Munich in Florida

by Brian on March 17, 2006

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture

I almost didn’t go to see Steven Spielberg’s latest film “Munich.”
I wouldn’t have been alone in that decision; many of my friends had
already refused to attend. The film was biased against Israel,
bordering on anti-Semitic at worst; difficult and violent at best,
they’d heard.

In the end, journalistic and Zionist curiosity
won out. So after two hours and 46 minutes, my verdict: “Munich”
doesn’t paint Israel as particularly insidious nor the Jews as overly
dastardly. It is certainly no more violent that a film I saw earlier in
the same evening – the latest Harrison Ford big budget thriller “Firewall.”

real problem with “Munich” is its underlying “why can’t we all get
along” message: Spielberg has decided in this film to take a political
stand proclaiming the popular but, I believe, essentially irresponsible
and revisionist mantra of moral equivalency; that every act of violence
is essentially on the same level.

In the moral equivalency of
“Munich,” evil begets evil begets evil and it doesn’t matter where it
all started, since everyone is equally guilty. To Spielberg, there are
no true terrorists; only misunderstood combatants on both sides of a
conflict that the director, it would seem, would like to believe can be
wished away through a couple of well placed sessions of late night talk
therapy in a seedy hotel stairwell.

Which would have been to an
Israeli like me absolutely infuriating but still debatable, had I seen
the film in Israel. Indeed, I would have probably spent much of the
evening after seeing “Munich” arguing with my seatmates or raging
against a world view I find misguided and imprudent.

But I didn’t see “Munich” in Israel. I saw it at the Altamonte 18
multiplex in a suburb just north of Orlando Florida where I was
recently on a business trip. Sitting in a comfortable theater with
stadium seating far from home gave me an entirely different perception
of the inherent danger of Spielberg’s approach.

“Munich,” if you haven’t read a review either condemning or praising the film yet, tells the controversial story of Israel’s response to the Palestinian Black September terror attack on Israel’s athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

movie starts with glimpses of the kidnapping of the Israelis from their
dorm rooms and the rescue attempt that left all 11 Israelis dead, but
quickly moves to its main focus: Avner, a seemingly prototypical
prickly Sabra who is chosen to head the hit team that will take out those who planned and executed the massacre.

the rest of the film “Munich” painstakingly describes how the Israeli
team tracks down its targets across Europe, while buying shaky
information and building bombs ultimately accomplishing most, although
not all, of its mission. The plot, based on George Jonas’s
controversial and (in many circles) discredited book “Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team,” has all the makings of a Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge flick: man loses all his family, goes after the bad guys, kicks some terrorist butt.

his credit, Spielberg doesn’t color Avner’s team as cold-hearted
killers, nor are the Palestinians the Israelis pursue portrayed as
either caricatures or overly sympathetic as those who see the film as
fatally biased would have us believe. In one pivotal scene, the
detonation of a bomb planted by the Israelis in a telephone is stopped
at the last minute when the target’s young piano playing daughter
unexpectedly returns.

On the other hand, Spielberg makes a
point of showing, after every killing, the Israelis cooking and eating
what can only be described as a festive meal. Is Spielberg trying to
bring to life that old joke used to describe nearly every Jewish
holiday: “they came for us, we killed them, let’s eat.” If so, it’s not
particularly funny.

The movie’s heart belongs to a dramatic
juxtaposition where Avner and his team are inadvertently placed in what
they believe is a safe house from which they can plan their next
action. Unbeknownst to them, their French “handler” has booked a
Palestinian team in the same hotel room.

The Israelis, pretending to be Basque separatists,
strike up a tense camaraderie with the Palestinians, one of whom gives
an impassioned speech on how all he wants is his home back, is that too
much to ask for? Avner tries to argue, but the Israelis true
nationality is discovered, a gun battle ensues, and Avner shoots the
speaker dead. Symbolism doesn’t come dripping much more blatantly.

of these are, ironically, only minor annoyances. As is Spielberg’s
telegraphing of emotions at times where a better director (a better
Spielberg) would have left more on the editing room floor. A much
talked about scene where then Prime Minister Golda Meir
sets the stage for Avner’s mission contains far more expository
speech-making than would be realistic in a room full of Israelis.
However, one cannot assume audiences around the world will have the
same grasp of history and context, thus Spielberg can be forgiven for
this slight excess.

Where “Munich” goes seriously – and
dangerously – off track is in Spielberg’s repeated intercutting of the
Israeli story with unfolding events on the political plane. And so,
throughout the film, after nearly every successful Israeli
assassination, we hear about a Palestinian attack on an airport here or
the murder of the Israeli ambassador there.

This message is
neither subtle nor ambiguous: all this killing adds up to a
never-ending cycle of violence. No one really started it, everyone’s to
blame. I suppose Spielberg should be given extra credit for not dishing
out a Hollywood ending with a bunch of big explosions and a hero
miraculously surviving a free fall from a helicopter over
shark-infested waters. Characters with complexity are far more
interesting that a brooding Arnold or silent Rambo type saving the girl
and killing all the bad guys.

But when Spielberg puts forth a
message of moral equivalency, does he also bear some responsibility for
how that message will be internalized by his audience? Can we dismiss
“Munich” as a mostly well made albeit flawed piece of artistic movie
making adding up to an entertaining evening out on the town? Or is the
filmmaker trying to set an agenda?

In truth, I’m not so worried
about how Israelis will relate to the film; our cinema culture
regularly skewers even the most sacred of local cows. The final scene
in “Munich,” where a disillusioned Avner essentially renounces any
connection with Israel and perhaps even Judaism, would not be out of
place in an Israeli production directed by Assi Dayan.

Rather, my concern is for the moviegoers at the Altamonte 18 theater. I read the local Orlando Sentinel
while I was in Florida for the week; the only news appearing from the
Middle East was at its most stark and headline grabbing. There’s little
room for nuance and certainly no exploration of daily life. It would be
nice if everyone read “This Normal Life,” but I know they don’t.

Please don’t take this to sound supercilious or superior. We do exactly the same thing in Israel. The local Jerusalem Post, in its recent weekend edition, devoted exactly one small box on its front page to the Dubai Ports scandal that has all but consumed recent U.S. politics.

as I walked out of the theater, I imagined that most people would
accept at face value what they had just seen on the screen. Yes, that’s
the way it is in that far off troubled land, they’d think. After all,
Steven Spielberg made the movie. End of story, move on.

glad I saw “Munich.” And I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience
what it was like to watch it outside of Israel. I truly hope that the
film sparks debate about the nature of the conflict, about the cycle of
violence, about the legitimacy of revenge and the intellectual honesty
of a moral equivalency approach.

But I doubt it will. And that’s the true danger.


Some vacationers find that if they rent

they have a more private and thus possibly more relaxing vacation, since a Florida
is generally more out of the way than most hotels
and timeshares
often have amenities and privacy that a hotel couldn’t provide. There are many
to choose from if that is your destination.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous March 22, 2006 at 7:27 am

good post. I haven't seen the movie, but I've read the book Vengeance. I think George Jonas has a much better grasp of the moral difference between terrorism and counter-terrorism. I also think that you shouldn't “discredit” his book so soon. A recent book (Striking Back) by Aaron Klein, a Time's correspondence in Israel using “official” sources in the Mossad, described the assassinations in a very similar way. Many of the differences could be attributed to the different agendas of the “sources”. I think Jonas' account is essentially true.

2 Anonymous March 23, 2006 at 2:05 pm

The Dubai Ports scandal may not be getting appropriate play in the Israeli media, but it's been getting big play in blogosphere. Check out and on

3 Anonymous March 29, 2006 at 9:27 am

I have been enjoying your blog for a while now, and found this post really interesting. I saw Munich and felt that many of the themes were tackled irresponsibly.
I'll keep reading.:)

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