There has been some controversy over the film. The largest issue is that it is almost completely fictionalized. See the Guardian’s overview.
Although in all fairness, the movie does say at the beginning, “Inspired by Real Events”, which to my mind means nothing but Fiction. Not even inspired by “historical events”. So, while I would have liked some acknowledgment that the book on which the film was based (titled Vengeance) was a wonderful piece of fiction based around the 1972 Olympic Murders, comparable to say Da Vinci’s Code–a wonderful piece of pure fiction “inspired” by the events of Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Opus Dei, and whatever else.
I’m not much into artistic criticism–cinematic, theatrical, visual, expressive, literary, etc.–I find it usually is so arrogant and detached from the work itself, so much babbling and incessant self-centered pomposity. Too much putting on of airs and intellectual over-reaching, if you ask me.
So I’m not going to take that route, with that film. There are others (however few in number) who can do that properly.
I’d rather just focus on one element of the movie: violence and violent means as instruments of a law-based state. In other words, does a state with laws, a sense of justice and fair play ever have the ability and even in some cases the moral and political obligation to use means which are illegal by its own strictures?
Munich turns psychologically and politically around the ethics of this very question: should these Israelis assassainate the men responsbile for the brutal murders of the innocent Israeli Olympians? Is such an action justice? Does it promote defense and send such a clear message that young men will stop from committing further acts of aggression and terrorism against the Israeli state and the Jewish people? Will killing the killers prevent further loss of life in the future?
Its morally ambiguous ground. Obviously more right-wing conservative elements in the US and Israel would find no moral ambiguity in such a venture. Trying to be as impartial as I could, I have to say I did not find that the movie was pro-Terrorist, either explicitly or implicitly, nor especially that it was anti-Israeli. I certainly did not think the moral of the movie was something like: “the poor Palestinians, they have been so abused and oppressed by the Israelis, no wonder they had no recourse but to execute innocent athletes.”
It was not, to my mind, the greatest movie of this genre ever made. They are certainly some elements to be criticized–staid double-agent, political intrigue type scenarios and some pro-forma “politicized” speeches by different members–but overall I thought it a good film, very dark if nothing else.
The plot-line, very briefly for those not aware….
The movie begins with the kidnapping and eventual slayings of 11 Israeli Olympians at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Palestinian group Black September was behind the killings. The terrorists used the media blitz that ensued (well covered by Spielberg with original footage and the eerie haunting voice of now deceased Peter Jennings) in order to bring greater worldwide attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.
While the attacks were formerly condemned by the PLO and Arafat, it is quite likely that he and/or other elements of the senior PLO guard were well aware of the attacks and gave secret blessing to the operation.
The movie follows Avner Sabra (played by Eric Bana), a low-level Mossad (Israeli Secret Police) bodyguard. Avner is recruited by Mossad at the behest of Prime Minister Golda Meir, to undertake a mission to kill the men responsible for the Munich Massacre. Avner and his team of men are successful in killing a number of the alleged Black September.
[Again the movie is based around the book Vengeance, a supposedly auotbiographical confession by the man Eric Bana's character is based off of].
Each time they are successful in eliminating a supposed terrorist, the psychological toll begins to affect the men differently. At one point, one of Avner’s team, says that none of what has happened (even the accidental deaths of civilians alongside terrorists) bothers his conscience one bit, for he only cares about one kind of blood–Jewish. Avner’s mother tells him, she is proud of what he has done because he has honored the legacy of his ancestors burned in the crematorium of Germany. The world, she says, does not care for the Jewish race, and they alone must defend themselves, they alone must grab whatever they can.
Nevertheless, Avner sinks deeper and deeper into a vortex of numbness, pain, and confusion. He starts to question whether he has become a pawn–are Mossad actually giving him the names of Palestinians linked to the attacks; even if they are, Black September and the Fadehyeen are like a hydra, for every head they chop off, two more arise, more vicious and determined than the former.
As one of his other team members tells Avner, he’s losing his soul. He wants to help rid the world of evil, but by partaking in this set of means, he feels he has lost his connection to being part of God’s redemption for the world.
It is extremely unclear moral ground. There are individuals in this world who will only respond to capture and force. Men who have nothing to live for–who have no homeland–who have nothing to lose, some will resort out of despair to achieve their (usually utopian) dreams by any means necessary. The law of the gun is the only law by which these abide.
Avner asks why his group did not do as they did with Eichmann and simply arrest these men and bring them before the tribunal of world justice? The unspoken answer perhaps, mentioned in passing in the film, is that by the 1970s world opinion, particularly in Europe had moved away from sympathy with the Israelis. That balance has only gone more in favor of the Palestinian side by postmodernists since. It is not clear any of these men, connected to Munich or to other political espionage and violence, would be so obviously seen as guilty in the eyes of the world.
The Israeli state is an amazing achievement. They do possess rule of law, democratic measures, free speech, and have given a place for Jews to live (other than NYC) where they will be free from harm–for the most part. The Israeli state, like the US, is on balance, a great example to the world.
And yet, like the US, Israeli has its dark bloody side. The American state, the American identity arose both with its own grreat creativity and genius but also was built by its opposition to an “other”. There is no “we” without a “them.” The them, in the US history’s case were the indigenous tribes. They were cleared out, massacred so that space was created for this political national experiment. In Israeli the parallel of course are the Palestinians. They were evicted, hounded, and forced to flee, with no hope of ever returning to their land–as the Native Americans will never have the chance to resume their traditional way of life in this country.
And yet rule of law, free speech, constitutionally recognized human rights–these are profound steps forward in human consciousness. They are profound political achievements realized by the most paltry few of nations on earth.
And there are those who seek to destroy these achievements. And to protect those achievements, those good (though far from perfect) achievements, some are called to do very bad things. Very destructive, very awful, very gruesome things. Even when these actions made by justified by the circumstances–a lunatic comes at you with a knife and you shoot him. It is certainly morally justified, but it would, I imagine, still leave a black spot on one’s soul. At a soul level, I believe we are all connected and by killing a person (their soul’s vehicle) I believe the killer experiences, to whatever degree, the death of the other, the pain they have caused their loved ones.
It makes me remember those who often face the most evil in our world, in our societies, and must always walk that incredibly thin (and often vanishing) line of proper force without the desire for revenge.
The one element the movie I think did capture well is that for all the planning of proper execution (no pun intended) when it comes to wars, invasions, and the like, however morally defensible (even if only in theory), the practical application leads always to chaos and further violence. Police, military, and yes even intelligence operatives. Of course all of these are easily swayed by personal grudges, corruption, the shield of silence. They also, especially in gvoernment circles, are easily sent out as errand boy’s for the masters who pull the strings, for missions of dubious value.
One telling scene, a Dutch operative–who is never named, only described as “apolitical” and “very business-like”–has killed one of Avner’s men. She is a white woman, not at all connnected to the Munich massacres, the PLO, etc. They track her down as payback for killing their friend. Avner and his teammate have brought poison-tipped blowdarts to do the deed. When they arrive, they actually have a bit of trouble at first getting the guns to function. She is trying to stall time as she tries to reach for her gun. But to no avail. They shoot her twice, but they are not immediately kill-shots. She stumbles around wounded holding onto her cat, while the two again have trouble getting their blowguns to reload. The two men are strangely quiet and almost comical, though the whole episode is actually quite disturbed and somewhat sadistic.
But again these are both good men. Avner loves his wife and by this point only wants to finish the job so he can return home to see his infant child.
Violence does begat violence. And yet, even as we have just finished celebrated the life of MLK, Jr, it is clear that the path of non-violence does not always succeed and in certain cases is morally repugnant. The great Israeli motto: Never again–is not without profound levels of truth. It is used as a weapon to justify vendettas, murders of innocent refugees, harassment, and oppression, no doubt, but there is still this truth: Never again. Never again can a people be allowed to be in such a defenseless position and be so forgotten by the world as they are exterminated.
And sadly, if we think, that the Holocaust was a one-time deal, in terms of the so-called civilized world turning a blind eye, we need look no further than to a Rwanda to see the naivete of such a view.
A people have a right to defend their homeland. Another people have a right to have a homeland. If the Israelis and the US needed a foil to push around to give them a sense of victory to unite their identity, who will the Palestinians push around? Clearly not the Israelis. The Israelis have finally wised up and are building a wall, disembarking from Gaza and perhaps soon from large sections (hopefully eventually all) of the West Bank, returning ideally to the 1948 boundaries (with East Jerusalem I guess). They should competely disengage from the Palestinian terroritories. Only defend themselves so that the Palestinians and other Arab nations can no longer blame the Jews for all the corruption, deficiency, and lack of transparency that is their so-called government (the PLO).
It is all sad, so very sad.
I try to remember as a man who hopes to promote peace and reconciliation, that some are called to a path I could never do. A path far more filled with pain and imagery of the evil of our world than I. I couldn’t do what they do. Its a deep lesson. Their Yoga, their karma so difficult.