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Movie Review: Munich

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I just got sucked into watching Munich, and found it mesmerizing — more morally and dramatically sophisticated and paranoid than I thought Spielberg had in him. I admire that he didn't cast stars: it saves the trouble of suspending disbelief (okay, now I'm going to forget that's George Clooney).

Only two criticisms: it went on too long, and there were two lines I uttered before the actors did — "Don't fuck with the Jews" and "Come home." Writing into the groove in the viewer's mind, like a ball socking into a waiting catcher's mitt, is probably what makes Spielberg a popular director; it's also what makes him a little bit of a panderer — but much, much less in Munich than in any other film of his I've seen. It's that overgrown kid's most grown-up movie.

Now that I've seen the film, I don't agree with Leon Wieseltier and others that Spielberg skirts dangerously close to moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli defense or retaliation. On the contrary, the Israelis face the undeniable conundrum that having and defending a beloved nation from such barbarous attacks drags them into the danger of becoming more like, not just like, their enemies. Even though one Palestinian is given a sympathetic but chilling speech about his people's determination to get their land back if it takes 100 years (and the Israeli hero's incredulous response is one of his least sympathetic), the savagery of the hostage slaughter in Munich far exceeds anything the assassins do, and they are seen struggling to avoid killing children, women, and innocent bystanders, though they do not succeed in the last two. (We don't see Palestinians blowing up Israeli markets, cafés and weddings, but we do watch the movie in that knowledge.)

The movie actually says something quite unexceptional: that war, not excluding just war, erodes human decency. What's exceptional is idealistic Jews' sense (often honored in the breach, needless to say, Jews being all too human) that human decency is commanded to be the core of their identity, and that finally having a homeland cannot coexist with, but must replace, that core. The bomb- and toymaker makes the point that the Jewish people are called to a uniquely high standard of righteousness, and the movie observes without blame that that's hard to maintain in a real world that includes relentless threats to your home and your existence.

Anyone who has killed in war, much less in a secret and illegal assassination operation, would identify with Avner's deep ambivalence about being cheerily backslapped as a "hero." (Spielberg shoots the beaming general who greets him to look greenish and moldering, like the living dead in the sickly-lit moral underworld Avner has come to inhabit.) And it is fascinating that Avner inarticulately chooses to return to exile, the Brooklyn Diaspora, as a way of regaining his "righteousness," as if permanent, insecure homelessness is the price for Jews to even aspire to remain above the common fray. I first saw this dilemma expressed in a striking Harper's Magazine essay by George Steiner, "A Jew's Grief," which unfortunately is not on the Web.

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  • Did you know this film is a remake of The Sword of Gideon, based on the 1984 book Vengeance by Canadian journalist George Jonas?

  • Knew about the book, but didn’t know a movie had been made from it before.