If Steven Spielberg had not made the film, Munich would have been just another movie about terrorists. His name attached to it, combined with his Jewish background, of course, attracted far more attention than it otherwise warranted, as well as an undeserved nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture. After all, what few reviewers noted was that the movie was actually a remake of the 1986 TV movie, Sword of Gideon, which was also based on the now discredited book Vengeance by George Jonas that purported to be the story of a hit team sent by Golda Meir to kill 13 Palestinian terrorists Israel held responsible for the murder of its athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Germany.
What was disturbing about Munich was that, given Spielberg’s resources, he apparently made no effort to go beyond the Jonas book and talk to people more directly involved in the operation to track down the terrorists responsible for the Munich Massacre. He reportedly received offers, but turned them down. He also made the questionable decision to hire Tony Kushner to write the screenplay despite his well-known criticism of Israel, which only invited opprobrium from those who disliked the film.
In some ways Spielberg did improve on the original film; it is far less harsh in its portrayal of the Mossad and leaves out the most embarrassing true part of the story in which the Israeli agents accidentally killed the wrong man in Norway after mistaking him for one of their targets. While some critics believe he created a moral equivalence between the Israelis and the terrorists, I didn’t see it that way at all. As others have remarked, the Israelis were clearly distinguished by their displays of conscience, such as when a bombing is aborted when they realize the terrorist’s daughter is in the room with him.
The scene that many critics found the most disturbing was the ridiculous one in which the Israelis and the terrorists end up in the same safe house and then one of the terrorists proceeds to give a speech rationalizing his actions. Many people didn’t like the idea of giving the terrorist a platform, but I thought this was perhaps the most important and honest moment in the film. The terrorist says, in effect, that the Palestinians will fight for the next hundred years to destroy Israel and this is a message Americans need to hear, particularly now that Hamas has taken power in the Palestinian Authority. The character expresses the belief held by many Palestinians that time is on their side and that they will drive the Jews into the sea.
Spielberg tries, but can’t really have it both ways when he says the movie is not a documentary, but it is inspired by actual events, and then loads it with factual inaccuracies that distort those events. He keeps, for example, the original film’s absurd emphasis on the agents’ need to turn in receipts for all their activities. One wonders what their receipts would have looked like: plastic explosive - $3,500, silencer - $800, lunch while surveilling - $47. Former agents in subsequent newspaper interviews said that Israel had no list of targets, but pursued many terrorists using multiple teams. The person Jonas said was his source and leader of the Mossad team apparently never even worked for the Mossad. The movie lacks historical context and speciously links letter bombs and other unrelated Palestinian atrocities to the actions of the Israelis.
Still, the reaction to the movie reflected the myopia that often afflicts supporters of Israel. It is similar to perceptions of more general media bias where they only see the narrow elements that pertain to Israel and miss the larger picture that viewers who are not dissecting the content are more likely to assimilate. In the case of Munich, it is possible to pick apart scenes that portray Israel unflatteringly, but the overall feeling of the film is that the Arabs are savage murderers who deserve to be assassinated. An image, incidentally, which is reinforced regularly by the “biased” media’s daily news coverage of the latest atrocities from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It is hard to imagine many people coming away from the film feeling more sympathetic toward the Palestinians and less so toward Israel. Coincidentally, the most recent poll shows support for Israel near an all-time high. The controversial final image of the Israeli team leader with the Twin Towers in the background drew objections from those who saw it as suggesting a link between the Israeli actions and 9/11, but it could also be seen quite accurately as part of a continuum as terror has escalated from the kidnapings and skyjackings of the 1970s to the suicide bombings of today.
Spielberg’s tantrum in response to criticism was typical of artists who believe they should have freedom of expression to say whatever they want, but have no tolerance for anyone using their right to challenge the artist’s vision.
Ultimately, those who feared the film was going to somehow have a negative impact on Israel were about the only ones who went to see it. The film did poorly in the U.S. at the box office even with the boost from the Oscar nomination. As of March 2006, the $70 million film had brought in approximately $47 million, though it was doing better worldwide ($63 million).
What is most disappointing is that Spielberg could have made a very good film about an important historical event if he had only invested the kind of time and energy into researching the story that he did for Schindler's List.
Sources: Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise