The Magazine

Celluloid War

The couch potato's guide to terrorism.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By MARTHA BAYLES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE PR FOR STEVEN SPIELBERG'S Munich has been deftly engineered. First, the film blends pro-Israel romance, moral equivalence with the Palestinians, and artistic pretension in just the right proportions to stir controversy among the chattering/blogging classes. Second, Munich makes a great pretense of probing some of the grave moral dilemmas raised by terrorism and counterterrorism. Indeed, Spielberg says that instead of being "a morality play," his film is "like the Talmud . . . a structured series of arguments."

Grimacing reader, please note that it is Spielberg, not I, comparing Munich to the Talmud. In truth, the film's "arguments" could not be less structured. Consisting mostly of dinner-table banter, they whiz by so fast, they make MSNBC's Hardball look--well, Talmudic. The most basic dilemma raised by the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and its aftermath is why Israel chose to kill the perpetrators rather than seek their arrest and expedition. This question is tossed out in the frantic, overwritten scene where the young Mossad officer is being recruited. But Golda Meir's reply--"We've got to show the world we are strong"--does not explain her decision to circumvent due process.

As befits a Hollywood eminence, Spielberg worries about violence. To judge by Munich, his most pressing worry was how to make the violence in Munich thrilling enough to compete with a dozen other Christmas-Chanukah-Kwanzaa-Saturnalia releases. In part, this is done through sforzando, the musical device of abruptly goosing the volume whenever the mayhem starts. One bombing, in particular, will make you jump clear out of your seat.

The next worry cuts deeper. Does violence corrupt the soul, even when its use is limited to an eye for an eye? The Biblical law of retaliation (lex talionis) was originally a restraint: an eye for an eye and no more. When Israel has dispensed with this law, it has done so on the ground that a tiny, vulnerable nation must repay every injury with a greater one: "an eye for a tooth," the saying goes. While many believe this strategy to have been effective against Israel's neighboring Arab states, the jury is still out on how effective it has been against the Palestinians. No wonder Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner claim credit for tackling it.

The trouble is, they don't. Despite passing references to the airstrikes and military raids that followed the Munich massacre, the film focuses tightly on Avner's team as they move about Europe, taking pains not to hurt anyone not on their list of approved targets (at one point, they debate the righteousness of shooting two bodyguards). Are their souls being corrupted? An answer is hinted by the subplot in which Avner and Carl (Ciaran Hinds) meet a seductive woman in an Athens hotel. After the woman lures Carl to her room and murders him, the others track her down and, ambushing her in her Netherlands houseboat, pump bullets into her half-naked body.

Some have derided this scene as gratuitous. But that, I fear, is the point. The scene is meant to evoke the deep, dark connection between eros and war. Unfortunately, it succeeds no better than the later sequence that cross-cuts between Avner banging away at his wife (sorry, but that's the only way to put it) and the Munich terrorists banging away at their victims. After watching these doltish attempts at profundity, I recommend that for their next collaboration, Spielberg and Kushner make a musical about E.T.

Most of the pundits debating the world-historical significance of Munich are seated on such high horses that they rarely lower their sights to the homely medium of television. If they did, they'd find two far more gripping treatments of terrorism and counterterrorism. The first is 24, now starting its fifth season on the Fox Network. The title comes from the gimmick of having each hour-long episode "occur in real time," and except for a few plodding bits about the personal lives of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his fellow agents at the Los Angeles branch of the fictional U.S. Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), 24 is addictively suspenseful.

It is also timely. Long before warrantless surveillance hit the headlines, 24's geek warriors were monitoring every imaginable electronic communication and sweeping every conceivable database, with nary a FISA judge in sight. In fact, 24 could use a few money shots of the Capitol and Supreme Court because the country it portrays is a California-based dictatorship ruled by an all-powerful chief executive and his trusty head of secret police. If the ACLU hasn't picked up on this, it is doubtless because, for most of the show's run, the commander in chief is David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert),

a principled African-American Democrat.