Munich: Steven Spielberg’s Bloody Philosophy Lesson


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Eric Roth and Tony Kushner

Israeli hardliners have little to fear from Spielberg’s excursion into the political thriller genre, a bloody philosophy lesson from which only the most dedicated and sophisticated viewers will be able to discern any worthwhile, deeper meaning.

Drawn from the book “Vengeance”, by Mossad agent George Jonas, Steven Spielberg’s Munich takes on terrorism and true events. At the 1972 Olympics in Germany, a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, took 11 Israeli athletes and their coaches hostage and murdered them. It was one of the first acts of public violence, broadcast around the world, a sort of horrible press release meant to call attention to the Palestinian cause, just a few years after the 1967 War, which resulted in the Occupied Territories. The film follows five Israeli agents who are assigned to hunt down those responsible for ordering and planning the Munich attack.

Spielberg borrows heavily from Hitchcock, Peckinpah, Coppola, and Scorcese in a cinematic mayhem that keeps audience adrenalin pumping. He’s made a thriller that aspires to a philosophical core, and at times almost succeeds in transcending the action genre. The script by Eric Roth(Forest Gump) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America) maintains an Israeli point of view, and the shadow of the Holocaust is never far from reach as the “root cause” for the mission. The Munich murders are horrifyingly real, in both archival news footage and Spielberg’s recreations, rendered in flashbacks that continue through to the film’s final moments. If the viewer begins to question the seemingly endless murders the Mossad commits in retribution, one more shot of Black September on-the-rampage in Munich will shove you back (and is meant to) into total support for the “terrible necessity” of Israeli violence.

Some Israelis and Amreican Jews have slammed Spielberg for making Israeli and Palestinian violence seem “equivalent”– a totally absurd claim to anyone who’s actually seen the film. In fact, Munich virtually omits “the Palestinian side” of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There’s just one brief exchange, between the film’s lead Israeli agent and a Palestinian, where the Palestinian expresses longing for “homeland,” and a fierce declaration that “Israel will eventually lose to the Palestinians, even if it takes a 100 years.”

It’s a startling moment, because it’s the only time a Palestinian speaks. Otherwise, Palestinians are portrayed in the usual way: nameless thugs “speaking gibberish” (untranslated Arabic) who commit “senseless” acts of brutality against Jews.

However, what Munich does do is evoke what journalist Robert Fisk has called the endless “dance of death,” as each Mossad act of revenge is countered by more (unseen) acts of Palestinian retribution. Spielberg is posing thorny questions: Can violence ever end violence? And even if one’s cause is “just,” can one kill and not become morally, psychologically, and spiritually damaged? What does “security” really look like, and how can it be established in the midst of an ongoing conflict?

These questions are at least as meaningful for Americans in G.W. Bush’s post-9/11 “war on terror” as for the Israelis and the Palestinians, maybe even more so. Americans will find it far more useful to apply the ethical and philosophical challenges of Munich to the activities at Abu Graib, the disappearance of detainees into U.S. secret prisons, and, most recently, a mission to kill a high-level Al Qaeda member in Pakistan—which killed at least 17 civilians while failing to get the intended target.

The five Mossad agents have varying reactions to their own violence, as bodies pile up like one of Coppola or Scorceses’s Mafia movies. Some remain hardened to the task; others begin to question, or even crack. A French “independent” who sells information for huge amounts of money, provides an “amoral” counterpoint to the Mossad agents, who enlist his services. As the mission stretches on for years, they become more careless about “collateral damage,” and doubt emerges as to whether each and every “target” actually had anything to do with the Munich murders.

Avner, the lead agent, who serves as our primary lens, ultimately takes his wife and child out of Israel and moves them to Brooklyn. He must visit them in secret, and none of them seem at home away from Israel. There is the looming irony that perhaps in attempting to avenge his homeland, it is lost to him forever.

But most disturbing to this viewer is that, in the film’s final scene, it’s still not his own violent acts that apparently haunt Avner, only the Palestinians ‘ slaughter of the Israeli Olympic team. This should mollify Spielberg’s pro-Israel critics. In a clumsy, ham-fisted display of propaganda, he saves the bloodiest flashback of all for last, with Avner “remembering” Munich, while having sex with his wife in Brooklyn. It would have made more sense, psychologically, dramatically, and morally, if he had been reminded instead of the blood-spattered, bullet-ridden female assassin they deliberately left naked, or the Palestinian couple they shot dead in bed.

In short, Munich is neither Schindler’s List nor Saving Private Ryan, both of which showed more courage and complexity, with memorable characters entangled in moral ambivalence. Far more interesting than most action movies, Munich still doesn’t do justice to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. That’s too bad, because Steven Spielberg might be the only American filmmaker who could get both the cash and the audience to get a new perspective before the American people

Lydia Howell is Arts Editor for the TC Daily Planet, a Minneapolis-based journalist, poet and host of KFAI Radio’s “Catalyst: politics & culture”, Tues. 11am(archived at