Mysteries of the Mossad

As details emerge following the film's first screening, 'Munich' sparks further debate

steven spielberg 88 298 (photo credit: )
steven spielberg 88 298
(photo credit: )
Munich. Rarely in the annals of motion pictures have keen minds written and speculated so much about a movie seen by so few. All the buzz and fuss isn't about the quality, pacing, acting, music and cinematography of the movie. After all, "A Steven Spielberg Film" carries the imprimatur of the Hollywood gold standard, of the creator of megahits from Jaws to Schindler's List to Saving Private Ryan. It goes deeper than that. For one, it's about a filmmaker's obligation to historical fact. At the most profound level, it confronts the old and new question of how war and terrorism transforms the perpetrator and, even more, the one who takes up arms to oppose the evil. The film opens with still-haunting black-and-white television footage from the 1972 Olympics in Munich, as newscaster Jim McKay reports on the capture, and eventual killing, of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian Black September terrorists. When a botched attempt by German police to rescue the Israeli hostages fails, we hear McKay's somber "It's all over, they are all gone." Although there are flashbacks to the massacre throughout the film, the main focus shifts to a meeting between prime minister Golda Meir and her top military and intelligence leaders. The decision is made to send a five-man Mossad team (among others) to Europe to hunt down and assassinate the massacre participants and planners. Picked as the leader is agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), son of a Holocaust survivor (Gila Almagor) and whose wife is expecting their first baby. His companions make up a properly diverse, if fictitious, team, including an aggressive hit man (Daniel Craig), a meticulous bourgeois type (Ciaran Hinds), a toymaker turned bombmaker (Mathieu Kassovitz) and an expert document forger (Hanns Zischler). From this point, the two-and-half-hour film incorporates three storylines. The first is that of a first-class action thriller, as the squad tracks and hunts down its targets in Italy, France, England and Spain. There are some hits, some misses, lots of explosions and shootings, James Bond capers, a few car chases, and a bit of sex. All along, Avner is fed tips, against hefty payments, by a mysterious Frenchman with unlimited contacts, who may also be a double agent. The movie's second storyline centers on the interaction among the team's five men, and occasionally with their hard-nosed Mossad boss in Tel Aviv (Geoffrey Rush). At first, they talk shop about the technical aspects of their job, but as some of their hits lead to inevitable overkill and collateral damage, the discussions turn more subtle and intense. Some wonder if there is a moral dimension to their work, and if this is in conflict with millennia of Jewish history and teaching. The concerns of the "moralists" are followed by the "pragmatists," who ask if the constant cycle of attack, retaliation and counter-retaliation will ever lead to a solution. Spielberg has said repeatedly that this question is at the top of his mind and he cleverly stresses the point by alternating headlines of a terrorist airport bombing, a Mossad assassination and a plane hijacking. "I am always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it's threatened," the filmmaker told Time. "At the same time, a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine." A third subtext, relatively brief but central to Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, is a confrontation between Avner and Ali, the young leader of a PLO squad, on the aims and justifications of the Palestinian violence. It is a polemical but well handled piece of theater, and as an Israeli official, who has seen the movie, put it, "There isn't a Palestinian spokesman who could express his case in three minutes as well as Ali." Throughout Avner, not an especially introspective type, remains mission-oriented. He is, however, beginning to be torn between the voice of his mother, who tells him that he is kind of man the victims of the Holocaust prayed for, and the pull of his wife and newborn child. In the end, he demands to know whether all the men he has killed were actually involved in the Munich massacre, but receives no direct answer. Since Munich started shooting, it has been shrouded in a blanket of secrecy. Because, or despite, the news blackout, there has been a constant stream of critical reports from Israel, most denouncing the historical inaccuracy of the film. "This is simply fiction, not a documentary," said Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Israel and one of the few Israelis to have seen Munich. High-ranking Israelis, in and out of the Mossad, have expressed astonishment and annoyance that not one had been consulted by Spielberg or Kushner, and neither has Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, which oversees the intelligence service. It is not certain if the filmmakers would have received any cooperation, since Israel has never acknowledged that it carried out the post-Munich reprisals. Also within Israel, the main source book cited by the film, Vengeance by George Jonas, has been widely discredited. "The man who came to Jonas and represented himself to be, in effect, the Avner character of the movie, was actually never in the Mossad and only served a few months as an El Al security guard," said a knowledgeable Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He cited a number of obvious technical inaccuracies, but what most upset the official was the depiction of some of the Mossad agents' actions. "You can argue that violence begets violence, but there is a line our security officers will not cross and that is the ethos of the purity of arms," said the official, himself a former officer in the IDF. "The IDF is the most moral army in the world." It is also Israel that has consistently striven for peace, and thus an end to violence, he added. After seeing Munich, the official drew an unfavorable comparison to the controversial The Passion of the Christ. "In The Passion you have two short scenes which make the Jews look bad," he said. "But in Munich some Jewish characters are depicted badly from the beginning to the end." Also displeased with the portrayal of the Mossad agents is historian Michael Oren, who told The New York Times, "It's become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. Somehow, it's only the Jews." An intriguing question was raised by Calev Ben-David of The Israel Project, writing in The Jerusalem Post in the form of a letter to Spielberg. "What I really suspect, Steven, is that you are using Munich as a means of commenting, in your own way, on the situation of the United States in a post-9/11 world," Ben-David writes. "But by setting those concerns against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you cleverly sidestep having to contend with the kind of overwhelming backlash you would face if your movie made any direct politically charged controversial statements about America's own current war on terror." It is interesting that Munich's final scene shows Avner walking along the New York waterfront, with the World Trade Center's twin towers clearly silhouetted in the background. The criticism as to Munich's historical accuracy is probably correct, but of little importance because Spielberg lays no claim to it. The film is clearly labeled as "Inspired by real events" and the director and writer have referred to the contents as "historical fiction." What appears to be of more fundamental importance is whether Israel and its supporters are better served by portraying its agents as robotic "I'm only following orders" hit men, or as men with some feelings, conscience and doubts. To ask the question is to answer it. Holocaust and University of Judaism scholar Michael Berenbaum observed after seeing the fascinating, but "long and draining" film: "I am prouder of a man who undertakes a violent mission and is tortured by it than one who doesn't give it a second thought. If you are transformed by such an experience, that is the price you pay for what you have to do," he said.