Steven Spielberg's Controversial New Film The War on "Munich"

Neoconservatives launch a pre-emptive strike on Spielberg's latest, which dares to break the rules of post-9/11 political correctness.

By Michelle Goldberg

A member of the terrorist group which seized the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

A member of the terrorist group which seized the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Steven Spielberg's "Munich" doesn't open until Dec. 23, but a backlash charging the film with fuzzy-headed liberal naiveté and moral relativism began weeks ago. Political critics are berating the movie for suggesting that the violence wracking the Middle East is a cycle that both sides have a part in perpetuating. Spielberg, ironically, is accused of being insufficiently Manichaean, and the charge threatens to ossify into conventional wisdom before the movie's audience can get to theaters to see how misguided it is. As New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote in his awards-season blog, "'Munich' finds itself in a seemingly endless spanking machine." Spielberg's film tells the story of the Israeli response to the massacre of its athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The killings were the work of Black September, a terrorist wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization. Determined to both wreak vengeance and to project a message of strength to the world, Israel deployed hit squads from Mossad's Caesarea unit to find and assassinate those behind the attack. Often, the men who were directly responsible could not be located, and so other Fatah activists with more ambiguous involvement were targeted instead. The story is full of moral ambiguities -- few would dispute that Israel had the right to retaliate, but its pursuit of revenge became an end in itself, sometimes compromising both Israel's ethics and its own security.

The analogy to our own time is obvious, and in some ways the argument about "Munich" is really one about America. Post-9/11 political correctness, which demands that stories about terrorism and counterterrorism be limned in starkest black and white, seemed to have dissipated these last few years. In the debate over Spielberg's movie, though, it's returning with a vengeance. The result is not just the mischaracterization of a movie; it's the resurrection of the taboo against depicting the war on terror in shades of gray.

The campaign against "Munich" started Dec. 9, when the New Republic made Leon Wieseltier's biting takedown of the film available early on the magazine's usually subscriber-only Web site (and the Drudge Report gave it a prominent link). Wieseltier called the film "pseudo-controversial" and said it is "desperate not to be charged with a point of view." Then he excoriated its politics, his angry tone suggesting the movie's message isn't so blandly inoffensive after all. "No doubt 'Munich' will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexities," Wieseltier wrote, trying to preempt praise for the film by dismissing those impressed by it as bien-pensant fools.

"Really wrong"

New York Times columnist David Brooks followed two days later with a condescending column lamenting Spielberg's failure to portray the "evil" driving Palestinian terrorism. "Because he will not admit the existence of evil, as it really exists, Spielberg gets reality wrong," Brooks wrote, continuing, "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."

The same day, Variety editor Peter Bart published a dispatch about awards season campaigning. Noting that Spielberg was lying low, he wrote, "Having gone to such excruciating pains to explain that there is no 'right' and 'wrong' in the Middle East (thus adding to the film's exhaustive length) the filmmaker understandably wants to avoid the angst of the interview circuit." (Variety had already given the movie a scathing review.) The following day, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, airing similar criticisms. "According to Danoch, throughout the film Spielberg equates the Mossad agents and the terrorists," Haaretz wrote, quoting him saying, "This is an incorrect moral equation. We in Israel know this. There is also a certain pretentiousness in attempting to treat a painful, decades-long conflict by means of quite superficial statements in a two and a half hour movie."

As the political attacks pile up, the real meaning of "Munich" -- a flawed but powerful and, yes, complex movie -- threatens to get lost amid all the huffing and bleating. (Spielberg, it was reported Monday, has even hired a top Israeli politico to help cushion the film's release over there.) "There's been a huge push from the people who have that kind of neocon attitude about it to make sure that it doesn't get grounding, to try to keep it from getting its footing," says David Poland, editor of Movie City News, an online magazine about the film industry. "There is a public push to hurt the movie before it even gets seen."

Vengeance and violence

That push won't be entirely successful -- "Munich" has already made the 2005 top 10 lists of Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People and Entertainment Weekly. But the political discussion around "Munich" has already been framed in a way that obscures the film itself.

Director Steven Spielberg has already been accused of fuzzy-headedness in his latest movie, "Munich" -- well before its release.

Director Steven Spielberg has already been accused of fuzzy-headedness in his latest movie, "Munich" -- well before its release.

Spielberg's movie bears little resemblance to the piece of mushy leftist agitprop its critics describe. It does not suggest that terrorists and counterterrorists are morally equivalent or that Israel is wrong to defend itself. It is nonsense to say, as Wieseltier does, that there "are two kinds of Israelis in 'Munich': cruel Israelis with remorse and cruel Israelis without remorse." I can't imagine how Wieseltier thinks Israelis ideally should be portrayed, because many of those in Munich are, if anything, slightly unbelievable in their constant self-interrogation and closely guarded humanism.

"Munich" is about the way vengeance and violence -- even necessary, justified violence -- corrupt both their victims and their perpetrators. It's about the struggle to maintain some bedrock morality while engaging in immorality. Spielberg goes out of his way to be generous to Israel -- omitting, as I'll explain in a moment, one of the Caesarea assassins' most high-profile mistakes. But his film, co-written by engagé liberal playwright Tony Kushner, does mourn the way Israel has compromised its values in the fight against terrorism, while leaving open the question of whether the compromises were worth it. "Some people say we can't afford to be civilized," says Golda Meir (played by Lynn Cohen) early in the film, after the murder of the Israeli athletes. "I've always resisted such people. Today I'm hearing with new ears." Meir makes a conscious decision to cross a moral line. "Munich" is about the implications of that choice, and its unintended consequences.

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