Something's Missing In Spielberg's 'Munich'

Back story: Steven Spielberg, second from left with 'Munich' actors, says
Back story: Steven Spielberg, second from left with 'Munich' actors, says "the film is asking you to surrender your simplicity on both sides and look again" at the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But 'Munich' also is simplistic, says the author. (By Karen Ballard -- Universal Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Walter Reich
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Director Steven Spielberg claims that he's not telling us what to think. In talking about his provocative new film, "Munich," Spielberg says that, as an artist, he's offering questions, not answers. And he insists that, as a Jew exposed to the Talmudic tradition, he wants to provoke discussion, not provide conclusions.

I don't think Spielberg is being disingenuous in talking about "Munich," which re-creates the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympics and Israel's decision to respond with targeted assassinations of the perpetrators. But it's clear from watching the film, and reading his many comments about his goals in making it, that what he says, alas, simply isn't true. On both of the film's central themes -- terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- Spielberg and "Munich" offer plenty of answers and conclusions.

First, the terrorism issue. Spielberg told a Los Angeles Times interviewer that answering aggression with aggression "creates a vicious cycle of violence with no real end in sight." He said much the same thing to Time magazine -- "a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine."

And his film frames for the viewer exactly this bleak vision of unending and unendable violence. Palestinian terrorists murder Israeli athletes to put their cause before the world. Israeli counterterrorists assassinate Palestinian terrorists involved with those murders. Palestinian terrorists carry out more murders of innocents, presumably because of the assassinations. At the end of the film, the camera lingers on the pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline, dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The film is crafted to demonstrate that violence breeds violence in the long run as well as in the short run.

Spielberg told critic Roger Ebert that his movie says, "I don't have an answer." But he, and the movie, do have an answer, and a ringing one: Striking back with force is not the solution. Both in 1972 and now, the central question about terrorism has been how to stop it. Making an emotionally powerful film designed to convince the viewer that counterterrorist actions using force can't stop terrorism is, despite Spielberg's protestations, a very strong political statement. It's a statement that says that military responses -- whether they're targeted assassinations, as the Israelis have done in the cases of Palestinian terrorists, or military responses, such as the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 -- simply can't work, that they'll just provoke more terrorism.

Whether or not Spielberg is right about violence and its consequences, to say that he's not drawing any conclusions is to deny the very essence of his film. The same is true about the film's treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What Spielberg says, and what the film portrays, shows that he is not just asking questions.

He sees himself as a neutral arbiter. In his interview with Ebert, for example, he said: "Two rights are in a sense competing. You can't bring that to a simplicity. The film is asking you to surrender your simplicity on both sides and just look at it again." In the Time interview, he offered his view of what needs to happen. "The only thing that's going to solve this," he said, "is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills." That's why, he says, he included in the film what is, without a doubt, its signature political moment, a scene involving a calm discussion between a Palestinian terrorist and the head of the Israeli counterterrorism squad, a character named Avner Kauffman.

Most of this exchange consists of a moving speech by the Palestinian, who doesn't know Kauffman is an Israeli. Without that exchange, Spielberg said, "I would have been making a Charles Bronson movie -- good guys vs. bad guys and Jews killing Arabs without any context. And I was never going to make that picture." In his speech, the Palestinian talks powerfully and at length about home and about his people having lost their land; the land to which he refers isn't only Gaza or the West Bank, but what became, in 1948, Israel.

Kauffman doesn't respond directly to this speech, other than to express his skepticism about the Palestinian's conviction that he'll get his home back. Instead, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner leave the response to others in the film. One is the character of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir; she focuses on the need to defend her country against "maniacs." The strongest and longest speech, however, comes from Kauffman's mother. "We had to take" Israel, she says, because "no one would give it to us." She adds: "Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on earth at last." She says nothing, though, to explain why "that place" was the land that the Palestinian also calls home.

Instead, Spielberg's Israeli characters talk about the need for Jews to have a home after the Holocaust. I can understand how this might have happened. Spielberg -- personally devoted to both his Judaism and the survival of Israel -- has long been focused on the Holocaust and its connection with the creation of the Jewish state. At the end of Spielberg's "Schindler's List," one of the most memorable films ever made about the Holocaust, survivors who were on that list -- as well as their children -- pass by Oskar Schindler's grave on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The film, which had been in grim black-and-white, becomes bright with color. The message is clear: Out of the darkness of the Holocaust had been born the Jewish home.

As powerful as that message might be, juxtaposing the Holocaust and the homeland does exactly what Spielberg says he is trying to avoid. It offers simplification instead of discussion.

Many Palestinians would insist -- and I would agree -- that, though the Palestinian's speech in Munich is powerful and passionate, it could have been more powerful and passionate. But at least it contains the main ingredients not only of the passion but also of the Palestinian case.

By contrast, a main ingredient of the Israeli case isn't offered at all. The Jews didn't seek a home in that part of the world only because the millennia of massacres, the latest of which was the Holocaust, made such a home a necessity. They sought to live there becausehistorically it was their home, and their claim to it was no less powerful and passionate than the claim made by the Palestinian in "Munich."

Jews had lived in that land for well over a thousand years. It was the place of their prophets, their kingdoms, their Zion, their Temples and their rabbinical academies. It was the place where they had developed as a nation and created the teachings that spawned the religions of the Western world. It was the place from which, ultimately, most were exiled. It was the place to which, three times a day, they prayed to return. And it was the place to which they repeatedly tried to return, despite the hardships that awaited them there. Judea and Israel came to be known as Palestine because the Romans renamed it as such after the extinct Philistines, in order to expunge the memory of its troublesome Jews and their connection to that land.

Spielberg put not a hint of this in "Munich." And without it, the argument on the Israeli side is presented so inadequately that it profoundly violates his admonition against simplification. Zionism preceded Schindler and the Holocaust. That's what Spielberg somehow failed to include in what he wanted to be a carefully balanced movie, a movie that he says he made to create discussion.

"Munich" isn't a documentary, of course, and it's hardly the first film to present an unbalanced view of complicated political issues. The trouble here is that Spielberg is a brilliant director with an extraordinary ability to shape the emotions of his audience and their impression of reality. Tens of millions of people around the world, perhaps hundreds of millions, will watch his film. And instead of just asking questions, as he says he hopes they'll do because it's art and not history, they'll be coming to conclusions -- conclusions that, because of what he put into this very artful film or because of what he left out, will shape what they think about two of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Walter Reich, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998, holds the Yitzhak Rabin memorial chair in international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University.


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