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“Munich” – A Real Tragedy Followed by Aesthetic Blunder

Since Ionarts' eyes and ears in Hollywood, Todd E. Babcock, does not contribute as much as we would like, we'll have to sneak other voices in on film. This review comes from George A. Pieler, who attended a pre-screening of Munich two weeks ago. Mr. Pieler would just be another boring Washingtonian Think-Tanker who writes about economics and international relations - but fortunately for us he has an overdeveloped aesthetic sense, is a Bruckner afficionado, and loves French Baroque opera. That's hitting the Ionarts trifecta, making his comments on this film very welcome, indeed. After reading his review I feel like I have already seen the film, back when it was good and still titled One Day in September.

Munich 1972
Can the Western nations ever fight terror effectively? Violence begets violence; the cycle of revenge is relentless and soul-destroying; and terror can never be defeated by turning the methods of the terrorists back against them. These, if any, are the lessons Steven Spielberg seeks to teach us in Munich, his well-crafted and finely acted cinematic essay on the Israeli response to the massacre of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

They are also the lessons taught by most really good Hollywood westerns. Yet the best of those westerns have a narrative momentum and lack of pretention that far outstrip Spielberg’s attempt at profound reflection on the price civilized society pays for waging war on terror itself. This extremely able director and his Munich production team seek to serve up complex moral ambiguities but only deliver clichés lacking the dramatic focus that could bring them to life.

Although the public has been warned that Munich is about the retaliation for the Munich massacre, not the massacre itself, it is surprising how ill-defined this pivotal event in Western relations with the Middle East comes across in the film. Yes, scenes from it are revisited over and again during the film, but the actual events of the 1972 Olympics, which brought premeditated terror against innocents into the West’s consciousness as never before, are left strangely vague and imprecise. The motivations of the Palestinian terror squad dispatched to Munich come across as a generic outgrowth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than the precisely calculated effort by the Palestinian leadership to raise their status in Western diplomacy following the expulsion of Palestinian militants from Jordan by King Hussein (beginning in September, 1970, hence “Black September”).

Thus the moral and political conflicts in Munich crystallize around the Israeli operatives dispatched to "bring the perpetrators to justice" by identifying, tracking, and assassinating them. The team leader, Avner, starts his mission with commitment and skill, mingled with trepidation, but ends so thoroughly rattled and conflicted about the justice of his cause that he withdraws completely, terrified his family will be targeted in the next cycle of terror. The lesson Munich offers here is that violent responses to terror will always have collateral damage: some targets of retaliation may be innocent, and any person of conscience will recoil from the task of assassination, no matter how just the cause. This, after all, is what distinguishes war on terror from battlefield combat, where at least the sides are defined and the rules well established.

The Spielberg vision of the war on terror, loosely based on the known facts (not all known for certain to this day) of Israel’s post-Munich retaliation campaign, is that violent response may always be morally unacceptable. He goes so far as to put in Avner’s mouth the very contemporary notion that the Munich perpetrators should be captured and tried with hard evidence “like Eichmann.” But the Eichmann capture and trial was itself extra-legal by contemporary standards and divided both liberal and Jewish opinion in the 1960s: read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem if you doubt it. If the moral dilemmas of terror, espionage, and covert action could be easily resolved with judicial niceties, then the U.S. trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers would have been the last word on the subject, and 9/11 never would have happened.

That’s just not the way the modern world works. While we may work towards the day when a controlled, clean, legalistic system of justice for dealing with terror will obviate the need for violent response, governments today have to deal honestly and realistically with the options before them: targeted retaliation, as in Munich, military-style response against the interests backing the terrorists, or doing nothing. Spielberg seems to lead us towards the last option, rejecting the moral compromises the Israelis made in favor of a breathtaking moral vacuum that gives us no guidance as to how to act.

Dramatically flawed by repetition and slow pacing, Munich nevertheless merits a look for its deep insights into the thinking of contemporary Western liberals. Not only are there no easy answers, there are no answers at all. The preview audience at the screening I attended responded enthusiastically only to a post-viewing panel comment to the effect that we can never defeat terrorists by adopting their tactics. An easy answer to be sure. That comment (I protect the commenter’s identity out of respect) speaks volumes about the liberal mentality, sweeping indiscriminate terror against civilians (the Munich massacre) into the same moral universe as targeting the terrorists themselves for retaliation. As Munich shows, both sets of actions cause horrendous collateral damage, carelessness, and a degree of indifference to human suffering. Yet to give them moral equivalence is to paralyze nations and peoples who are victims of terror into inaction, surely a recipe for spreading terrorism far and wide.

Terror and its consequences, geopolitical, moral, and personal, is one of the most complex problems on the world stage in the 21st century. Steven Spielberg and his able collaborators have made a sincere effort to dramatize those complexities in Munich but fail to rise above the level of cliché (and at great length to boot). One question wholly unaddressed in the film is the most obvious one: does terrorism work? Many historians today think the Munich massacre was highly effective in that sense, elevating the Palestinian cause in global awareness and beginning the process of giving Palestinians diplomatic recognition. The true lesson of Munich may be that successful terror is less morally troubling than terror fought with aggressive means, which inevitably demands moral compromise from the defenders of civilization.

If so, then since 9/11 the United States and most of the world have been on the wrong track. Most Americans would disagree, and they should disagree with Munich as well.


Anonymous said...

Outrageous yet stunning commentary, more of the same please: even though one must suspect an author who indiscriminately admires French baroque rather than putting Rameau at top of the Pantheon. Bland generalizations always carry risk.

Rune Eggpoe

Anonymous said...

Outrageous yet stunning commentary, more of the same please: even though one must suspect an author who indiscriminately admires French baroque rather than putting Rameau at top of the Pantheon. Bland generalizations always carry risk.

Rune Eggpoe

Sir G said...

spielberg? spielberg? who is that?

seriously, if he uses the same techique i have seen elsewhere (first you tell'em what you gonna tell'em, then you tell'em, then you tell'em what you just told them) then i'll pass. i tuned out ages ago, actually. i am amazed, jfl, at your goodhearted perseverance!


jfl said...

you are really reading things on the fly, aren't you?! :) although i POSTED this one, the actual article was a guest contribution by G.A.Pieler (as mentioned in the first paragraph). i was supposed to be at the pre-sceening, too, but things got in between. in retrospective, it may not have been much of a loss.

Anonymous said...

Loss or no, it should be pointed out screening also included fine cuisine and post-viewing panel which solved the mid-east peace problem. Panel discussion has helpfully been posted at reviews in interest of fairness/balance, based on same screening, are from Nation's David Corn at and by Ilya Shapiro, TCS Daily, at


Anonymous said...

" pointed out screening also included fine cuisine and post-viewing panel which solved the mid-east peace problem."

What did? Bagels with Hummus? Or the Panel?

Anonymous said...

One suspects as always it is the combination of fusion cuisine and intellectual inertia that brings problems to Resolution.

Anonymous said...

a well written critique that is probably too easy on hollywood's vapid and simplistic morals (or lack thereof). unfortunately, more and more americans learn their history from movies and television which explains why they have such a poor understanding of the actual facts surrounding events such as the munich terrorist attacks. still the author is correct to point out spielberg and his ilk's silly reliance on intellectually simplistic "truths" like the "cycle of violence"

Anonymous said...

Spielberg is supporting the cause of Jews under the pretext of having a balanced view in Munich. By this act, he is backing the US war on terror under the pretext of aligning with the liberals in explaining the futility of adopting terrorist methods to fight terrorism.