israeli "Charles Bronson", who ironically actually was Jewish), but they omit a key comment by an Israeli authority: that Israel must appear strong to its enemies, implying that through strength, Israel may be able to save the lives of its citizens.

Others have misrepresented the film as not depicting the Munich massacre until the end, but the story of the massacre is told in interspersed segments, starting at the very beginning of the film (including the killing of two Israelis). Thus, the filmmakers constantly remind the viewer why Israel responded this way.

The depiction of the massacre at the end is juxtaposed with Avner having sex with his wife, and the film has been attacked for desecrating the memories of the victims. However, the massacre is taking place in Avner's head at this time. Earlier, we've already seen Avner becoming obsessed with the massacre, dreaming about it and waking up very agitated. Thematically, Avner having sex with his wife becomes a kind of answer to violence: a literal depiction of 'make love not war'. It is a life-affirming act of love that is the antithesis of terrorism, not a desecration.

What I found flawed was the way self-doubt surfaced in the hit squad. Unlike commentators that consider the self-doubt to be offensive and untrue (based on interviews with real-life participants), I have no objection to this. Self-doubt is human and universal, and makes the protagonists that much more interesting, believable, and to be cared about.

Including self-doubt on the part of the agents does not change the moral equation one iota. If anything, it makes the Israelis even more sympathetic because it shows them caring about human life, in stark contrast to the way the terrorists are depicted. The actions of the Israelis are in response to horrific acts.

The difficulty is the way the script created the self-doubt. It comes out of nowhere, it is not earned by the script, but feels added-on to create a point rather than being generated from within the characters. This is especially evident when the bombmaker, without any warning to the viewer, suddenly talks about how their activity is challenging his Jewish values.

It's also sudden and unconvincing when another team member makes a comment out of nowhere suggesting the terrorists got a lesson from the Israeli occupation. This is objectionable not only because it's untrue, but even more because the character as depicted would not have said it.

Avner's self-doubt is better grounded, in part because we see his pain as members of his squad perish, and we see his (justifiable) paranoia grow about his safety. What Avner has done has taken a toll on him, and he is burnt out: this is the perspective from which to understand his behavior at the end.

Another weakness is the omission of background information necessary to properly understand the comment of Avner's mother, "they wouldn't give us the land so we took it." The comment doesn't have the context that the UN partitioned the region into Jewish and Arab states in 1948, that the Jews accepted the plan and the Arabs didn't, instead attacking the Jews.

So while the line is strictly true, it is also misleading to those who do not know the history. I can understand the artistic choice, because if the film went too far into political debate, it could lose its audience. This is after all, a thriller. Still, it would have been nice for the film to have found a way to provide a fuller context.

Much has been made of the film showing the World Trade Center at the end. Critics have asserted the film is implying that a violent response to terrorism only begets more terrorism. My view is that it is a reminder that there is no escaping terrorism, even when Avner relocates to Brooklyn.

The film has also been criticized for Avner lamenting that killing a terrorist only leads to another terrorist filling his shoes; but the film should not be condemned for stating an uncomfortable truth. The film doesn't say this means you stop fighting them. Rather, it reminds us of the difficulty in which the civilized world including Israel finds itself, in figuring out how to stop the scourge of terrorism.

Finally, the film has been lambasted for not telling the true story. Aside from the fact that it's not clear that anyone willing to divulge it actually knows the true story, the film is fiction, and says right at the outset that it was "inspired by real events." This is not director Spielberg's first use of this approach; he used it at least in "Amistad" and "Saving Private Ryan" and maybe even in "Schindler's List."

Now you may object to this approach a priori; it is, after all, a license to alter historical fact. But then not only is "Munich" to be rejected but a whole lot of other films. If you accept the premise as legitimate, then it is unfair to single out "Munich" for violating historical accuracy. I had no question that it was fiction (aside from the broad outline of the Munich massacre; the Israeli response has never been officially acknowledged). It wasn't even evident that the targets of the Israeli hit team would have been the real-life targets, since in the film, these are not the terrorists who carried out the Munich massacre but rather Palestinian leaders (of the terrorist organization Black September) living in Europe.

The filmmakers chose to omit a reported real-life mistaken identity killing of a waiter in Norway; had the filmmakers wished to demonize the Israelis, including the killing of an innocent person would have certainly tarnished them. By contrast, the Israelis are depicted as taking pains to avoid killing innocent people.

"Munich" derives from a long line of descent in Jewish tradition of raising and debating questions, and is confident enough about the evil of terrorism that it can permit the inclusion of opposing views, knowing that most viewers will wind up on the side of the Israelis anyway.

Yes, the Jewish right is correct that "Munich" does not provide unqualified support for the Israeli point of view. But it doesn't have to, because at the end of the day, the Israelis are still the heroes and that's what the viewer takes home. The negative criticisms seem to have missed this most obvious point. From a Marshall McLuhan perspective, this is the message, and that's why the Jewish right missed the mark.

Emanuel Goldman is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Review of the Arts (no longer published)


from the March 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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