Sonny Bunch — can that be his real name? — writing for the website of the Weekly Standard on January 6, claims that “it is a misunderstanding of Munich to view the film as a work of moral equivalence.” As I have claimed in my review of the film that it is such a work, and as I would not wish to be thought to have misunderstood it, I naturally wanted to read Mr. Bunch’s argument for this proposition. Imagine my surprise when I found that there wasn’t one. The nearest he gets is when he writes that
much has been made of a scene near the beginning of the film in which photos of the Palestinian terrorists being targeted by the Mossad, and images of the dead Israeli athletes are juxtaposed. Some have suggested that this is a clear case of moral equivocation, that Spielberg is trying to imply that there is no difference between the two groups of “victims.” But if anything, it seems as though Spielberg is trying to help the audience understand the motivations of the Israeli government. In actuality, he seems to be highlighting the fact that the murders at Munich forced Israel to pursue these terrorists.
Leaving aside his misuse of the word “equivocation” — which does not mean “making equal” but “prevarication by ambiguity” — we notice here the curious expression “in actuality, he seems.” Normally, we would expect “in actuality” to contrast with “he seems,” seeming being so often opposed to actuality. But as we read on we realize that “in actuality” only means “I think.” Mr. Bunch is of course at liberty to think that. He might even be right, though it is hard to see how we might tell. But those who mention the juxtaposition of which he writes — as I did in my review — do not just think something different. We look at the overall tendency of the picture and then interpret its use of the two sets of photographs in light of that tendency.
As Mr. Bunch makes no argument about the overall tendency of the picture based on anything in it but only offers his opinion, I am at a disadvantage in answering him. But I don’t think it is possible to argue, on the basis of evidence contained in the movie — at any rate Mr. Bunch does not — that that tendency is not “in actuality” a moral comparison bordering on equivalence. I say “bordering on” equivalence because Mr. Spielberg himself believes that he has qualified that bald assertion, as I mentioned in my review, by making the point that the Israelis are morally superior to the Arab terrorists because of the angst they suffer after killing. And this seems also to be the view of Mr. Bunch. He writes:
Spielberg’s characterization of a conflicted Avner is, in its own way, flattering to the Israelis. Indeed, it says more good than bad about the quality of the Israeli men who accepted the job of protecting their country by hunting down the terrorists who would do it harm. We should not want those tasked with defending us to be as remorseless as the sociopath terrorists who are so evil that they take delight in murder.
Let us stipulate that this is true. The question it leaves unanswered, however, is this: what is the moral status of the mental and emotional conflict in a “conflicted” killer? Does it, for instance, become OK to kill somebody if, after killing him, you feel bad about yourself, even though it would not be OK if you killed without such compunction? I don’t think that Mr. Bunch would argue that. But that is precisely what Steven Spielberg does argue, in cinematic terms anyway, and in doing so he trivializes the serious moral and political issues he has raised in his film.
Let me explain. The film makes a show of having its hero, Avner (Eric Bana), conclude that what he has done in killing terrorists after their acts of terror have been performed and they have returned, perhaps (or perhaps not), to civilian life is wrong. It constitutes vengeance and a perpetuation of the cycle of violence — a familiar concept alluded to on more than one occasion but not, I think, named as such. Avner comes to this conclusion after he has suffered the agonies of conscience that are supposed to show his superiority to the Arab terrorists — who are themselves represented as “rejoicing” after the commission of one of their atrocities. At this point Avner tells his Mossad handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), that “We should have brought them back to Israel for trial, like Eichmann.” Now it is true that this is not an assertion of moral equivalence. Rather the opposite. But neither is it a practical proposition militarily, diplomatically, or legally. By proposing as an alternative to what he has done something that could not have been done, as a palliative for his conscience, he in effect ratifies Mr. Spielberg’s own emphasis on emotional over moral truth. What matters to the latter, as to Avner himself, is not what has been done, or even what he thinks should have been done, but his feelings about what has been done, which are so bad that they may be thought to excuse what otherwise could not be excused.
That is neither a serious moral position nor a serious qualification of the moral equivalence argument that Mr. Spielberg has raised in order, as he supposes, to discredit it. As a result, he instead ends up affirming it, saying exactly the opposite of what he meant to say (which is also what Mr. Bunch wants him to say). This is the point I was trying to make by contrasting Mr. Spielberg’s skill as a film-maker with his muddle-headed thinking as a moral philosopher. His movie means to allow us to take the movie-goer’s customary satisfaction in seeing rough justice administered — as when Wyatt Earp guns down the Clanton boys, or Marshall Kane faces off with Frank Miller or Shane plugs Jack Wilson — while morally distancing ourselves from it with the help of Avner’s pretended disavowal of his own actions after the fact. That is to say, Avner (if he were real) might not have been pretending, but Steven Spielberg by treating his attempted self-exculpation seriously, certainly is. I’m reluctant to call this directorial dishonesty, but it does come very close to equivocation.
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