Much Ado About Munich

I saw four pretty good movies last weekend. I shall recap them in the reverse order in which I saw them, just to be different.

Sunday night Jen and I watched Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellwiger, and the incomparable Paul Giamatti (yes, he is the son of the late baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti). Very solid flick. Crowe plays boxer Jim Braddock, a real fighter, who inspired hope amongst the downtrodden during the Great Depression. It’s kind of a boxing version of Seabiscuit.

Sunday afternoon we watched Serenity starring that guy that played the wrong Pvt. Ryan in Saving Private Ryan and nobody else you’d probably recognize unless you watched the show Firefly which is what the movie is based on. Imagine Star Wars as a western with some Matrix-like Kung Fu thrown in. That’s what it reminded me of. Pretty entertaining.

Saturday night we went back to the basics. Some friends had us over to watch the Hitchcock classic To Catch a Thief. Not as good as Rear Window or a few other of Alfred’s films, but Cary Grant pours on the witty charm and Grace Kelley is easy on the eyes and there’s plenty of snappy 1950’s dialog to keep things engaging. It struck me watching this, that George Clooney could be this generations Cary Grant, at least in the lighthearted fair. I could absolutely see Dr. Green in Cary Grants role in this movie. And tell me Grant wouldn’t have fit right in in Ocean’s Eleven.

But here’s what I really wanted to talk about. Friday night I watch Munich–hence this blogs title. The latest from Steven Spielberg go t plenty of attention in the run-up to it’s release. The movie is based on a book entitled vengeance which is about the aftermath of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich Germany. (For more information on this incident click here.) In response to the murders, the Israeli government sent out teams of assassins to track down and kill those involved in the planning and execution of the attack. The book and movie follow one such team and their growing doubts about the morality of their assignment. Therein lies the controversy.

Spielberg had taken a lot of heat before the movie was even released based on the assumption that the film was critical Israeli operation and the fear that it would downplay the heinousness of the Munich murders specifically, and Palestinian terrorism in general. (For an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times criticizing the film by David Brooks click here. For the Time article about the movie and the interview with Steven Spielberg click in the obvious places. You know how the Internet works. I’ll have more to say regarding these articles later on.) Having seen the movie I’m inclined to agree with the first claim, with a caveat, and disagree with the second claim…with a caveat.

The caveat on the first claim is that while the movie certainly does take a negative view of the operation, it seems to understand it’s undertaking and, doesn’t, I don’t think, vilify those who assigned it or carried it out. As David Brooks pointed out, in this point in history these types of terrorist tactics, the Munich slaughter, were relatively new, and the Israeli government wasn’t sure how to respond. As he also points out, this is not the first tactic of choice any longer. It just isn’t that effective. Ever since it’s creation, the State of Israel has been under siege from virtually all sides. Virtually, because it borders a large body of water on it’s western edge or else it would be on all sides. It has become, or always has been, necessary, to react strongly to attacks on it’s people. Spielberg himself states that he is in favor of this. In the Time magazine article-not the interview-he states, “I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened.” He does continue that thought by saying that that never really solves anything, and in this particular case he may be right. After all, we don’t exactly have peace in the Middle East now, 34 years later. To say that violence never solves anything is foolish and naive, however. The two clearest examples of the solvency of violence being WWII and the American Civil War. WWII wiped out Nazi fascism and the racial extermination that went with it, and the Civil War ended slavery in the United States. And Spielberg knows this. One needs only to look at some of his previous work to know that he realizes that evil exists and that sometimes it takes extreme measures to eradicate it. As one review of Vengeance said on, “The author quotes Gandhi as saying that an eye for an eye leads to a world of blind people. One might respond that no eye for an eye leads to a world of righteous blind people, and sighted victimizers.” Food for thought.

Which brings me to the second claim, that the movie is easy on the Palestinian terrorists. I would disagree, but… The Munich Olympics event is shown throughout the movie in a series of flashbacks. These scenes depict the terrorists accurately as thugs who are willing to gun down or blow up unarmed athletes without much hesitation. (All but three of the eight terrorist were killed during the crisis, the three surviving being arrested by German authorities and subsequently released to Libya under a very suspect hostage crisis barely a month later. None of the three were targets of the Israeli hit squads.) The targets of the Israeli teams were all planners or financiers living seemingly normal lives in Europe. According to the movie the team was given names and that’s pretty much it. When they tracked these guys down they were living with their families doing mostly mundane daily activities like going to work and grocery shopping. Other than the Olympic terrorists and the targets, we don’t see too many other Palestinian characters. The one we do get to talk to a little bit is an idealistic PLO fighter who seems to want nothing more than a place to call home. I could see where some would take this and say, “See, he’s portraying a terrorist as just a guy fighting for his country like the Israeli is fighting for his country.” That wouldn’t be a totally off base argument. Of course an idealistic PLO fight at that point in history would want to see the complete and utter destruction of Israel, so he’s probably not such a good guy after all. The bottom line to me in that scene was, that’s probably what a Palestinian would have actually said. And their is definitely a distinction made in the movie of how the Israelis and Palestinians conduct their “business.” The Israelis go out of their way to prevent any collateral damage, even if they are other Palestinians, while the Black September operatives have no qualms about shooting unarmed Olympic athletes in their pajamas. At any rate, I thought the movie did a pretty evenhanded job of showing each side of the equation as it probably was.

I haven’t even really talked about the main theme of the movie. As the assassinations start to pile up, and the Palestinians respond in kind, the members of the team, most of them, begin to have doubts about their mission. Is this the right way to handle this? Are we even killing the right people? What if we hurt or kill an innocent bystander by accident? Soldiers who fight and kill in declared wars, where their enemy is clearly designated by the uniform he wears, on a battlefield somewhere, even these men can undergo difficult psychological turmoil because of the things they see and acts they must commit in order to survive and fulfill their duty. How much more for those who’s battlefield is a busy downtown highrise apartment and not only does his enemy not wear a uniform, but appears to be nothing more than a well-to-do family man?This part of the story rings true for me. It is not a stretch for me to believe that one would have questions about the righteousness of such activities in this environment. According to the movie, the team was given very little actual evidence that these targets were the men involved.

All this is assuming that the book, and therefore the movie, is remotely historically accurate. I haven’t done much research on this front, other than to see that Spielberg and his team talked with a man who one of the main characters is based on. A man of whom Spielberg says, “I don’t know that he’ll ever find peace.” Certainly some artistic license was taken in the movie, and probably the book as well, but that has to be expected. The question is always how much and does it change the fundamental truth of the story? I intend to do more research about this, and perhaps that will be fodder for another long-winded blog. At the heart of the matter, I don’t believe that Mr. Spielberg had any nefarious intention of bringing down Israel or likening Israeli action to that of terrorists. By looking at his previous works and various sound bites, I think it’s clear he is an Israel supportive Jew and this is just his decent, if not naive, appeal for both sides to try to make peace in the region. Of course that’s just an opinion of mine, but then, this is my blog.

As for the movie itself, it is pretty remarkable. It plays out like a good spy novel with all the things that make those types of stories so engaging. There are thrilling moments of intense suspense, fast paced action, intriguing and mysterious figures from the world of international espionage, and the characters’ decent into crippling paranoia. Very compelling stuff. Spielberg knows how to make a movie, after all. And it’s the kind of movie that prompts discussions like this one. The day after I saw it, my good friend Mr. Wendell and I had an engaging chat about it. A word of warning however. It does earn it’s R rating. As you could expect from a movie about a hit squad, there are some violent and disturbing images. The language is pretty rough, and there is some sexual content. You have been warned.

If you want more information on the Munich Massacre itself, I highly recommend the documentary One Day In September. It is an excellent film about the incident and the ineptness of the German government in dealing with it. Fascinating and will make your blood boil.

3 thoughts on “Much Ado About Munich

  1. Call Me June...

    Hello young nephew… yes, it is your wise auntie here to correct you young squire! I agree that George Clooney is rather Cary Grantesque, however Anthony Edwards, our beloved Dr. Green is not. I believe you intended to nake reference to Dr. Ross! No need for shame, it can happen to the best of us!

  2. Pingback: Wednesday Review: Spielberg’s Top 10 « Life of Ando

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