I once wrote a review called "Saving Private Ryan From the Conservatives." It argued that conservative film critics were wrong to assail the World War II movie simply because it came from Steven Spielberg, a director of emphatically leftist views. Saving Private Ryan is in fact a celebration of military virtue and its relationship to patriotism and indeed human virtue. One might reasonably object to the graphic violence of the Normandy beach landing, whose verisimilitude is attested to by veterans. Conservatives should find no political fault with it.
In this same vein, Steven Spielberg's Munich deserves a closer look from conservative critics (see here , here, and here) who see another exercise in moral equivalence and nihilism in America's own war on terror. (That the screenplay is by Tony Kushner does not promote other conclusions.) If there is moral tergiversation, however, the film is ultimately about the moral resolve required is any war of survival. This is how Americans must think and act if we are to prevail in the war against the terrorists.
If we deal with our enemies as Neville Chamberlain approached Hitler at Munich, we will fail. "Peace in our time" encouraged the evil enterprise of Nazi expansionism, daunted Hitler's opponents, and fueled the coming of World War II. Churchill was willing to match terror for terror, civilian city for civilian city to stop the victor of Munich, Hitler. Thus, the Israelis acted properly in tracking down and attempting to kill the 11 masterminds of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes. The movie Munich deals with the problem of avoiding diplomatic Munichs and the undeniable strain it creates on those who must do the dirty work.
Munich ties the fate of Israel (and of the West) with that of the U.S.--the film's last shot is of the Twin Towers, in the early 1970s. In the film's opening, American Olympics athletes inadvertently and cheerfully help the Black September terrorists sneak into the Olympic Village. Will America recover from its impossible naievete? Can Americans learn to distinguish their friends from their enemies? Later in the film, the question arises, Are the Americans working with or against the Israeli revenge squad? The friend-enemy distinction is of course the fundamental political question. The issue of friends versus enemies becomes obscured in the underworld of counterterrorism (shown to be riddled with leftist alliances), but it is undeniable that friends and enemies exist, just as civilization and barbarism do.
The case against moral relativism here is underscored by Spielberg's homage to John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: In an Italian grocery store it plays on tv in the background, while the black operation's first victim, a jovial professor, makes some purchases. (I acknowledge the review in the Jewish Forward for locating the film's use of the John Wayne movie.) One may be haunted by one's choices; but that guilt is far better than death and disgrace. (See John Marini's review.) John Wayne reminds us of Coriolanus, another stateless hero. The film's hero and his family wind up in Brooklyn.
Avner, the head of the anti-terrorism team, is officially disavowed by the Israelis. While a man without a country, he receives regularly financial payments that he must strictly account for, as he recruits his team and proceeds with his duty, which may take years, separating him from his pregnant wife.
A Sabra raised in a kibbutz, Avner is personally chosen by Prime Minister Golda Meir and two generals for the off-the-books operation, which is in violation of Israeli law. She says Avner reflects more of his mother (who fled the Holocaust) than his father. A product of a commune, Avner sees Israel as his family (an enormous percentage--upwards of 80%--of Israeli air force pilots grew up on kibbutzes.) Throughout the film, it is the Israeli women who sustain Avner; they are his Volumnia.
Spielberg's critics are right, however, that there is much in the film to raise the possibility of moral equivalence: Are Arab tears at the initial report of the Munich 11's failure less genuine than Israel's tears on learning the real horror? I was puzzled by some of the Israelis' hesitations and qualms. Golda Meir is made to say: "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Avner even asks toward the film's end: Am I a murderer? One wonders whether Spielberg could have made a successful, sympathetic film about an Arab assassin of Avner's team. But anything presented to argue the equivalence line is overwhelmed by contrary evidence.
The viewer is after all drawn to support Avner and his team's mission. The Israelis are scrupulous about preventing death or injury to the innocent. But the agreed-upon weapon, the signature bomb (in a telephone, under a bed), is necessarily less than surgical. Contrast this, however, with the news clips about Arab terrorism and its indiscriminate victims. But the major flaw of the Israeli approach, as depicted here, is that it turns counterterrorism into essentially a criminal action, when it requires something far grander. Whole nations must be punished, not just the "bad guys." Regimes must be transformed.
At the very least, what Munich proves is that with a script involving terrorists, it's very difficult to avoid common sense in dealing with very real enemies. Patton was intended to be an anti-war film, but that's not the way the audiences took it. The material was more than the actor and director could distort. More of my film reviews can be found here.