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Twin Pique

Two problems with 'Munich.'

Last week I attended a screening of Munich in Washington. The evening included testimonials to the film's cinematic power from former Clinton officials Mike McCurry and Dennis Ross, both serving as consultants to the movie's rollout, plus more praise from Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter and Foreign Policy Editor-In-Chief Moisés Naím. Slaughter commended the film--a fictionalized account of Israel's attempts to track down and assassinate the terrorists who planned the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre--for showing how, in responding to violence with violence, liberal societies "can lose the very values that we're fighting for." She also lauded the movie's main character, an Israeli assassin who is conflicted about the morality of his mission, for realizing that "we have to do this not as a war, but within the legal system." (Following these thoughts, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.) Naím called the movie "wonderful" and said it left him "speechless."

Part of me wondered if we had all watched the same film. For one thing, as Leon Wieseltier pointed out two weeks ago in TNR, Munich is a "tedious" movie, "soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness." But two additional aspects of the film struck me as problematic. First, events of recent history have rendered Spielberg's central argument questionable at best, empirically false at worse. And second, the film's last scene contains a particularly ugly suggestion about the relationship between Israel and September 11. Who knows whether Spielberg intended this suggestion. But it is there; and audiences will see it whether he intended it or not.

The evening's most awkward balancing act belonged to Dennis Ross whose attempt to fulfill his duties as a Munich promoter while also maintaining his political sanity more or less led him to claim that the film's message was something other than the film's message. Ross began by saying that the movie's perspective on counterterrorism was "that you have to respond--it's understandable that you respond--but when you respond, you're actually confronted with real dilemmas." Then he said, "And the choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives." This sounded like a grudging endorsement of targeted assassinations. Perhaps misunderstanding Ross or perhaps seeking to steer his fellow panelist back to safer ideological turf, Naím, the group's moderator, said, "Yes, and in fact Steven Spielberg says that a response to a response is not, does not solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine of hatred and revenge." At this point the game was up; Ross had been unmasked. (There would be no spontaneous applause for these comments.) He responded, "I think that is certainly a perspective that he brings to bear." Well, yes: It's the entire point of the movie; and Spielberg has said as much (in the director's own words, "a response to a response doesn't really solve anything"). Ross then went on to explain that he supported targeted assassinations but that the movie's message was that "you really have to craft your response with care." "I think it provokes a discussion about targeted killing, and not whether it's wrong or right, but maybe you ought to talk about it; maybe you ought to think about it," Ross said. So the message of this ambitious two-and-half-hour movie is that we should "think" about targeted assassination. But why "think" about a policy option that "doesn't really solve anything"?

Ross's contortions get to the heart of a major problem with Munich's argument. He is right that the movie entertains the debate about targeted killings largely on practical, rather than moral, grounds. The movie may hint that such assassinations are immoral, but it seeks to prove that they are ineffective. Unlike Ross, Spielberg believes that violent reprisals simply don't work. The problem is that the last three years of Israeli history have shown Spielberg to be wrong. According to The Jerusalem Post, the number of Israelis killed by terrorists has fallen steadily in recent years, from 453 in 2002 to 52 in 2005. It is true that targeted assassinations have been only one component of Israel's anti-terror activities; the construction of a security fence around the West Bank was probably the most important step. And it is also true that plenty of other developments--the death of Arafat, the pullout from Gaza, the reinvigoration of the Israeli center--have brought us to the current hopeful moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Still, it seems likely that targeted assassinations played a constructive role in weakening and demoralizing terrorist organizations. At the very least, Sharon has disproven the conventional wisdom that fighting terror with military measures only perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Because its thesis willfully fails to take account of recent Israeli history, Munich feels like a movie that was conceived four or five years ago and frozen in time. And in fact, it was. Speaking at last week's panel, the film's co-producer, Kathleen Kennedy, explained that "we began this process around the year 2000" but "tabled the project for about 8 or 9 months" after September 11. (She also said something revealing about the movie's origins. When they first considered the idea, "Steven and I ... were acutely aware of what had happened at the Olympics in 1972, but we had no idea about this story that unfolded after that." They had never heard of Israel's reprisals? These were not exactly a secret. Fortunately, they turned to an expert, Tony Kushner: "And Tony, some of you may know, has been steeped in the area of politics in the Middle East and really deeply understood the complexity of what it was we were embarking on, in terms of the politics of the story we were trying to tell.") If Munich had been made in 2000, it would still have been troubling to those of us who believe, like Dennis Ross, that killing terrorists is morally defensible. But one would have had to at least entertain the film's practical argument about the cycle of violence. Now, circumstances have changed--because while Spielberg was making a movie he calls a "prayer for peace," Ariel Sharon was doing some very unpeaceable things that have, finally and thankfully, made peace possible.

A dim argument about counterterrorism aside, the thing that bothered me most about Munich--and that has received little attention in the early round of reviews and commentary--was the film's final scene. The movie concludes in New York, and after the dialogue ends the camera pans away from the actors and towards the Manhattan skyline, where it comes to rest on a shot of the Twin Towers. There are many reasons why Spielberg might have chosen to end the film this way. The most obvious is to draw a connection between his movie and our politics: to say, in other words, that the questions raised by his film are not just historical but also contemporary. Fair enough. The other obvious reason to use the Twin Towers was as a cheap emotional prop: to ensure that viewers leave the theater with a lump in their throats that the movie hasn't really earned. This isn't an admirable moviemaking device. But given how common it has become to exploit September 11 in our culture and politics--not to mention how common it is for bad films to beg viewers for unearned emotion--it is hard to work up indignation on this count. Besides, Martin Scorcese ended Gangs of New York exactly the same way. So Spielberg's cheap emotional trick isn't even an original one.

No, the reason this final shot disturbed me was not because of the way Spielberg likely intended it but because of the way many viewers will likely see it: as a statement that Israel is somehow responsible for September 11 and therefore responsible for America's current geopolitical predicament. I do not mean "responsible for September 11" in the sense meant by the conspiracy theorists who maintain that the Mossad orchestrated the attacks or that Jews were warned to stay home from work the day of the strikes. Of course, there are plenty of people who believe such things, particularly in the Middle East, and perhaps they will see Munich and find their views implicitly reaffirmed in the movie's last frame; but Spielberg cannot be held responsible for the wild interpretations of conspiracy theorists. What he can be held responsible for is an interpretation of the last scene that he may not have intended but that he should have foreseen: One can view the last shot as drawing a loose but linear link between decades of Israeli counterterrorism and September 11. This false yet potent link already exists in the minds of some Americans and many Europeans. It is reasonable to fear that after millions see Munich, the link will exist in the minds of many more.

Consider the movie's ending in light of its larger argument that, from the 1970s on, Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counterterrorism have been locked in a violent cycle doomed to endlessly spiral forward into the future. What does a final shot of the Twin Towers mean in this context? Audiences could be forgiven for assuming Spielberg's point is that the cycle of violence Munich identifies spiraled forward and eventually hit American shores on September 11. In other words, if Israelis hadn't run around Europe assassinating Palestinian terrorists in the 1970s, the World Trade Center would still be standing today.

Needless to say, this is an inaccurate reading of history. It is also unfair to Israel: In a year that has seen liberal American churches denounce the Jewish State, a mass-market movie that seems in its final moments to hold Israel responsible for September 11, and that will be adored by liberal audiences (it has already been praised by liberal reviewers), will not do Israel any favors with American public opinion. The whole implication is also destructive to American politics. The idea that America's current situation on the world stage is primarily the result of our accidental involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence corrodes any chance of honest debate about our foreign policy.

Spielberg may be breaking new ground by drawing an implicit link between Israel's post-Munich operations and September 11; but he is hardly the first to intimate that on September 11 and since, America somehow became enmeshed in a fundamentally Israeli matter. "[T]his is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days," wrote Robert Fisk in The Nation weeks after September 11. "It is also about U.S. missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and U.S. helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia--paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally--hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps." In the Los Angeles Times, Alexander Cockburn wrote, "I doubt the suicide bombers went to their deaths in the cause of forcing women to stay home and only go shopping when clad in blue tents or of having men never trim their beards. More likely they were moved to action by Bin Laden's main political themes as expressed on at least one tape in which he denounces Israel's occupation of Palestine and U.S. complicity with that occupation." What began in the days after September 11 would continue as America's response to September 11 widened to include the Iraq war: Elements of the left would seem to take special joy in trying to entangle Israel in these discussions. In 2002, I covered anti-Israel rallies that turned into antiwar rallies. Or were they antiwar rallies that turned into anti-Israel rallies? It was sometimes hard to tell. Even the respectable left played its part. Hence the oft-made point that one way to neutralize Al Qaeda would be to impose Israeli-Palestinian peace, as if September 11 was an act of protest against Barak's failure to cede enough territory at Camp David. This is exactly what the last scene in Munich more or less implies: that if only Israel had negotiated more and retaliated less, Muslim terrorism as we know it would have been stillborn years before the towers fell. Spielberg may not have intended this message. But it is the message many viewers will understand. Perhaps Dennis Ross can explain to these viewers why they are wrong.

Richard Just is editor of TNR Online.