Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence gets the Spielberg treatment

Steven Spielberg’s assaulting new movie “Munich” is based on a book, though not the Old Testament. Nobody ever utters the phrase “an eye for an eye,” never mind explains that it means that the punishment should fit the crime. But the notion of revenge is expressed a hundred other ways.

A big-budget, globe-hopping, explosion-packed spy thriller, “Munich” is packed to the gills with brutal violence and ethical debates. Its effect on the nervous system is instantaneous and unrelenting, thanks to Spielberg’s talent for suspense and manipulation.

The film deals with serious issues — more than Spielberg can effectively accommodate even in two hours and 40 minutes (plus credits). Hampered by its director’s trademark heavy-handedness and marred by an inability to elegantly mesh action and philosophy, “Munich” is an important movie but not a great one.

There is something undeniably alluring about a film — adapted from George Jonas’ “Vengeance” — that follows a Mossad team as it secretly goes about assassinating the Palestinians who planned the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. It’s not too difficult to support Israel for taking the law into its own hands, or at least to view a hit squad as less objectionable than by the plotters getting away with their crime.

Yet, the preeminent commercial filmmaker of our time uses his bully pulpit merely to argue that violence only begets violence. The pursuit of terrorists doesn’t dissuade them from their bloody tactics, the film suggests; if anything, it provokes further attacks.

One can dispute that conclusion — in fact, Spielberg would like nothing more than for every screening to provoke dozens of mini-debates — but that’s only one of his theses. “Munich” also makes the point that dead terrorists are always replaced by new enlistees. He challenges the popular belief that terrorism can be eradicated by force.

The film also explores the effects of the mission on the Mossad squad leader. The young, inexperienced Avner (Eric Bana, the pedestrian Australian actor from “The Hulk”) is not an Israeli James Bond but an ordinary Joe with a pregnant wife. He’s a character American audiences can identify with more easily than, for example, the icy cold, morally certain Mossad assassin in the recent Israeli film “Walk On Water.”

But the killing has a disturbing effect on Avner — there are no innocents in “Munich” — and we come to see that even a so-called just war has a price. In a larger sense, because covert execution in European cities is not an act consistent with contemporary Jewish values, Spielberg is asking whether Israel can still claim to be a light unto the nations. Or, by mimicking the methods of the terrorists it pursues, has Israel sacrificed its soul?

Whatever stance you take on any of these meaty issues, rest assured that it is articulated by somebody in the course of the film.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian question, “Munich” deftly avoids coming out for one side and demonizing the other. Each side’s needs are given voice, and Spielberg apparently endorses a two-state solution by referring in several different contexts to the importance of a home.

Further, every Palestinian target is given a scene that depicts him as a family man or artist or sociable fellow, rather than a psychopathic villain or Jew-hater. Consequently, we don’t get a cathartic thrill from their deaths but a sense of unease and loss.

That’s a risky and admirable aspect of the screenplay by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and Eric Roth. But other bits prompt genuine head-scratching. For example, Avner’s operatives appear closer to Keystone Kops than to the crackerjack spies. A recruiting video for the Mossad this is not.

More disturbing is Spielberg’s bizarre cross-cutting between the culmination of the hostage drama at the Munich airport and a bedroom scene. For that matter, one can question to what degree the director’s reenactment of the horrible Olympic events is necessary or even moving.

Not so obliquely, Spielberg implies that the cycle of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians — to which most Americans are indifferent — led to the 9/11 attacks. Is the United States responsible, through its financial, military and political support of Israel, for the Mossad’s retaliation for Munich? Regardless of what we think, is that how the Palestinians see it?

As only a filmmaker of his international stature can, Spielberg has pushed the Israeli-Palestinian issue to the forefront. “Munich” is Spielberg’s declaration of war on terror, but he is calling on all of us to carry the ball.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.