Film Studies: Israel knows a thing or two about revenge. So does Steven Spielberg...

In 1982, E.T. was an enchanting fable for shy creatures of all ages and alien backgrounds, as well as a warm tribute to American domestic life. In the same year, Poltergeist (which Spielberg produced, and the director of which he "helped") cast a baleful eye on nearly all the same things. Then in 1993, the double-act was Jurassic Park (a monument to species recreation) and Schindler's List (ditto on extermination). And now, in 2005, Spielberg has delivered a version of War of the Worlds that is a very exciting story of an ordeal where mankind strikes back at alien invasion, and Munich, his Christmas offering and a film that reckons to upset just about every section of the audience.

At the very least, this record reveals an intensely complicated man - one far more intriguing than his great contemporary, George Lucas, and more steadily dedicated to new work than, say, Francis Coppola. As someone who turned relatively late in life to acknowledge his own Jewish heritage, and who has contributed enormously to schemes for Jewish scholarship and history, Spielberg has now taken that crucial step too far in asking the Jewish audience to stop and think about all they have learned, and all they anticipate from the movies.

Munich begins with a quick account of how Black September terrorists invaded the Olympic Village in Munich in 1972 and kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. We see the muddled newsreel coverage of their murder. The action then switches to Tel Aviv, where Golda Meir is pouring cups of tea for her Cabinet and grumbling her way towards something like retaliation. She has called in a young Mossad agent, Avner (Eric Bana), who has lived in Germany and America. He has, more or less, 24 hours to consider his mission and whether it is possible: to lead a small group of five who will take revenge on the Black September group. The five will have access to an untiring bank account, but they will be disowned by Israel. They do not exist, and will not, until the names on their list of vengeance are all crossed off.

We do not doubt that this is how Israel reacted in 1972, but we know the set-up from so many films, from so many countries, that are pledged to "necessary" revenge. And here are five ill-assorted guys who may or may not possess the talents to do the job: a bomb-maker; a documents' master; a clean-up expert; and a strong-arm guy who, ironically or not, is played by Daniel Craig who will next enjoy his special contract of retribution as 007. And, as they set out, they surely have our support. We take sides with their plans; we want them to succeed; no matter that we may not know too much about the Black September grievances. The mechanics of vengeance have always worked well on film - show us a job or task, a jewel robbery, a murder, or the meticulous removal of all enemies to the Corleone family on their day of baptism, and we are there, lending our emotional weight to the push.

Above all, I think Spielberg is asking, wait a moment, what does it say about a medium if it can so easily enlist us in such things, without so much as a thought or a pang for those who must be executed? For as the gang of five work their way around Europe, seeking targets, so the movie becomes all the time denser, more crowded, more complex in its situations and compositions. What Spielberg is doing, all the time, is to say beware the battle cry and pay closer attention to the context. It amounts to a triumph of observation as he shows us the threat of collateral damage and casualties - if only because our gang doesn't always know what it's doing.

Along the way, in addition, they meet a few Palestinians and talk with them and begin to discover that these people are not necessarily aliens or enemies. Throughout Munich there is a stress on meals, cooking and eating, and what it builds to is the quite gentle reminder that these are things in which all peoples - even sworn enemies - are alike and equally hungry. Might they not eat at the same table some day?

For Avner especially, the mission turns to nausea. Again, the film is nowhere near as strident or single-voiced as it might be (if it was content to be propaganda), but Avner's situation with a wife and a child in New York is steadily present as a kind of moral alternative to what he is doing.

And Spielberg's treatment of the deaths and disasters is so practical, so tinged with context and compromise, that it is very hard to feel the kind of righteousness that may often drive assassins in life (and death). Ordinary killing, granted the extraordinary power of dynamite and gunfire, becomes harder and harder to stomach. And so the film works its way round to the proposition: is vengeance ever enough for a civilized society?

Already in America, the intellectual Jewish press has fallen on Munich with charges that it risks condoning the greater "evil" of the original terrorists. Jewish retaliation, critics say, was always historically more moderate and more reluctant than the Palestinian urge to eliminate Israel. But Spielberg seems to have another thought on his conscience: that movies glorifying the action of a moment do not convey the grim calculation of history, whereby one squalid act leads to another, until moral superiority is mere rhetoric.

Munich is not going to be big box-office. There are too many people who will have made their minds up in advance not to see it. But things are changing in the Middle East even if it now seems that the oldest of liberal enemies, Ariel Sharon, may become the peacefinder. For a hundred years, the movies have lived on the dynamic that says, strike a blow and we will strike you back. That is "fair", if you like, and an excuse for a "good, clean fight". But history says that "terrorism" has causes, issues and iron in the soul that will not go away, not until talk has bored mere bravery.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Munich' is released on 27 January

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?