Steven Spielberg's powerful new movie Munich deals with the aftermath of the massacre at the 1972 Olympics - and the escalation of world terrorism since. But can the film do justice to such a complex story? The Observer's veteran correspondent Neal Ascherson, who was present at many historic moments later dramatised, looks at what is to be gained and what is, inevitably, lost
Sunday January 15, 2006
It happens in two films. In one, it is a Muslim woman who looks into the eyes of a small boy with an ice-cream, in a cafe on the Rue d'Isly in Algiers. In the other, it is an Israeli agent, surprised in a Paris apartment by a young Palestinian girl as he hides explosives in her father's telephone.
Spielberg's film is called Munich. But it is really about the aftermath of Munich, the sequel to the massacre at the Olympic Games of 1972. A squad of Palestinian Black September commandos broke into the Olympic Village quarters of the Israeli team, took 11 of them hostage and then killed them all. This was only one climax in a long story - still unfolding - of lurid acts of Palestinian terror and Israeli counter-terror which had begun back in the 1950s. The Israeli seizure of the West Bank in 1967 brought this cycle of mutual vengeance to new extremes.
I was on The Observer during the later 1960s, as our senior writers vainly warned the West that Palestinian suffering and desperation would become a spreading cancer. Robert Stephens, the diplomatic correspondent, was the most eloquent. But David Astor, the editor, and commonwealth correspondent Colin Legum supported a famous leader called 'The Two Rights' which suggested - to the outrage of the Jewish community's leaders - that Israel should hand back the territories it had seized in the Six Day War in 1967. With dreadful accuracy, they predicted that the misery of this tiny people would burn until its flames reached not only the whole Middle East but the outer Muslim world and, eventually, the Western imperial powers that tried to manipulate that world.
In the two years before Munich, there were no fewer than five Palestinian air hijackings or attacks on airports, peaking on 'Skyjack Sunday' in 1970 when five aircraft with more than 400 passengers were seized. Bloodshed was answered by bloodshed. But the world's media were fascinated by the glamorous young Leila Khaled, with her ring made of grenade-pins, who was captured at Heathrow after her second air hijack ended in gory failure. Disastrously, the Palestinian cause was becoming identified with terrorism.
That was the steady crescendo of savagery which led to the 1972 Munich tragedy. The best account of what actually happened there, in front of the massed television cameras of the world, is Kevin Macdonald's brilliant Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September. He traced how the attackers, who murdered two Israeli athletes in their first assault, held nine surviving Israelis hostage and threatened to kill them unless more than 200 Palestinian prisoners were released.
The Israeli government, led by the iron-willed Golda Meir, refused to bargain with terrorists. The West Germans offered to fly the hostages and their captors out of the country, secretly intending to mount a rescue attack before the aircraft took off. Helicopters took the group to the airfield at Furstenfeldbruck, where an aircraft was waiting. But the rescue was hopelessly bungled by the German security forces. A furious and chaotic firefight broke out on the airfield, ending an hour later when the surviving gunmen murdered their bound captives. All the hostages died. Five Palestinians were killed, including their leader. Three were captured. A month later, they were exchanged for a Lufthansa plane hijacked in Beirut. It wasn't only the Israelis who suspected that the hijacking had been a put-up job: the West Germans wanted to get rid of awkward prisoners.
This is where the Spielberg film begins. Munich had left Israel distraught with grief and anger. A ferocious air attack struck at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, but that could not be enough. With Golda Meir's consent, it was decided to hunt down and assassinate any Palestinian who had survived or been implicated in the planning of the Munich massacre. Special squads were recruited from Mossad and other organisations to carry out this 'Operation Wrath of God'. They could travel and kill anywhere in the world, by any means. The illegality of this was obvious. But who did international law belong to? Once again - so many Israelis saw it - Jews had been led to their death in Germany while the Gentile world did nothing to save them.
Munich is the story of a small team sent out to find and to kill. It is the tale of what happens to them physically and morally. Several in this close band of brothers lose their lives and their erratic bomb-maker (beautifully played by Mathieu Kassovitz) eventually makes a terminal mistake. All of them with one exception - Steve, a ruthless South African Jew acted by Daniel Craig - develop anxieties about what they are doing and what sort of human beings they are becoming.
Nobody is more affected than Avner (Eric Bana), the young intelligence officer who is their leader. He comes from a harsh, loveless background. Born in Israel, son of a father he never knew, he was consigned as an infant to collective upbringing on a kibbutz. He has grown up mistrustful, a bleak loner who finds it hard to show his feelings and who only begins to discover his own emotions through marriage to the wise and tender Daphna (Ayelet Zorer).
His obedience to the state is at first unthinking. But as 'Wrath of God' unfolds, cracks appear. He finds it harder and harder to deal with the growing doubts of his comrades, who are unnerved by the collateral suffering and chaos caused by their killings. Avner never openly admits to such doubts, but they are breeding inside him, too, and pushing him steadily towards breakdown.
Avner as a character is mostly imaginary. Apart from the opening at the Olympics and recurrent flashbacks to the scenes at Furstenfeldbruck, Munich is not tied to historical facts - less so than Spielberg was in Schindler's List. There was, indeed, an 'Operation Wrath of God', although the Israelis did not call it that, and its purpose was to go out in the wake of Munich and kill. But that is about as far as this film travels with ascertainable fact, which is thin on the ground. The Israeli authorities remain unwilling to discuss the operation, still less to name the men and women who took part in it. It may even be the case that 'Wrath of God' is still going on.
The last known killing in the series, the murder of Atef Bseiso in Paris, was as recent as 1992, and one of the Olympic gunmen, Jamal al Gashey, is apparently still alive. So is Abu Daoud, once the leader of Black September. An unknown gunman, probably Israeli, fired five bullets into him in a Warsaw hotel in 1981, but he survived.
Spielberg adopted the figure of Avner from Vengeance by George Jonas, an earlier venture into the 'Wrath of God' story published as a book in 1984. Jonas used a source who claimed to be Avner. But the Israelis strongly deny that the original of Avner played any important part in the mission. Other leaks suggest that the team leader was a middle-aged man. Simon Reeve's book One Day in September, published to go with Kevin Macdonald's documentary film, claims that he was a 46-year-old man known as 'Mike' who was already the head of Mossad's operational department.
And the film itself? It's a one-eyed giant of a movie. It has fearful power. Its enormous noise and unsurpassable effects made a hard-boiled preview audience cower the night I saw it. Spielberg seems to rage, as he tries to make you know what a bomb really does when it explodes in a busy hotel or what bullets do to a body. There was some of that rage in Saving Private Ryan, but Munich is more deadly, more selective, in what it decides you have to see.
Sometimes, it is too much. To watch what happens when a naked young woman is executed with small-calibre bullets is, in the end, humiliating for the watcher. 'Why? Who do you take me for?' he or she might ask, not least because the whole episode is probably an invention. But in other scenes, Spielberg's greed for reality serves truth and his story.
For example, anyone who has talked to a political killer knows that every action goes wrong in a slight or a massive way. I have listened to IRA men remembering a minutely prepared ambush in Derry, when a 'volunteer' stepped round the corner to fire at the point man of a British patrol and, as he squeezed the trigger, a little girl jumped out of a door in front of him (her head was blown apart). I witnessed an attempt, one night in Malaya, to kill a man suspected of passing food to guerrillas through a village fence. The man escaped, but a hut was set on fire and an innocent old man and his wife burned to death.
Assassination, like war, veers terrifyingly out of control. Spielberg has learned this. The explosive charge is too small and only injures, or it's too big and brings down the whole building, or the figure shot in the dark bedroom is the wrong man in the wrong flat. Panic rises among the Israeli killers in Munich, a panic cleverly built into the script to illustrate their gathering sense of desolation and resentment.
Spielberg aims swinging blows at some very big moral and political targets, which other American film-makers - and not only those with a Jewish background like his own - prefer to avoid. Often he connects. His characters and, indeed, the film itself, say things about the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine conflict and Israeli attitudes which go right off the Hollywood reservation.
Kevin Macdonald praises Spielberg's courage. 'He's the most important Hollywood director of his era. And yet he's making political points, really remarkable statements about a serious issue. He's saying that revenge helps nobody, that violence can only lead to violence, that an eye for an eye is not the way forward. That's a lot to say in conservative America, considering it's a film made by Universal Pictures and trying for a wide audience.'
But the giant, it seems to me, is still one-eyed. It's one thing to show that Palestinians are as human as Israelis, equally capable of loving their land and their family. But it's another to show what follows from that. And Spielberg's scriptwriters do not go there.
Here are characters who begin to wonder if 'Israel right or wrong' can be an adequate policy. But what do they do about their doubts? Here is at least one Palestinian who tells Avner face to face that 'home is everything'; he and his people will never give up the struggle for the land which is theirs, and every new generation will take up that struggle until they are victorious. But where are the Palestinians who are not terrorists? Here is the true story of how the 'Wrath of God' team failed to shoot their most important target, Ali Hassan Salameh, because they found that he was guarded by the CIA; the United States had agreed to protect him in return for a promise that American diplomats would not be attacked. But where is there anything about the whole American relationship to Israel and the Arab world?
Sturdy Zionists will hate this film, none the less. What appals Spielberg, as an American, is clearly the moral unilateralism he finds in Israel. Near the beginning of the film, as Avner is given his orders, he makes Golda Meir say: 'Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.' It would be a platitude, but she is saying it as a blessing to assassins on a vengeance mission.
At the end of Munich, when a broken Avner returns from his assignment, his mother tries to comfort him by comparing what he has done to the methods Israel used in order to survive: 'We have to take it because no one will give it to us. We have our place on earth - at last.' The South African in his unit, the only one left unmoved by what they are doing, says flatly: 'The only blood that counts for me is Jewish blood!'
And there's worse. Terror generates counterterror and vice versa. The 'Wrath' murders provoke more Palestinian letter-bombs, shootings and hijackings. One character is made to confess: 'We do what they do!' The nightmare of moral equivalence appears. Have we descended to their level? Only faith in the exceptionalism and righteousness of the State of Israel can save self-respect for Avner's team. And that faith crumbles. After one particularly horrible killing, the bomb-maker breaks down and protests to Avner: 'We're Jews, we are supposed to be righteous, and that's beautiful.'
The movie is unlikely to please Palestinians either. Spielberg, it's true, has explained that much of the work is 'dramatic licence' and not reportage. It's also true that in Munich, there do appear Palestinians who seem sympathetic before they are gunned down, or who are allowed to talk briefly but impressively about their love of land. But apart from some shots of families watching television as the Munich tragedy unfolds, the Palestinians we see are almost exclusively terrorists. To do him justice, Spielberg shows in one passage (the girl by the telephone bomb) that the enemy and not only the Israelis have wives and children. But Munich sometimes recalls those 'radical' American movies about Vietnam, in which American soldiers explore in depth their own violence and guilt but the Vietnamese figure only as snipers or corpses.
Do we ask too much of films about recent history? Those of us who have witnessed great historical events as journalists always leave the cinema unsatisfied. My experiences told me that even Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers is built around a glaring omission. The troops I watched raiding the kasbah were almost all Muslims in the French army, not Frenchmen, but the rulers of independent Algeria did not want Pontecorvo to show that. Andrzej Wajda's films about the birth of Solidarity in 1980 demonise Polish communists as totalitarian monsters, yet I knew many who were Catholic patriots clinging to the party because they thought it was the only alternative to direct Soviet tyranny.
Matching what I saw against later movie versions of struggles in South Africa and Namibia, or of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the 1973 Pinochet putsch in Chile shows how directors heroise, simplify and look away from the greyer bits of history. The fate of bewildered people who snatched at fatally wrong compromises for the sake of peace is not cinematic.
Looking back at the Munich massacre and its aftermath across 33 years, it's a story of universal failure. The Black September gang, a cocky rabble, completely failed in their prime objective - the freeing of prisoners - and, by killing their hostages, revolted even foreign sympathisers. Their self-justification, as told for instance by Jamal al Gashey to Macdonald, is that they made their cause heard: 'That day, the name Palestine was repeated across the world.' Leila Khaled says: 'Nobody had heard our screams and suffering. All we got from the world was more tents and old clothes.' The name of Palestine was indeed repeated, but only as a synonym for the screams and suffering of Black September's victims.
Everyone else failed, too. The International Olympic Committee utterly disgraced itself by trying to carry on with the games as if nothing was happening. The West Germans displayed almost incredible incompetence and, at times, cowardice.
And the Israeli government also failed. 'Wrath of God' was intended not just as revenge on the planners and surviving perpetrators of Munich. It was also meant to exterminate a list of Palestinian radical figures with little or no connection to the massacre, giving Israel an interval of security and demonstrating to the Arab world that anybody who used terror against Israel could expect to die in bed. It failed comprehensively. It did not execute all the men who took part in the Munich outrage. It killed some entirely innocent individuals, like the Moroccan waiter slaughtered in Norway because Mossad thought he was Ali Hassan Salameh. Above all, it did not make Israel any safer.
A year after Munich, Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. Israel won, but Palestinian resistance continued to grow and launch attacks from within Lebanon. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. But militant organisations within the occupied West Bank multiplied. There followed the two intifadas, the spread of terrorism by suicide bombers, the failure of the Oslo accords and the complex struggle over Palestinian statehood and illegal Israeli settlements which still rages.
Israel has returned to the tactic of selective assassination. These days, it is high-tech, air-to-ground missiles aimed at the leaders of Hamas and other armed-struggle groups. But once more, 'Wrath of God' methods have failed. New leaders always come forward, to murder and be murdered in their turn.
In the last shot of Munich, Avner and his Mossad controller part in enmity. They are in New York, standing against a Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers still soar. Steven Spielberg seems to ask if what Avner did contributed to what was to happen in New York almost 30 years later. And Spielberg, without mentioning the word 'Iraq', clearly w ants audiences to make that connection too. The 'war on terror', he implies, is one more event in the escalating 'eye for an eye' tragedy that can be traced back to Munich and beyond.
In reality, Saddam's crimes had little to do with Palestine and nothing to do with the Twin Towers. But, as Macdonald says: 'Eighty-five per cent of the American population still think that Saddam was directly involved in 9/11.' And that helps to explain why Spielberg wanted so badly to make this film at this particular moment. My guess is that he is aiming not just at United States policy but at the millions in his country who applaud it. Macdonald again: ' Many Americans will watch this and think that this is really about America in 2006.'
In the end, though, this film is a question asked of Israel, and asked in grief as much as in anger. Spielberg is a Jew deeply committed to the existence of Israel. That ought to restrain the torrent of Jewish reproach, but it almost certainly won't. He is already being called a traitor to Zionism. He is already being called a renegade, a betrayer of Zionism and a peddler of moral equivocation. A letter to the Los Angeles Times proclaims: 'There is no chance in hell I am going to see Spielberg's decrepit movie. I have too much respect for the dead athletes and no respect whatsoever for Spielberg. This pathetic false messiah tells us that this movie is supposed to bring peace? It will bring money and blood. ' So far, few Palestinians have seen the film, but Abu Daoud, who has at least read about it, complains: 'Spielberg showed the movie to widows of the Israeli victims, but he neglected the families of Palestinian victims.'
At any moment, he will be called a 'self-hating Jew'. That is exactly what he is not. It's in pride and love that, through this film, he asks what has become of that ancient Israel which invented righteousness and reverence for law and how long a nation can survive which believes it must take because nothing will be given.
Others, and many Israelis, have their own answers to those questions. Spielberg's film does not. But of all his political and historical works, this is by far the bravest. Spielberg has summoned all his colossal cinematic talent for an act of courage. He has at least asked great questions. Nobody will love this film, but nobody will forget it.
· Munich is released on 27 January