Everything but the truth

Steven Spielberg’s new film jumbles truth to obscure the realities of terrorism


Ted Lapkin

Courier Mail – 27 January 2006

Last December, I received an invitation to attend a free preview screening of Steven Spielberg’s new film, Munich.

My shorthand reaction to the movie is that it was worth every penny that I paid to see it. But given Spielberg’s moral ambitions for this flick, as well as the splash it is making in the media, I suppose that it deserves something more than mere flippancy and sarcasm.

As my office-mates at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council will attest, one of my all-time favourite movies is Full Metal Jacket. I have seen that flick so many times I can give a verbatim recitation of the ferocious welcoming address given by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman to his new marines (“I am hard, but I am fair”).

So the thing is, I should have loved this film. It features all the finer items that guys tend to appreciate in cinema: Car chases, shoot-outs, explosions galore and the odd sex scene.

But my testosterone-driven fun was ruined by the factual implausibility and thinly veiled sanctimony that pervade the movie from start to finish.

To the factual problems, first. There’s artistic licence, and then there’s just plain taking licence with the truth. And while Steven Spielberg claims that Munich is based on historical events, real players in the drama of Israeli intelligence have savaged the movie for its patent inaccuracies.

Most of this can be traced to the source of its script, a much-derided book about a Mossad reprisal operation by Canadian journalist George Jonas entitled Vengeance.

After Palestinian terrorists massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Mossad conducted a reprisal that targeted the PLO’s Black September movement.

So far, so good. But that is where any semblance of fact ends. Both Vengeance, and Spielberg’s cinematic incarnation of the book tell a tale of cloaks and daggers, spies and shootouts and derring-do.

But even before the film was released, retired Mossad operatives went semi-public to sneer at the sheer fatuousness of the plot.

A story by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted the comments of a retired Mossad deputy director who insisted on remaining anonymous: “There was never a list of single targets drawn up, and certainly never a single hit team designed to handle them. It was a matter of putting the word out for our people who were posted in various countries to look out for top Black September members. When these were located, then we sent out the right agents to take care of business, on a more ad-hoc basis.”

So much for the main theme of Spielberg’s new movie.

But it gets worse. From the Mossad accountant who evokes ancient cultural stereotypes by loudly demanding receipts from an undercover agent (the message is that even Jewish spies only really care about money), to the folly of putting a deep cover unit in the field for years at a time, there is hardly a single principle of espionage tradecraft the Israelis in Munich do not violate.

But there is method to Munich’s madness, and the implausibility of its storyline serves a didactic purpose that is meant to apply more to the present than the past.

The script was composed by playwright Tony Kushner, who has described Israel’s creation as a “historical, moral and political calamity”.

And from first scene to last, the viewer is given the distinct impression that the film script is a tendentious vehicle that is designed to push a partisan political agenda.

Spielberg never fails to hit every politically correct button on the keyboard. There is hit squad commander Avner, the sensitive soul whose Jewish angst grows every time a terrorist bites the dust.

And lest the Palestinians be too upset, Kushner engineers an inane scene in which a Black September cell leader pleads the PLO’s cause in a conversation with Avner, who is posing as a left-wing Euro-terrorist.

The dominant theme that pervades is that all forms of violence are morally equivalent. It preaches that those who fight against armed terrorists are the same as those who murder defenceless civilians.

To Spielberg, all dead bodies are the same, and self-defence is no excuse.

It all just contributes to an ethically neutral “cycle of violence” that leaves everyone the poorer.

But in light of Spielberg’s vast military experience (hey, he made Saving Private Ryan, didn’t he?) it is surprising that the filmmaker overlooked the unequivocal success of Israel’s counter-terror strategy.

By aggressively attacking the Palestinian terrorist command and control structure and through the construction of its defensive barrier along the West Bank, the Israelis have cut armed incursions to a mere trickle.

While Israel suffered 37 suicide attacks in 2002, this past year only three bombers successfully made it to their civilian targets.

But Spielberg’s sanctimonious moralising is not focused solely upon Israel. In a kitschy final scene, the camera focuses on a southern Manhattan in which the twin towers of the World Trade Centre loom large in the background before the camera fades. The not-so-subtle message? That America is also guilty of defending itself against terrorist assailants.

Like another figure who is historically associated with Munich, Neville Chamberlain, Spielberg seems to think that all the world’s problems can be solved through a good group hug.

This film, and its message, are sloppy silliness.

• Ted Lapkin is director of policy analysis for the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council