March 4th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: NATIONAL SECURITY: The sum of all our fears - betrayal

AUSTRALIAN EXPORTS: AWB Iraq wheat sales debacle - whose responsibility now?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: RU-486 vote highlights MPs' moral confusion

EDITORIAL: Drugs: can we prevent more 'Bali Nine' trials?

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: March 18 election - personalities not policies

PUBLIC ISSUES: Reflections on the abortion wars

SCHOOLS: Time to close teacher-training schools?

ECONOMICS: UK report calls for halt to supermarket takeovers

TAIWAN: From plastic keyboards to camera phones

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Sordid message of Leunig's cartoon / The RU-486 debate / Religious beliefs

POLITICAL IDEAS: Alasdair MacIntyre and the bugbear of liberalism

Kevin Rudd for PM? (letter)

Senator Joe McCarthy's 'shameful vendettas' (letter)

Health risks with imported food (letter)

Engineers unfairly stereotyped (letter)

CINEMA: Ignorant critics slam Spielberg's latest, 'Munich'


BOOKS: SADDAM'S SECRETS: How an Iraqi General Defied and Survived Saddam Hussein, by Georges Sada

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Ignorant critics slam Spielberg's latest, 'Munich'

by Len Phillips

News Weekly, March 4, 2006
Len Phillips reviews Steven Spielberg's film, Munich.

Even while I watched Steven Spielberg's Munich, I knew I was in a post-modernist moment. It is a film condemned almost across-the-board by those whose views I normally take as sound and reliable. We could only be living in a parallel universe for us to have come to such opposite conclusions.

This was to me the most relentlessly pro-Western, anti-terrorist film I have yet seen. Bear this in mind. There is nothing like it anywhere. It divides the world, on the one side, into terrorists; and, on the other, into those who must fight to defend civilised values - our values - from being overwhelmed by the onset of a new Dark Age.

Although on the surface it is a thriller about a distant Israeli action to execute the terrorists who had murdered their athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics, it is really a film about now, about the existential threat to Western civilisation, and what needs to be done to defend our way of life.

The film is a metaphor. It is about the dangers we face because of the existence of terrorist organisations which are willing to resort to any and every weapon to disrupt and demoralise those societies they are bent on destroying.

Terrorist propaganda

Oddly, the core criticism from those who support this current war is that it is too even-handed, letting terrorists preach their propaganda without an effective reply. I did not see it that way at all.

The key to this film is, I think, found in a brief moment during Spielberg's Schindler's List. Storm-troopers are shown rampaging through a house in a ghetto being "cleansed" of its Jewish inhabitants. Those they find they kill without conscience or remorse. In the midst of this gloom one of the soldiers comes across a piano and sits down to play. The dialogue consists of three words. "Haydn?" asks one soldier. "Nein," another replies, "Mozart."

Ah, such culture, such sensitivity, such depth! The point was perhaps a touch heavy-handed, but unmistakable. There is no balance, no converse, no counterweight to relieve such an indelible evil.

So it is in this film. The first of the Munich terrorists taken out has just published an Italian translation of the Arabian Nights and is shown giving a street reading from his book. He seems to enjoy life and is kind to shopkeepers.

Put that on your scales of justice and where are you? This is a man who should be condemned and left to rot. If for reasons of international injustice he cannot be imprisoned, then he is worthy of death. Nothing redeems him.

But the film's genius is in the way the story is allowed to unfold. It is this that allows it to pass through the usual PC checkpoints. Normally, a film's central character embodies all the virtues. Here, however, Avner, the Israeli agent leading the Mossad team, is uncertain about the efficacy of what he is doing.

But whatever might be Avner's doubts, they are shared by no one else in the film. On each occasion Avner becomes troubled by his mission, he is answered. At different moments we find his wife, his mother, his Mossad controller and his Prime Minister all explaining why going after terrorists is necessary.

And to underscore this point, the murders in the Olympic village are not shown in a single sequence and then forgotten, but are woven back into the action on a number of occasions, lest anyone forget the brutality of the acts being avenged. Their savagery is never softened.

Avner's reluctance is, of course, a plot device to allow the other side to state its views, but it is also the very means by which Spielberg has allowed this film to be perceived as ambiguous when it could not, in my view, have been more clear-cut.

The final scene, which takes place around 1974, shows the then just completed World Trade Center in the background. We see the twin towers just after a conversation between Avner and his controller where they have been discussing the value of having tracked down the Munich terrorists. Avner has again said it has been of no use, since terrorists continue to increase in number and become more vicious by the year.

You can, if you like, interpret that to mean we should not hunt terrorists down, since, each time one is killed, another even more depraved arrives to take his place. Or you can see it as a true observation, where the frightening conclusion is that this is going to be a war of great length and immense difficulty in which there is no evident reason to believe the terrorists may not eventually win.

The one certain lesson from history is that no one ever knows what's going to happen next. But, beneath it all, you may be sure of this: that there are people at work trying to shape the future in ways that would leave you in despair were they to succeed.

The choice is either to leave it to others to impose their values on you, which you may be sure they will do if they can, or to battle it out on behalf of the values you yourself believe in and try to create the kind of world in which you want to live.

  • reviewed by Len Phillips

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