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Spy vs. spy: The morality of 'Munich'

"Spielberg is no friend of Israel" by Jack Engelhard

"What 'Munich' left out" by David Brooks (subscription required)

"The Boys Who Cried 'Moral Equivalence'" by Jim Emerson (Scanners)

Steven Spielberg's political spy thriller "Munich" opens next week, but it's already come under fire from some who think... well, I can't quite tell what they're thinking. These attacks don't really seem to be about the film. They read more like paranoid fantasies about "Hollywood," or Spielberg himself, or reactions to comments he made about the film in an exclusive TIME magazine interview.

Roger Ebert will review "Munich" -- the actual motion picture -- when it goes into nationwide release December 23. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about it after that, too. But for now I'd just like to take a look at the misinformation two non-movie critics have spread about the film in advance of its opening. It's not so much that I disagree with their interpretations of "Munich"; it's that the movie itself plainly refutes what they say about it.

First, Jack Engelhard (author of "Indecent Proposal") published an scathing tirade that begins with this:

It remains to be seen, literally, if Steven Spielberg has switched sides, from kosher ("Schindler's List"), to treyf. His movie, "Munich," will be opening in a few days and early word has it that he has indeed gone "Hollywood." This means that he's joined the trend to the Left, and that's the way to go if you want to do lunch in that town again.

...and builds to this:

Jews pioneered Hollywood. If, as our enemies say, we own Hollywood, well, here's the plot twist -- we have lost Hollywood, and we have lost Spielberg. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth.

What's most extraordinary about this (or perhaps not, in this era of Fox News feel-casting) is that Engelhard says not one thing about the movie "Munich." Because he doesn't appear to have seen it. That, however, does not stop him from making ad hominem attacks on Spielberg, or nonsensical generalizations about "Hollywood" like this one:

In Hollywood today, where David is Goliath and Goliath is David, you never want to be labeled a conservative or a fan of Israel. Hollywood is all about being trendy and Israel is not the trend. You won't get invited to the right parties and you won't win any Oscars if your heart bleeds for a nation that is always on the verge of being wiped off the map. My problem? If Uris could not get "Exodus" funded in an atmosphere that still reeks of "Durban" (and where is the movie about all that, Steve?) then Spielberg should not be green-lighted for "Munich." Sure, Hollywood, go ahead, make your day. Show us their side of the story, but what about our side? Where is the counterpoint? If you are trending toward political themes, yes, that is your right, but where is our Right, in which decidedly I mean the Right side of politics that has us walking with a target on our backs, meaning those of us who differ on moral equivalency and other trends?

OK, can I read that again? Note to Mr. Engelhard: Steven Spielberg has, in fact, won Oscars. One of them was that "kosher" film you mention called "Schindler's List," which, again, you give no evidence of actually having seen, but it came out in 1993 -- same year as "Indecent Proposal." Although he'd had difficulty winning Oscars before that, "Schindler's List" proved to be -- what was your word? -- "trendy."

As for the question, "Where is the counterpoint?" -- anyone who does bother to see "Munich" will soon recognize that it's all about counterpoint -- between attacks and counter-attacks. No, it makes no argument for "moral equivalency" (that phrase is the first refuge of a con-artist), but it is fundamentally concerned with the concept of what some call "necessary evil" in war, and in self-defense. As Golda Meir says in the film (and you'd know this even if you'd only seen the trailer): "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." That said, it will not be surprising that anyone who thinks Israel is somehow exempt from the history of civilization, or beyond internal struggles with deeply held values, wouldn't have the slightest idea of what "Munich" is about.

As for the ridiculous and arrogant "no friend of Israel" crack (based on... what?), surely Israel is by now old enough to decide for itself who its friends are without Engelhard's guidance. When questioning morality becomes a casualty of the Politically Correct '00s in the hands of demagogues like Engelhard, I hate to think how that affects the great soul-searching Jewish religious and cultural traditions -- those that insist upon the necessity of, well, asking the Big Questions of oneself, one's country and one's religion.

The rest of Engelhard's tantrum just reads like a schmear of long-fermenting sour grapes, with his egomaniacal pronouncements about what movies should be made (his) or should not be made (Spielberg's) in what he calls "Hollywood" -- which, from his description, is a far-off fantasyland of anti-Semitic lunches and parties to which he has not been invited.

In the December 11 issue of the New York Times, David Brooks published a different kind of criticism of Spielberg's film ("What 'Munich' Left Out"), one that also exhibits a bizarre view of history and morality. But at least Brooks had the good sense to actually see the film before writing about it.

Brooks says that Spielberg gets it all wrong: "The real Israeli fighters tend to be harder and less sympathetic, and they are made that way by an awareness of the evil implacability of those who want to exterminate them." I don't disagree that "Munich" bends over backwards to make the Israeli protagonists (and they are the protagonists) sympathetic and morally scrupulous, perhaps even to a fault. In a Hitchcockian sense, you are meant to identify with these guys, and to become complicit in their activities. You want them to get away with... eliminating their targets.

Still, these are surely the most humane spy-assassins you've ever stumbled across -- presented (initially) in stark contrast to the anonymous Palestinian Black September terrorists who murdered the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972. But they -- and Golda Meir and Mossad -- are hardly unaware of the implacability of the enemy they face. That is the premise with which "Munich" begins. (There had been this thing called "the Holocaust" a few years earlier...)

And, it turns out, this starting point is essential to the moral and dramatic tension "Munich" creates. The film's "counterpoint" (in Engelhard's apposite word) is developed as a shadowy espionage strategy game, a violent, deadly escalating series of reprisals and counter-reprisals between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As one character chillingly puts it, watching a TV image of blood being mopped up on the floor of the Athens airport: "Now we are having a dialogue." (Again, I've seen the film, but you can pick up this sense of the moive's trajectory even from the trailer.)

What the film does -- in the tradition of John le Carré and other masters of the spy thriller -- is to track the grueling psychological journeys undertaken by the invisible covert operatives who actually do the politically untouchable dirty work their governments and/or intelligence agencies want done, with the full understanding that neither national officials nor ordinary citizens want to know anything about it -- not beforehand, not while it's going on, not afterwards. Not ever.

It's easy (and natural and maybe even necessary, for some) to demonize the enemy, especially when he wants to wipe you and yours from the face of the Earth. But if you have a conscience, you may feel compelled to ask where you should draw the moral line that distinguishes what you consider "Us" from "Them." When you're talking about killing people, it's that self-awareness that, theoretically at least, keeps "us" sane, and from becoming the thing we are fighting against. (This is at the heart of arguments about the use of torture, civilian "collateral damage," and other aspects of the post-September 11 "war on terrorism" today -- and Spielberg is explicit about drawing those parallels, most clearly in the use of the figure "11" -- also the number of murdered Israeli athletes -- in the final shot.)

Brooks condescendingly claims that Spielberg, the guy who brought us Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goth, somehow doesn't understand evil:

In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis.

There is, above all, no evil. And that is the core of Spielberg's fable. In his depiction of reality there are no people so committed to a murderous ideology that they are impervious to the sort of compromise and dialogue Spielberg puts such great faith in.

That second paragraph is just flat-out wrong (and the ideology Brooks describes is even dramatized in a memorable conversation between the leader of the Israeli team and a member of the PLO). Various Palestinians in the movie do, in fact, state their unmitigated desire to destroy Israel and all its people. Given the history of the region, you can decide for yourself if that qualifies as pure, intractable evil -- or even if Evil is the root cause of the problems faced in the Middle East.

The movie is set in 1972 and 1973. Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- both dedicated to the obliteration of Israel -- did not develop until the 1980s, but they had their predecessors in Palestinian politics. So what is Brooks getting at? Spielberg has said (perhaps idealistically) that a legacy of killings and recriminations and finger-pointing have historically led to more killings and recriminations and finger-pointing. Brooks translates that into:

In Spielberg's Middle East the only way to achieve peace is by renouncing violence. But in the real Middle East the only way to achieve peace is through military victory over the fanatics, accompanied by compromise between the reasonable elements on each side.

Again, this is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of the movie, and reality. "Munich" offers no blanket renunciation of violence, nor does it ever suggest that there is any "only way to achieve peace." Only the those afflicted with Brooks' binary vision would ever conceive of such a fantastical thing. Indeed, for Brooks the problems in the Middle East are easy to identify and solve, so he lays 'em right out for us:

Recent history teaches what Spielberg's false generalization about the "perpetual motion machine" of violence does not: that some violence is constructive and some is destructive. The trick is knowing the difference.

Yes, and that's quite some trick, isn't it? Brooks says Spielberg's movie is unfair because, since 1972, Israel has in fact found more effective ways of fighting terrorism:

Israel much prefers to arrest suspected terrorists. Arrests don't set off rounds of retaliation, and arrested suspects are likely to provide you with intelligence, the real key to defanging terror groups.

Over the past few years Israeli forces have used arrests, intelligence work, the security fence and, at times, targeted assassinations to defeat the second intifada. As a result, the streets of Jerusalem are filled with teenagers, and the political climate has relaxed, allowing Ariel Sharon to move to the center.[!]

So, in the first paragraph Brooks seems to understand, along with "Munich," that there are certain advantageous and disadvantageous consequences associated with any number of tactics, including targeted assassinations. That shouldn't come as news to anyone (and "Munich" is not even an argument for abolishing assassination, but a look at the realistic repercussions of them).

But Brooks would have you believe that "preferring" to arrest terrorists rather than assassinate them is roughly the same as just not assassinating them at all. This is the same argument as the smoker who says he isn't a smoker anymore because he's cutting down. He just hasn't quit. Yet.

In Brooks' next paragraph, he acknowledges the obvious -- that "targeted assassinations" are, in fact, sometimes still used. So his point is... what? Characters in "Munich" wonder aloud why some suspects couldn't be arrested rather than assassinated. But the movie doesn't hold definitive answers to those questions, and neither does Brooks.

I'm happy to hear that Israel's mixed-method approach has been so successful (gee, I thought everybody was limited to just one tactic apiece when it came to war) but... about that security fence. According to an Anti-Defamation League Op-Ed last year, it has worked spectacularly well at preventing suicide-bomb attacks on Israelis. But even the ADL doesn't see it as any kind of victory or resolution -- just a defensive maneuver to buy time:

Israel's security fence is temporary and will have no effect on the status of the land on which it is constructed.... When Israel has a partner with whom it can achieve peace, and who is willing to crack down on terrorism, the fence can come down. Until then, Israel has no choice but to protect its citizens and strive to ensure its national survival.

So, the West Bank Fence, like any anti-terrorist measure, can be said to have its benefits and its costs. It cannot realistically be labeled as simply and entirely "good" (because it helps prevent Israelis from getting blown up) or simply and entirely "evil" (because it isolates Palestinians, creates what some call an apatheid system, and closes the door on what some Israelis say is the idealistic founding vision of Israel as a land where Jews and Palestinians can live together in peace). That is what a moral dilemma is all about, and that it what "Munich" is about. What it is not about is assigning blame for one thing or another to one side or another because, at this point, that would be not only counterproductive but -- after 55 years -- impossible to sort out. Too many tangled threads have been spun -- not just since 1972, but since the 1940s.

Perhaps Brooks is pretending to be unaware of it, or assumes the audience will be, but the history of terrorism between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East goes back long before 1972, although some Black September members claimed the Olympic massacre (on live satellite television) first brought their "cause" to the attention of an apathetic world -- a position the film refers to several times.

One of the Israelis in "Munich" says, almost under his breath as I recall: "How do you think we got the land in the first place? It wasn't by being nice." For perspective here, it helps to remember -- for just one example -- that the militant Zionist organization Irgun (listed by the British as a terrorist organization, and headed by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) blew up the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 91. Terrorism -- or, if you prefer, the killing of civilians whether as intended targets or acceptable "collateral damage" -- has been used by extreme factions on all sides over the years.

When Golda Meir says, in the film, that it is necessary to strike back at the Palestinians to show that Israel is strong and that (I paraphrase) "the cost of killing Jews just got much more expensive," it's an argument that's familiar to us today. Brooks would insist that the only way to approach this is to ask: Is she 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong? Well, the movie does not say, because it does not see the world in such an unrealistic black-and-white way (although it certainly acknowledges that there are people who do -- like the character played by Daniel Craig).

"Munich" poses harder, more pragmatic questions that you are urged to ask, and try to find answers for, yourself. Praise or criticize what you see in the movie as you like. But to attack it for failing to offer the comforting and phony moral absolutes of a politician, the kind of superficial platitudes that it manifestly sets out to undermine -- that's just nonsensical. Or, perhaps, it's better to say it reveals more about the viewer's values than it does about "Munich" or Spielberg's.

For opinionaters like Jack Engelhard and David Brooks, there are no hard questions. The concept of "evil" begins and ends with the childlike charge of: "You started it!" or "You've done worse!") (whether it's actually true or not). It's troubling to raise moral issues while you're fighting a war -- especially when you know you're "good" and those who oppose you are "evil." Engelhard and Brooks would like to throw up the phony "moral equivalency" penalty flag and stop the deadly game right there. To them, it's so easy: 1) just find the essence of undiluted evil in the world; 2) then, anything you do to eliminate it is unquestionably and unambiguously good -- because (all together now) "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," so that which is done in the name of fighting evil must be good. Never is anyone ever faced with a choice between anything less than pure good and pure evil. (BTW, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is far more sophisticated than that.)

Brooks calls this "reality" and Spielberg's vision a "fable." Next week, I urge you to see the movie and make up your own mind about who is telling fairy tales.

[Other valuable background: "One Day in September," the Oscar-winning 1999 documentary about the 1972 Olympic massacre. "The 50 Years War -- Israel and the Arabs," a 1999 PBS Frontline documentary series available on DVD. Vengeance, the book by George Jonas which provided the basis for the "Munich" screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. Aaron J. Klein's newly published account of the Israeli response to Munich, Striking Back.]

ADDENDUM (12/22/05): I just re-watched "One Day in September" and, although it's a pretty bad movie (awful use of music) -- and, to me, seems more like the exploitation of the Israeli athletes' deaths that some have accused "Munich" of being -- it does have valuable historical footage and original interviews. But this should never have been considered an Oscar-worthy film.

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