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March 2, 2006
-- Jerome Eric Copulsky
Three days from now, the annual ritual of the Academy Awards will be performed. Steven Spielberg's movie Munich, which depicts the exploits of a team of Israeli assassins sent to avenge the murder of eleven athletes by Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics, has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. CNN hailed Munich as "a masterpiece," while Fox News declared it "the best movie of 2005." It also received high praise from Time, Newsweek, and People.
But Munich has met with significant criticism as well. Writing in the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier castigated Spielberg for his "evenhandedness," for confusing counter-terrorism with terrorism, for being "desperate not to be charged with a point of view." Others were harsher: New York Times columnist David Brooks complained that Spielberg "will not admit the existence of evil, as it really exists," that Munich created a world where Palestinian terrorists are "marginal and opaque," and where the bloody Arab-Israeli conflict could be solved through reasoned discussion and the renunciation of violence. In The Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens attacked "the false dichotomy the film establishes between Jewish ideals and Israeli actions," reminding us that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah commemorates a military victory.
One may think this is another battle in the post-9/11 culture war, with steely-eyed conservatives rebuking the moral relativism of the so-called cultural elite. But in many respects, the criticisms of Munich are misinformed and misleading. Wieseltier writes that "Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples." But such moral equivalence is simply absent in Munich. While Spielberg does portray the Palestinian leadership of Black September as human beings rather than as one-dimensional monsters, there is no scene that shows them engaged in the kind of moral questioning that afflicts the Israelis. Our first views of the Palestinians are of the Munich terrorists and their acts being applauded on the Palestinian street. Brooks laments that the film lacks "evil," but the scenes of the Munich massacre are horrifying depictions of the brutality of the Palestinians. I do not know what Brooks thinks evil is, but throwing a grenade into a helicopter full of bound, defenseless men should qualify.
Many conservatives congratulate themselves for their "moral clarity," but the inconvenient fact is that morality is often not so self-evident. It is easy to say that those who target civilians (intentionally or indiscriminately) are engaged in evil acts; it is less easy to know how to respond to them. The danger of appeals to "moral clarity" is that they often demand acquiescence to a set of policies without serious reflection or criticism. Some believe that the fact that the Mossad agents in the movie express growing misgivings about their mission should be regarded as a failure of nerve, and thus a symptom of Spielberg's weakness as a filmmaker. This critique, however, reveals a deficit of moral seriousness on the part of Spielberg's detractors.
If Munich bears the taint of "moral relativism," surely the Jewish tradition of the movie's protagonists—a tradition which imagines God scolding his angels for rejoicing in the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea; which honors a patriarch and a prophet who quarrel with God about His justice; which replaces the civil war setting of Hanukkah with a miracle of a vessel of oil lasting for eight days; which designates a court that condemns a guilty man to death once a generation a "bloody Sanhedrin"—may be considered as lacking a moral compass. But this would be a mischaracterization. One might rather say that it is a tradition which recognizes that even the proper response to evil may not be unequivocally "good." The moral seriousness of Judaism has to do with its struggle, not simply in distinguishing good from evil, but in figuring out, through sustained argument and debate, just what one is to do. It is no accident that the traditional form of religious study is Talmudic argumentation, and that study is considered piety.
But all this talk about the morality of vengeance has obscured what is truly interesting about Munich. Contrary to many of its detractors and supporters, Munich does not present a moral argument. Despite its spy-thriller narrative, the film is in the end a sustained and pained meditation on the meaning of family, nation, and home, and the costs of our obligations to them.
Spielberg has said that he hopes his film will be a "prayer for peace," but he does not offer easy answers to the questions he raises, which is one reason why Munich has confounded and infuriated many critics. While not a perfect movie, Munich does make us consider that our highest values and commitments do not come without a price.
Jerome Eric Copulsky is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Tech.