Missing from the script

Despite Spielberg's sophistry on the symmetry of violence, one leaves 'Munich' thinking asymmetrically.

munich widow 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
munich widow 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Steven Spielberg's Munich, just released in the US, promises to be Hollywood's most powerful portrayal of terrorism and vengeance. I was invited to an advance screening early last week, presumably, because I was deemed somewhat knowledgeable of these two themes - owing to the murder of our son, journalist Daniel Pearl, in 2002 in Pakistan. Indeed, Munich raised important questions about these, and a related theme: justice. The film follows Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent as he tracks down the Palestinian terrorists who assassinated 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The depiction of the violence and senseless brutality of the Munich massacre will convince even devout skeptics that civilized society must exercise all available means to protect itself against the planet's latest evil, terrorism. Among those means, the concept of "bringing to justice" is a moral imperative that society has taken very seriously in the past, for it expresses and reaffirms society's commitment to live by principles, not whims. Munich now examines this concept under the microscope of Avner's personal life, the detailed execution of his mission and the escalating violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Overall, the movie strengthened my belief that Golda Meir's decision to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Munich massacre (if she indeed made the decision) was necessary, and will go down in history as a far-sighted step in the war for the survival of civilization. The film's virtue is that it forces viewers to face head on the moral anatomy and practical implications of anti-terrorism tactics - even if it does so in troubling ways. FILM-GOERS may be taken aback by shallow political discussions on the causes of Palestinian terrorism, which imply, albeit tacitly, that targeted killings of innocent human beings may be justified if done for transmitting messages of genuine grievance. To be sure, it is not Spielberg's attempt to give terrorists understandable motivation that may make viewers bristle, nor his depiction of terrorism as an act of desperation. On the contrary, by giving terrorists rationale Spielberg makes their acts so much more threatening and widely applicable. Positioning the Munich murderers as people driven by perceived injustice only makes their inhumanity more credible, and the basis for their perception less plausible. Yet what was unbearable are attempts in the film to stretch common sense by drawing symmetries between the terrorists and their pursuers. Since violence leads to more violence, so the film's logic goes, it must be that all acts of violence are somehow morally equivalent. Succumbing to this viewpoint, Avner begins to find patterns of symmetry between the violence he engineers and the one perpetrated in Munich. He is subsequently tortured by doubts, discouraged by impasse, and eventually leaves Israel for the safety of Brooklyn, letting the movie end with unresolved, and hardly explored questions about justice, violence and the achievability of peace. Fortunately, Spielberg the artist does not let Spielberg the philosopher or debts to political correctness obscure the inherent asymmetry in the Middle East violence. The moral distinction between those who pride themselves on maximizing innocent casualties and those who labor to minimize such casualties shines through the action itself, the development of the plot and even the tone of the speakers. Further charging the air in 2005 is an ideological asymmetry, surfaced and accentuated since the breakdown of the Oslo process, between a side that declares: "Two equally legitimate homelands" and one that insists: "Your homeland is in Europe." These two fundamental asymmetries, conspicuously missing from the script, combine rather naturally with the plot and the action, and manage to override the thin verbiage about "cycle of violence" and moral equivalence. Indeed, what makes Munich a strong film is that, despite the sophistry on the symmetry of violence, one cannot but leave the theater with thoughts that are nobly asymmetrical. "Two of the Munich murderers are still at large," I kept telling myself, "Will the wheels of history honor our generation with an opportunity to bring them to justice?" Whether Steven Spielberg meant to implant such provocative thoughts subliminally, or they surfaced naturally in reaction to sophistry and platitude, Munich should be commended for evoking healthy, commonsensical, and civilization-preserving thoughts in viewers' mind. The writer is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan in 2002.