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The Morality of 'Munich'

Spielberg's startling new film, 'Munich,' is an incisive argument against the use of violence to resolve the Mideast conflict.
 
 
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In 1972, Black September, a wing of Arafat's Al Fatah movement kidnapped and then killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team during the Munich games. This set in motion a series of reprisals by the Israelis, including targeted assassinations of Palestinians, and continuing acts of terrorism by militant groups against Israeli, European and American targets. Today we are no closer to an end to the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, nor to a lasting peace agreement that addresses equally the needs of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Now comes "Munich," a Hollywood feature film, co-written by playwright Tony Kushner and screenwriter Eric Roth, and directed by Steven Spielberg. Even before the film's release, neo-conservative critics have attacked what they perceive as a liberal bias in the film's portrayal of Palestinian terrorists and their would-be Israeli assassins.

Never having considered Spielberg a political filmmaker, I went to an early screening of "Munich" with low expectations, surprised that he would even tackle the subject. Yet the story that unfolded proved to be an incisive argument against the use of violence, under any circumstances, as a means to achieve political objectives. While the Munich attack brought the Palestinian struggle into millions of homes around the world and as such put the decades-old conflict on the map, it also embroiled Israeli intelligence services in black operations to assassinate its enemies wherever they might be found. Palestinian terrorism created an image problem for the Palestinian people, whose best interests I would argue were, and still are betrayed by savage acts of violence against Israeli civilians.

And by engaging Black September and other terrorist groups on their own violent terms, Israel betrayed its declared values as a Western-style democracy that eschewed the death penalty in 1954 for ordinary crimes (and only exercised the death penalty once, for Adolf Eichmann's "extraordinary" crimes, in 1962).

Like Hany Abu-Assad's recent film "Paradise Now," which humanizes two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from Nablus, "Munich" is as much an argument about the futility of violence to resolve conflict as it is a cogent historical drama. It is shot in a gritty documentary style and may remind some filmgoers of the early work of European director Costas-Gavras, his political thriller "Z" in particular.

In fact, "Munich" is the work of a mature filmmaker--one who does not appear beholden to popular American Jewish opinion that Israel is always the underdog. The film depicts Palestinian and other Arab characters as human beings, and it chronicles the change of heart that Israeli agents experience as they go about their clandestine mission to assassinate those the Israeli state identified as responsible for the Munich operation.

At the start of the film, five undercover agents based in Europe, led by Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), believe themselves on a mission for just vengeance. But it is not long before Bana and the others begin questioning the sanctity of their assignment. The bloody acts of revenge haunt Kauffman, and though he says that he is becoming numb to murder, the truth is that he gradually breaks down, succumbing to paranoia and fear. Meanwhile, for every act of vengeance wreaked by the Israelis, the Palestinians respond with further terrorist attacks. "Munich" makes it clear in the film's closing frame that this cycle of violence continues to the present day.

And where are we? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to a solution: The military occupation of Palestinian territories is in its 38th year; the settlement movement continues apace; and all the international peace initiatives have failed. The one dependable reality of the conflict -- Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli targeted assassinations -- is utterly bankrupt. Nothing remains but for the Palestinians to seek justice with a nonviolent revolution for peace, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, and for the Israeli people to follow new leaders who can devise political rather than military solutions. Perhaps the recently elected Amir Peretz, who now helms the Labor Party, can lead the way. "I see the occupation as an immoral act," Peretz has said. "I want to end the occupation not because of Palestinian pressure, but because I see it as an Israeli interest."

The actors of "Munich" perform with the intensity of an ensemble cast. Chief among them are Australians Eric Bana, who convincingly does both an Israeli and a German accent, and Geoffrey Rush, who plays Kauffman's black ops boss. The other four assassins are performed by an international cast of British, Irish, French and German actors, including Daniel Craig, who has been tapped to be the next James Bond, and Mathieu Kassovitz, who appeared opposite Audrey Tautou in "Amelie" and directed the hit drama "La Haine" ("Hate"). Omar Metwally, meanwhile, turns in a strong performance as Ali, a young Palestinian militant, and the other Arab character actors chosen for this film turn in subdued, thoughtful performances. There are also a number of Israeli actors who stand out, including Ayelet Zurer as Kauffman's pregnant young wife, Gila Almagor as his mother, and Ami Weinberg as General Zamir. In fact, there are few Americans in "Munich," and most of them are behind the camera.

Unsurprisingly, "Munich" has already engendered a legion of detractors even before going into wide release. It matters not. Well into his career, after having been lionized by Hollywood, with a litany of awards too long to list, Steven Spielberg has finally made his masterpiece.

Jordan Elgrably is artistic director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles.