The pair of films that Steven Spielberg released in 2005 couldn’t be more different. First was the special effects-laden “War of the Worlds,” the latest cinematic version of H.G. Wells’ 19th century novel, that invaded multiplexes this past summer; the second, “Munich,” is a rich, multi-layered political thriller that ranks as one of his best. The latter film, which opens on Dec. 23, is a dramatic meditation on Israel’s response to the 1972 Munich Olympics, where 11 members of its national team were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Together both movies serve as bookends to the same events: September 11, 2001 and the cultural shift that began on the morning of Sept. 12when we woke up to a world where the Twin Towers and nearly 3,000 of our fellow Americans no longer existed.
It might seem odd to compare a Sci-Fi movie to Sept. 11 but Spielberg has made the connection himself. In April, when asked by a reporter from the German magazine, Die Spiegel, if he would have made “War of the Worlds” if Sept. 11 never happened, the Oscar-winning filmmaker said bluntly, “probably not.” He pointed out that Orson Welles’ famed radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ novel “terrified millions” as the shadow of Nazi Germany was beginning to fall on Europe and the 1953 film coincided with Americans’ Cold War-era fear of nuclear war. “Our version,” said Spielberg, “also comes at a time when Americans feel deeply vulnerable.”
No more nice E.T.s
Of course, “War of the Worlds,” which stars that zealous prophet of Scientologist Tom Cruise (as an ordinary working guy from New Jersey), is one of Spielberg’s patented popcorn movies. The film begins with an ominous voice-over (Morgan Freeman doing his best Darth Vader impersonation) telling us that in the early years of the 21st century “our world was being watched” (i.e.: Osama Bin Laden was watching too) but we were too complacent to care. How many times have we heard that sentiment since 9/11?
When the aliens finally make their move, citizens gaze at the sky in disbelief. Then as one of the ‘tripod’ alien ships appear and starts zapping everything that moves with its death ray —literally vaporizing people and property (but not Tom, of course) — everyone makes a run for it.
It was the same chaotic scene in downtown Manhattan on that fateful September morning; just airbrush the falling skyscrapers out of your memory and superimpose spaceships in their place. And just in case, you didn’t notice the similarities at first, Spielberg borrows a chilling detail from the real 9/11: after Cruise evades the aliens and makes it home, he realizes he’s covered in white ash — the ghastly remnants of those who were zapped to death — just like the ash-covered people who walked away from the real Ground Zero. By the film’s end, you’ve been entertained but you also feel exploited. (And, by the way, I don’t know what’s less believable: death ray-wielding aliens or Tom Cruise portraying a Joe Sixpack guy from Jersey. Puh-leeze!)
Munich and beyond
Just as Spielberg capitalized on our Bush administration-approved color-coded fears to insure “War of the Worlds” raked in box office gold, he hasn’t flinched at drawing a parallel between “Munich” and America’s current foreign policy. In July, as “Munich” was beginning production, he issued a statement saying his forthcoming film might teach us “something important about the tragic stand-off we find ourselves in today.”
He’s got a point there. The 1972 Olympics ushered in the age of global terrorism in which we now live. Black September, the group of Palestinian terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre — just like the 19 terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks — wanted the world’s media to know who they were and why they did what they did. Like all murderous cowards they wanted sympathy and attention for their “cause.” (And no doubt Black September received plenty of it from European leftists and anti-Semites the world over, just as Osama and his lot are provided moral justification from those with anti-American sentiment everywhere).
After the games, Israel sent five Mossad agents to hunt and kill the terrorists responsible for Munich. Not arrest them, not bring them to justice — but kill them in cold blood, just as they killed Israelis in cold blood. Over time, the Israeli agents would kill 10 Palestinians connected to Olympics. (Officially, the country has never admitted responsibility for the slayings.) “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values,” Prime Minister Golda Meir says in the film.
Clearly, the Israeli government did what it did because it thought it had to (just as the Bush administrations does what it does — war, occupation, torture, etc, — because it thinks it has to). But then the whole the-end-justifies-the-means mentality is the same rationale that terrorists have always used. And this is the kind of uncomfortable reality that “Munich” forces us to examine. Not exactly the kind of thing Americans and Israelis like to hear about themselves. They want to see themselves as the Good Guys in an ugly fight; the guys, who in Hollywood flicks, wear the white hats. But in “Munich,” Spielberg has the chutzpah to paint everyone in shades of gray. Let’s be clear, the director of “Schlinder’s List” isn’t comparing Mossad agents to terrorists, but as the agents carry out their mission they see that their targets have families too, and begin to grasp the moral ambiguity of their task.
Terrorists vs. counterterrorists
In one of the film’s best scenes, thanks to the piercing dialogue by “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner the Palestinian point of view gets some screen time. Eric Bana, who plays Avner Kauffman, the head of the Israeli revenge team, asks his opposite what the Palestinians are really fighting for. Do they really miss their homes and olive trees that much? Is that what this is really about. “You don’t know what it is to not have a home,” responds the terrorist. “Home is everything.” Kushner’s sentiment doesn’t provide moral justification for terrorist acts, but it shows the human reasoning behind inhumane actions.
Eventually Avner turns his back on the mission and wonders if what he did was right. Is he a hero or a cold-blooded murder or both? In the film’s final scene, Aver and his Mossad boss (brilliantly played by Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush) walk away from each other; each convinced that the other is wrong. In the distance the Twin Towers — America’s own Munich — can be seen. Leaving the moviegoer to shudder at the memory of what comes next.