Munich explores the moral disintegration of the Israeli hit squad assembled by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, to track down and execute the Palestinian “terror gang” known as Black September.
The Palestinian group had killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
It is not that important whether this is fact or fiction laced with some truths. For the film is designed to disturb the complacency of Jewish communities in North America and Western Europe, for whom Israel can do no wrong.
Kevin Macdonald, director of the fact based Oscar winning film about these events, One Day in September, has praised Spielberg’s courage and integrity, calling him Hollywood’s most important film-maker.
Spielberg’s own Jewish credentials are not in doubt. This is the director who used Hollywood to make, arguably, the most effective film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List.
The film was so successful that Spielberg was able to dedicate its earnings to recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors.
Spielberg is also a committed Zionist. As Neal Ascherson, the Observer’s veteran writer on international affairs, has pointed out this means that Spielberg can ask loaded questions which may seem pompous and absurd, even offensive, outside Zionist circles.
What has become of the ancient Israel that invented righteousness and reverence for law? Can modern Israel have any claim on these ideals?
Has Spielberg succeeded? In one sense, the answer is a resounding yes. Munich has caused outrage for many US Zionists and forced arguments, especially among young Zionists, that they have never heard before.
At the same time we need to be aware of the film’s limitations. These are so severe that they sometimes come close to overwhelming the film’s purpose.
The film is dominated by the Mossad shoot-outs and bomb explosions. This is actually banal, even boring, and has an unintended numbing effect.
Spielberg is Hollywood’s master of special effects.
The explosions are so dominating that the troubled dialogue of the Mossad team seems like irrelevant whispering by comparison.
Worse, Mossad always seems to win. Though there are one or two exceptions, once again Palestinians are reduced mainly to “terrorists” or victims, or both.
The film is also so crude politically that it borders on the dishonest. At the beginning we eavesdrop on discussions between Israeli leader Golda Meir and Avner, the lead Mossad operative.
Meir asks aloud of the Palestinian assassins, “I don’t know where these maniacs came from?” Of course she knew where they came from.
Her generation of Zionist leaders had successfully forced a majority of Palestinians out of Israel. But they could not force them out of history, however much Meir used to say, “There’s no such thing as Palestinians.”
Many of them had been forced across the Israeli border into Jordan. In 1970 tens of thousands of them staged an uprising against Jordan’s pro-Israeli king, Hussein.
In September that year Hussein, with the backing of Meir — who supplied the Jordanian king with ammunition — and of the US, crushed the Palestinian uprising. Black September was born to avenge this humiliation. Oh yes, Golda knew all about its origins.
Spielberg was offered a unique opportunity to restore some balance. Black September survivor Mohammed Daoud, though still on the run, sent him a message offering to talk.
Spielberg refused. No doubt his film would have lost all credibility with the audience he wanted to reach if he was seen communicating with a “terrorist”.
But doesn’t this incident expose the ultimate flaw with a film like this? It stops with the troubled conscience of the oppressor. The voice of the oppressed remains silenced.
John Rose is the author of The Myths of Zionism which is available from Bookmarks the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com