I haven’t gotten around to seeing the film “Munich” yet, and I’m not sure I will. The film has nevertheless elicited some interesting commentary. Last week I linked to Kate Wright’s American Thinker essay: “‘Munich’ stands for appeasement.” Brad Miner commented at Compass Points Blog about director Steven Spielberg’s own deep thoughts on the point of the film in “Munich.”
The New York Sun has published two good columns on the film. James Bowman is the Sun’s film critic, one of the best in the business. His column on the film is up to his usual standard: “Steven Spielberg’s moral equivalence.” The Sun also published a column by Harvard law student Mitch Webber: “Misguided Munich” (subscribers only). (Mitch titled the column “Angels in Israel.”) Mitch kindly forwarded a copy of his review at my request and I’m taking the liberty of pasting it in below:
The most misleading line in Stephen Spielberg’s Munich comes near the beginning. Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, tells her cabinet, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” The implication is that Meir was reluctant to hunt down the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre, and that doing so was contrary to Israeli, and civilized, values.
The truth is just the opposite. Meir understood that Israel’s chief obligation is to ensure that Jews will never again be slaughtered with impunity, simply for being Jewish. Holding mass murderers accountable is not a compromise; it is Israel’s reason for being.
The most misleading omission from Munich is Germany’s response to the massacre. Germany released the Black September terrorists less than two months after they had killed eleven innocent civilians. Israel had to hunt down Black September, because Germany didn’t value Jewish lives enough to capture, try, and imprison those who kill Israelis on German soil. (Also missing from the film is any mention of Germany’s refused to allow the Israeli Olympians their own security detail, despite credible threats to their safety, and Germany’s refusal to let Israel conduct a rescue operation.) Meir said that she was “literally physically sickened” by Germany’s capitulation. She continued, “I think that there is not one single terrorist held in prison anywhere in the world. Everyone else gives in.”
Nobody can accuse Stephen Spielberg of insensitivity toward Jews and Israel. But by trying so hard to appear evenhanded, he has made an incomplete and imbalanced movie. In Munich, those who would murder racist butchers are no better than the butchers themselves. Conservative columnist Warren Bell put it best when he described Munich’s simple-minded morality like this: “when good guys kill bad guys, they’re as bad as bad guys.” Liberal writer Leon Wieseltier concurred: “Munich prefers a discussion of counterterrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion. This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold.”
If both sides of the political spectrum can agree that a nation is not only right, but obligated, to act as Israel did, why does Munich try so hard to say otherwise?
A large part of the blame belongs to the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, whose literary accomplishments (Angels in America, among other brilliant plays) are too often overshadowed by an extreme left-wing political agenda. Why on Earth would anyone entrust a script about Israel to someone who declared, “I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born?” (So much for impartiality.)
Spielberg and Kushner end up glorifying Jewish victims, but deploring those who would keep Jews from becoming victims. Their sense of Jewish tragedy blinds them to the possibility of Jewish heroism.
And yet, even if Munich had gotten the dialogue, plot, and tone right, there would still be something missing. Rather, there would be someone missing, a character, Avery Brundage. The reason Munich matters so much to American Jews has nothing to do with Arab terrorism or European appeasement. Those complementary stories were familiar to the world decades before Munich. It was Avery Brundage, an American, who so outraged. The same Avery Brundage who, as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, had insisted on sending an American delegation to “Hitler’s Games” in Berlin; the same Avery Brundage who, in 1941, was expelled from the anti-war America First Committee for his Nazi allegiance; this was the man who, in 1972, was president of the full International Olympic Committee. According to Time Magazine, during the standoff, Brundage’s chief concern was with “remov[ing] the crisis from the Olympic Village,” as if to say, “There’s no way we can save the hostages. Let’s at least save the Games.” After the murders, despite strong opposition within the IOC, including from the German organizers, Brundage insisted that everything go on as if nothing had happened. He refused even to mention the dead Israelis in the following day’s memorial ceremony. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray summed up Brundage’s decision like this: “Incredibly, they’re going on with it. It’s almost like having a dance at Dachau.”
Murray’s comparison is apt. It was Dachau that taught my grandfather’s generation the importance of Israel as a haven in a world that is too often either hostile or indifferent to Jews. And when he was my age, my father watched Munich, the massacre, live on tv, and he learned the same lesson. Thirty-three years later, Munich, the movie, forgets to explain why Israel acted as it did.
That’s the story Steven Spielberg missed.
Mitch’s point about the release of the Black September terrorists is painfully timely in light of the German government’s disgusting release last week of one of the murderers of Robert Stethem.
Mitch notes the involement of Avery Brundage in the Munich story. The story of Munich is relevant to Americans generally for another reason beside the involvement of Avery Brundage. In March 1973 Black September proceeded to murder the American ambassador to Sudan and his deputy in Khartoum. Those murders occurred on the direct order of Yasser Arafat, who of course lived to become the most frequent foreign guest in the Clinton White House. I told the story of the 1973 murders in “Who murdered Cleo Noel?”
My only quibble with Mitch is the high estimate he places on “Angels in America,” the award-winning play by “Munich” screenwriter Tony Kushner. I think “Angels in America” is what is referred to in Yiddish as “dreck.”