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

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