'Munich': Spielberg's take on the 1972 Olympics massacre

In his new film, 'Munich', Steven Spielberg tells the story of the Israeli hit squad which hunted down the Palestinians responsible for the massacre at the 1972 Olympics. The trouble is, both sides hate it. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The untouchable Steven Spielberg is untouchable no more. For the past several weeks, Hollywood's golden-boy director has been called every hurtful name in the geopolitical playbook: a moral equivocator, a naïve and pampered liberal out of touch with reality, a betrayer of Israel and a self-hating Jew. His new movie, Munich , has only just come out in the United States but already it has been subjected to ferocious criticism by American conservatives, pro-Israeli lobbyists and the Israeli government. All seem determined to prove that he is wrong on the facts, deluded in his reading of the Middle East and downright offensive in his implications about the morality of fighting a "war on terror" - whether it is Israel striking back against Palestinian guerrillas, or the United States seeking revenge for 11 September.

In short, Mr Spielberg has struck the rawest of raw nerves. Some of that, no doubt, was intentional: his film tells the highly charged story of an Israeli assassination squad sent out to take revenge for the kidnap and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In so doing, it lays out some highly provocative questions about the present as well as the past.

The mission is presented as a noble one at first, but the team members slowly find themselves beset by doubts - about the morality of killing in the name of justice, about the culpability of the targets they have been ordered to hunt down and, finally, about the practical effectiveness of assassination as a counter-terrorist strategy.

The material not only takes a sideswipe at Israel and its long-standing policy of doing whatever it takes to guarantee its own survival. The parallels with George Bush's America are also unmistakable, at a time when the moral standing of the United States around the world has been severely undermined by reports of torture, targeted killings and war justified by intelligence that was either incorrect or deliberately skewed to suit a pre-determined political agenda. To ensure that the point is not missed, the film concludes with a shot of the lower Manhattan skyline including the now-fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center .

No doubt Mr Spielberg calculated, with some justification, that if any film-maker could get away with such incendiary material, he could. As the director of Schindler's List, the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tackle the Holocaust, his standing in Israel could not have been higher. He has contributed lavishly to Jewish causes, most notably the Shoah Project which collects and preserves film footage attesting to the Nazi extermination of Europe 's Jews during the Second World War.

Perhaps most significantly, he has developed a reputation over the past decade as a film-maker prepared to lavish enormous care on serious subjects. Both Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, about the 1944 Normandy landings, were made with education as well as entertainment in mind. In the lone interview he granted in the run-up to Munich 's release, he described it high-mindedly as "a prayer for peace".

The response, however, has been anything but peaceful. Apologists for Israel's policy of targeted assassinations - or "focused preventative actions", as they are euphemistically described these days - say he doesn't understand the nature of evil, much less how to combat it. Defenders of the Bush administration, who tend to be ardently pro-Israeli as well, say the moral qualms he explores are a luxury enjoyed only by those who do not have to take responsibility for the security of their fellow-countrymen.

Again and again, he has been battered with the charge of creating a moral equivalence between the Palestinians who perpetrated the Munich killings and the Israelis who came after them. "For all its vanity about its own courage, the film is afraid of itself. It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness," wrote Leon Wieseltier in one of the earliest, and most withering, critiques in the ardently pro-Israeli magazine, The New Republic. "Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestiniains suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples¿ [I]t is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective."

By now, the controversy has spread to the two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too. Israel 's consul-general in Los Angeles , Ehud Danoch, said after an advance screening earlier this month that he found the film pretentious and superficial - a view subsequently endorsed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. On the other side, Abu Daoud - one of the few suspected masterminds of Munich to have survived Israeli retaliation - told the Reuters news agency from Damascus that the film served "the Zionist side alone" and did not properly explain the Palestinians' motives.

So has Mr Spielberg got it all horribly wrong, or does the vehemence of his detractors merely demonstrate that he has succeeded all too well in rattling them? Watching the film, and reading the literature on which it is based, the first thing that becomes apparent that the central criticism - the charge of asserting a moral equivalence between the Palestinians and the Israelis - is actually rather weak.

The members of the assassination squad certainly ask themselves a lot of questions about what they are doing. At one point, they debate whether they are becoming like those they are hunting down, to which one member of the team responds bluntly that they have to act like their enemies if they want to defeat them.

But the film steers clear of providing any pat answers - it is the questions themselves that are the focus of interest for Mr Spielberg and his screenwriters. All evidence suggests that Israel itself has debated the assassination strategy over the past 30 years and reached no firm conclusions. As Aaron Klein, a former Israeli intelligence officer now working as a journalist for Time magazine, reports in his just-published book about the response to Munich , Striking Back: "The justness, efficacy and value of assassinations have been debated throughout the current conflict. Strike and counterstrike have come in rapid succession. The debate, ebbing and flowing, remains unresolved.

If anything, Munich credits its assassination squad with more scruples than the historical record would warrant. The on-screen assassins take considerable risks to ensure that no innocents are caught in the crossfire - including one entirely fictionalised episode when they race to save the daughter of Mahmoud Hamshari, a Palestinian spokesman in Paris, after she unexpectedly returns home and picks up a booby-trapped telephone intended for her father.

It is true, as far as we know, that the real-life assassins were instructed to be absolutely sure of the identity of their targets and make sure nobody else was killed alongside them. But there is no mention in the film of the times the Israeli assassins made fatal mistakes nonetheless - most notably a case of mistaken identity in Norway in 1973, when an entirely innocent Moroccan waiter was gunned down as he was out walking with his pregnant wife.

There is never any doubt, during Munich 's 160-minute running time, that the sympathy of the film-makers is on the Israeli side of the conflict. It barely mentions the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which began in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967 and was a major spur to the growth of Palestinian militancy, including the emergence of Black September, the group behind the Munich killings as well as a string of airline hijackings and other attacks on civilians. The essential virtue of the Israelis is never questioned - only the erosion of that virtue through distasteful acts of revenge. As Michelle Goldberg cannily observed in the online newspaper Salon, the film's central concern is "the effect of retaliatory Jewish violence on the Jewish soul, not on the Palestinian flesh".

It is one thing for the film to be pro-Israeli, however, and quite another for it to avoid offending Israeli sensibilities. From the Israeli government's point of view, Munich is guilty, at the very least, of a colossal failure of tact. Although plenty of information has dripped out over the years, Israel has never officially acknowledged having a policy of targeted assassinations in the wake of Munich , and appears to be furious with Mr Spielberg for revealing it so openly to a mass worldwide audience.

Mr Danoch, the consul-general in Los Angeles, and others have also taken considerable exception to his source material - the 1984 book Vengeance, by a Canadian journalist called George Jonas, which relies almost exclusively on the recollections of a purported former Mossad agent who claims to have been the team leader of an assassination squad. The book is undoubtedly problematic, since it deals with the shadowy world of international espionage and relies for the most part on a single source. The Israelis have identified Jonas's source as one Yuval Aviv, a man they say never worked for Mossad either on the books or - as depicted in the book and film - off. An investigative journalist for the newspaper Haaretz has made a cottage industry of nailing Aviv as something of a confidence man, a low-level operative at best who, among other things, became embroiled in the aftermath of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 and wrote an entirely discredited report blaming the whole thing on a plot cooked up by militant Palestinians with the complicity of the CIA.

Vengeance never entirely overcomes the doubts raised about the story it is telling. In both the book and the film, for example, we are asked to believe that the squad was pointed towards its targets by an enigmatic Frenchman called Louis, whose identity and motivation are never fully revealed. Mr Danoch told Israeli radio there was "no truth" to the Jonas book - a line the Israelis have been pushing more or less consistently since its publication.

The book, though, may not be as big a stumbling block as the interpretation Mr Spielberg and his screenwriters have imposed on it. It seems reasonable to assume that Mossad assassins would be tough, uncompromising sorts. Indeed, Mr Jonas's source, identified only as Avner, writes in a new introduction to the book that he has absolutely no regrets about anything he did in his country's name, despite his doubts about the effectiveness of his actions in stemming the tide of anti-Israeli violence down the years.

In the film, by contrast, Avner and his colleagues are racked by hesitation and guilt from the get-go and come off as almost implausibly soft-hearted. Avner is seen crying when he listens to the daughter he has never met cooing down the telephone and even finds room for civility when, in the film's single most contrived sequence, he is thrown into conversation with a Palestinian guerrilla fighter he runs into in Athens.

Even Golda Meir herself is depicted expressing regret, if not doubt, about the assassination policy she lays down. "Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," she says in the film. Several of Mr Spielberg's critics have taken issue with the idea that she would have expressed any such reluctance. "The truth is just the opposite," Mitch Webber wrote recently in the New York Sun. "Meir understood that Israel 's chief obligation is to ensure that Jews will never again be slaughtered with impunity, simply for being Jewish. Holding mass murderers accountable is not a compromise; it is Israel's reason for being."

Here we come close to the heart of the matter. Mr Spielberg and his screenwriters, Eric Roth and Tony Kushner, are all liberal American Jews wanting desperately to believe there is something virtuous and morally superior about both Israel and the United States . That, in their minds, is the link between Israel post-1972 and America post-2001. Israeli "righteousness", along with the American exceptionalism espoused by liberal thinkers and politicians since Woodrow Wilson, are values that the film sets out both to celebrate and, to some degree, to mourn.

But Israel , as Mr Webber points out, has always made a virtue of its own toughness and predicated its own existence on a refusal ever to be victimised again in the wake of the Holocaust. Righteousness, in other words, is not nearly as important as survival. Mr Spielberg, by contrast, seems anxious to establish that even Mossad assassins are nice guys, and his characters are imbued with traits that would fit right into the suburban Midwest of Mr Spielberg's upbringing.

It's a contradiction that the film cannot entirely sustain, and explains a lot of what has so infuriated Mr Spielberg's detractors. To ardent Zionists, he has committed the unforgivable sin of making Israel look soft. To Palestinians, he has imbued Israel with a moral virtue uncorroborated by its actions. To supporters of President Bush's war on terror, he has resisted the Manichean logic of a conflict between good and evil and introduced shades of grey where policymakers and ideologues want only black and white.

No wonder they are all up in arms. Hollywood and the rest of America 's liberal elite has, to some extent, rushed to Mr Spielberg's defence, and it's not inconceivable that the film will pick up a handful of Oscar nominations. As a piece of film-making, it has certainly found its target and will no doubt benefit commercially from the controversy. Whether it works as an exercise in international diplomacy, however, is a whole different matter.