Spoiler alert -- I can't talk about this movie without spoiling some of the plot, so if you don't want to know some of the details of what happens, then don't read this until after you have seen the movie. And, yes, you need to go see Munich.
As you can guess, I just got back from the theater. I wasn't sure I wanted to see this movie -- after all, it's about tracking down and killing Palestinian terrorists. My heart bleeds for the Palestinian people. They are my people -- my brothers and sisters. They are the Native Americans. The Mayans. The Inca. I am the European; it was my ancestors who pushed aside and killed the people who lived on this land. If the plight of the Palestinians weren't enough to stir my soul, my angst over my people's guilt in that earlier crime transfers to the Palestinians. I cannot but feel horror at the Israeli usurption, at the prospect of another people robbed of their land the way my ancestors stole America. At the time, Native Americans were portrayed at blood thirsty savages, but now we see them as a desperate people trying to save their way of life. Today we see the Palestinians as terrorists and radicals, will someday they be seen as a desperate people trying to save their homes, their way of life by any and all means? Will history books acknowledge that attrocities were committed, but that for a people whose backs are against the wall, often no alteratives seem viable? I am not saying that killing athletes or civilians in a pizza parlor or on a bus is justifible, even when you are waging a war, but I do think the issue is far more complex than the portrayal we usually get.
My heart also bleeds for the Jews -- for the Holocaust, for the continuing anti-semitism that plagues this world. I am angry at Israeli politics, but I feel for the Jewish people. I can understand their desire for a safe place, a place where you don't have to wonder what your neighbor is saying, or what he or she might do to you tomorrow. Living as Muslim in America has many, many parallels to living as Jew in early 20th century Europe -- the suspicion, the stereotyping, the willingness of the populace to strip rights and priviledges from a particular group, the fear that if the government decided they didn't like you, there would be little recourse. I am well aware that the occasional support for the notion of interning Muslims from the likes of Daniel Pipes and Anne Coulter, the attacks on mosques, on individual Muslims (and Sikhs misidentified as Muslims), are two or three orders of magnitude less significant than the Holocaust, but I can identify with what it feels like to live in fear.
So I went to see Munich with some trepidation, fearing that in the final analysis, the film would condone Israeli policies, and prepared for a great deal of heartwrenching.
I got the heartwrenching I expected. I cried when the Palestinians were shot along with their wives, when teenagers were killed. I cried when the Jewish team members were killed. I cried when the hero was terrified for his daughter. Heck, I probably cried through most of the movie. It's just that raw. Spielberg does not pull any punches. There's gore, but it's not the gore that gets you, it's the humanity of the people dying. Each character is a real person. In fact, we get to know many of the targeted Palestinians. We hear their longing for a safe place to live, for home, a longing that echoes the Jewish longing for a safe home voiced by Golda Meir and the protagonist's mom. Spielberg makes us like the Palestinians. I do wonder how effective this is for people who are programmed to hate Palestinians and Arabs, who have been told for years they are irrational and violent, not fully human. I am predisposed to feel for the Palestinians, so perhaps this aspect of the movie came through particularly strongly for me. Either way, this is absolutely the first hollywood movie I've seen that acknowledges the Palestinians as people, that admits their needs, their hopes and dreams are as real, and even as valid, as the Israeli hopes and dreams. That gives an authentic voice to their characters. The only other one that comes even close was The Seige in which the Arab terrorists were previously CIA operatives who had been abandoned to a slaughter by the enemies they had been fighting for the CIA because it was no longer politically expedient for the CIA to continue supporting them. In that movie, the terrorists had valid cause for anger, but they were still monsters. In Munich, they do not come across as monsters, but as people. Dangerous, violent people acting beyond morality, but people none the less.
Perhaps more significantly, the Mossad agents who hunt them down are portrayed as not much different than the Palestinians -- they also are dangerous, violent people who are acting if not beyond the bounds or morality, at least very, very close to the edge. The transformation of the characters from self-assured soldiers to people who question the morality of what they are doing, of their government (and various other governments). One of the most incredible sequences involves a woman who tracks down one of the Israeli agents and murders him -- we don't know alot about her, but it's made clear she's been hired to exact revenge for the assassinations the Israelis have carried out. The protagonist and his team then go and kill her --exacting their own revenge. The endlessness of the cycle -- vengeance upon vengeance upon vengeance really strikes home at this point. The movie ties in several other acts of terrorism -- the killing of a hundred people on a flight to Athens, a bus bombing in Israel -- to vengeance for each assassination.
This is the reality we NEVER get to hear in the American media. Everything is justified as a retaliation, as a means to the end of a safe home.
Much to my surprise, Spielberg never relents. The Israeli higher-ups come off as cold-blooded murderers, as do the Palestinians who killed the athletes in Munich. The agents who actually do the killing all (except one) end up doubting what they are doing, the rightness of assassination (at one point the protagonist demands proof of these men's guilt, and doesn't get it), the possibility that assassination and conflict will ever lead to peace. Again, perhaps my reading of the movie is colored by my own understanding of the situation, but it is quite clear that the protagonist thinks what he and his team did is wrong, that the cycle of violence will never lead to peace; it will just continue on and on with more and more bloodshed.
The end is quite bleak. The Israeli government is unrepentant, and hostile to the protagonist, who has abandoned his home in Israel. The cycle of violence continues, and the "hero" is emotionally destroyed. Of course, he is still alive, unlike most everyone else in the movie.
I have always admired Spielberg's talent as a filmmaker. I now stand in awe of his moral fibre. He has done one of the things the artist is supposed to do -- to be the conscience of the world. Munich packs a punch right in the gut -- it does not glamorize violence, or lionize one side or the other of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it does call us to reconsider morality, and whether the ends justify the means (with a resounding authorial no to go with the question). It demands that we remember the humanity of every individual, no matter whether Arab, Jew, or whatever.
It is difficult to stand up and say my people are involved in insanity, especially on this issue which is so incredibly volitile and about which people have such strong opinions. I can imagine the kinds of reviews this is going to get -- the kinds of emails he is going to get. (I get them myself often enough.) If only there were more Jews, more Palestinians, more people period, who were willing to stand up and say what this movie says -- this is madness, and it's got to stop.