Spielberg likely to stir contoversy with latest offering

BY CATE MARQUIS

SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Filmgoers expecting Steven Spielberg’s new film Munich to be another Schindler’s List are in for a surprise, for they will find a much different film. While artistically, Munich is an excellent piece of filmmaking, filled with both vivid imagery and splendid acting, Munich’s underlying themes are far more likely to divide audiences.

Munich is a historical thriller/drama about the aftermath of the terrorist attack that killed 11 Israeli Olympic athletes at Munich in 1972. The attack was carried out by the previously unknown Palestinian terrorist group called Black September. The terrorist attack grabbed world-wide attention and horrified everyone when a failed German rescue attempt led to the deaths of all of the hostages and most of the kidnappers. The film’s story follows the actions of a Mossad-assembled team, led by agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), whose mission is to track down and kill all 11 Palestinians responsible for the planning and execution of the attack.

Unlike the Mossad agent in last summer’s Walk on Water, Bana’s character is no cold and efficient pro but a young, inexperienced agent with a pregnant wife to worry about. Despite his lack of experience, this son of a hero and Holocaust survivor is picked by Mossad agent Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) and Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) to head up the secret mission. The unofficial team is completed by the action-oriented Steve (Daniel Craig), document-forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), their clean-up man Carl (Ciaran Hinds) and toymaker-cum-bomb-maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz). The team is given a list of names, unlimited funds and instructions that they are to only operate outside the Middle East. No matter how long it takes, they are to assassinate them all.

The film uses heart-wrenching archival news footage of the Munich hostages early in the film, and intercuts bloody re-enactments of the tragedy throughout the film. Munich starts out with action film bravura, with the team of hit men confident, eager and unquestioning their mission. They make contact with an apolitical information mercenary, a Frenchman named Louis (Mathieu Amalric) with the connections to find their targets. His information is always for sale to the highest bidder, so there are no guarantees he will not betray them as well. As they cross the names off their hit list, the film turns darker, the emotions tenser and relationships between the team become tighter as doubts about their mission arise.

Hollywood movies are famous for simplifying stories to good guy-bad guy, black-and-white tales of heroism and glorious exploits. Politicians and pundits are also given to simplified inspiring tales of glory. As any veteran knows, real warfare, like real life, is more complicated and complex. Spielberg’s film is all about the complexities. If movies have a single author or a single voice, that voice is the director’s. This is Spielberg speaking on his view of the moral complexities of a war on terrorism and the path to peace.

This is a difficult film to review. As a Hollywood movie, it is filled with action and suspense, the thrill of the chase and explosions. Munich is violent, even grisly at points, increasingly so as the story unfolds. The acting is good and the thriller story is well-plotted, with a script by Tony Kushner (Angels In America) and Eric Roth. The film is suspenseful and fast-paced, but is also emotionally draining. The spy thriller action alternates with its growing debate on ethics of their actions, with different characters giving voice to nearly every point of view. The debate over the film all lies in this subtext, not its qualities as cinema art.

Like other controversial films of recent years, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about this it, although few have seen the film itself. Some have seen an anti-Israel message in the movie, notably the Israeli consul in Los Angeles, whose criticisms have been widely reported. In truth, the film challenges whether Israel’s actions towards Palestinians are leading to peace, but not Israel’s right to exist, as some have hinted. Others have expressed respect for the film’s complexity and the moral questions it raises along with its cinematic value, while acknowledging that the two hour and forty minute film can be emotionally draining and daunting to absorb.

One of the problematic aspects of the film is that the victims all are presented in their role as family members, or in other neutral contexts, without reference to their terrorist or political activities. The director is on firmer ground when he points out that every terrorist eliminated is quickly replaced, raising questions about how much killing will be enough. There are the doubts that Avner raises about whether they are targeting the right men. Spielberg’s most persuasive argument is when he asks what price, emotional and moral, the Israeli team pays for adopting the methods of their enemy.

Some people will simply not want to consider some of the questions Spielberg’s film seems to ask. Spielberg asks us to consider if one runs the risk of becoming the evil one opposes and when one revenge killing leads to another, when does the cycle end. Spielberg clearly wants to allow both sides to speak. At one point in the film, Avner, posing as a German communist, has a conversation with a young Arab named Ali (Omar Metwally). Ali shows no understanding of the Israeli point of view. In Ali’s mind, he does not see why the Israelis are in his homeland. “I didn’t gas any Jews. Why aren’t they taking land from the Germans?” he asks. Furthermore, Ali is convinced that the world will eventually come to the Palestinians’ aid. When Avner challenges this assumption, Ali only says that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will continue the fight, allowing Spielberg to conjure images of the centuries-long conflicts of Yugoslavia and the Irish troubles. Eventually, Avner grills his Mossad handler Ephraim about whether killing these plotters will put an end to the violence, something that clearly did not happen.

This is a fictional film, not a documentary, and Spielberg takes some liberties with facts. This is one of the criticisms detractors have leveled at the film, yet Spielberg clearly states the film is historical fiction. While some interpret Spielberg’s film as a criticism of Israel, others have suggested that the film is really aimed more at post 9/11 America alluded to in the film’s final shot that includes the New York skyline, with the now-vanished twin towers prominently in view. Still, agree with him or not, Spielberg is clearly making a plea for peace and believes that communication between Israelis and Palestinians is the path to peace for Israel.

This film will be hotly debated but in the end, it is successful as a piece of cinema art, whether you agree with the filmmaker’s views or not. Like all films with the potential for controversy, the best thing is to see the film for yourself instead of taking the word of others for its meaning or content.

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