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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Munich and Vengeance

Along with Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and Brokeback Mountain, Steven Spielberg’s political thriller Munich has received as much attention from political commentators as from film critics. The film follows a team of Mossad agents under orders to find and kill eleven men thought to have had a hand in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. David Brooks attacked the film for equating Israeli and Palestinian violence, while Charles Krauthammer accused Spielberg of actually favoring the Palestinians. The film received less criticism for omitting discussion of the Lillehammer affair, in which a Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki was misidentified as terrorist Ali Hassan Salameh and then killed by Mossad. The film is loosely based on Juval Aviv’s book Vengeance: the True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, and in this post I’d like to discuss the film’s treatment of revenge and its consequences.

Krauthammer faults the film for, among other things, humanizing and contextualizing the Palestinians targeted for assassination while leaving the Israeli athletes with nothing but names and faces. This is poor film criticism, since on a cinematic level the athletes are the counterparts of their captors and killers, who are not individuated even by name. The targets are the counterparts of the protagonists, and the latter of course receive far more character development than the former. The targets are foils for the protagonists, and their humanization is essential to understanding the psychological costs their deaths carry for the men asked to kill them. On a theoretical level, though, Krauthammer’s contrast is an important one, but not in the way he suggests. Retribution can be understood as agent-centered or victim-centered. By humanizing those targeted for assassination, the film seems to reject the idea that vengeance is motivated by hatred of wrongdoers rather than solidarity with victims. There is no need to demonize the targets, who are killed not for who they are but for what they have done and who they have wronged. Evil may not always be banal, but it is difficult to sustain the view that every individual deserving of punishment is more hateful than pitiful.

What of the film’s failure to individuate the athletes other than in name? Even if vengeance is exacted on behalf of or for the sake of a victim, it does not seem essential to the revenge genre that the victim is fully represented. In stories as diverse as Hamlet and Memento the victim is dead before the curtain rises. The focus is on the avenger, not on the avenged, and the relationship between the two is usually enough to explain a desire for vengeance even though the protagonist’s motives are usually mixed with guilt and grief. The drama arises from the lengths to which the protagonist goes and the psychological costs incurred in the process. In Munich the Mossad agents have no personal relationship with the athletes; despite official disavowal the agents are state actors, individuals charged with carrying out a perceived collective responsibility. Munich is one of very few films dealing directly with the brutalization effect incurred on individuals charged with inflicting violence on other human beings.

It is possible to conclude that Munich is not a revenge film at all but a war movie focused on a different kind of war. When one Mossad agent confesses that “It is strange, to think of oneself as an assassin,” he is told to think of himself as something else, not as an avenger or executioner but as a soldier. What looks like revenge may simply be a series of retaliatory strikes, aimed at eliminating enemy leaders and deterring future attacks. The film’s final exchange draws a sharp contrast between the two outlooks. When the lead agent asks whether he committed murder, he wants to know whether those he killed were truly responsible for the Munich massacre. “If these men have committed crimes then they should be tried, like Eichmann.” When the case officer assures the agent that the targets were involved in a variety of terrorist conspiracies, he contrasts murder not with deserved punishment but with collective self-defense. Whether state violence is inflicted through soldiers, prison guards, or executioners, individual human beings must still experience an often debilitating conflict between their official role and the moral inhibitions built up over a lifetime of restraint and respect for the humanity of others. There is no easy resolution of this fact of political morality.

This is probably the last of my film-related postings. The others were Stealth and the Laws of War, Kingdom of Heaven and the Concept of Jihad, The Constant Gardner and the Duty to Aid, and Syriana, Iran, and Torture. I hope shortly to begin posting on topics in criminal, international, and Islamic law.

Posted by Adil Haque on February 7, 2006 at 03:11 AM in Film | Permalink

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