Bias. The judgements that an individual carries with them that influence his or her outlook on a subject, idea, or issue. Everybody has them, from teachers, to politicians, to the Pope and the President. As a journalist, perhaps the most important skill that comes into play involving bias is when to recognize it. Whether looking at a source or using a quote, journalism instinct tends to look for possible bias. Because movies present the viewpoint or vision of the director and writers, they also contain these same types of bias and they should be viewed with skepticism. Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich”, despite providing an honest historical context in which it is set, pushes the director’s framing of counterterrorism as counterproductive and opens up room for criticism due to it’s “un-patriotic” viewpoints.

Due to the opening sequences that shows actual media footage of the Olympic massacre in Munich, the film establishes a historical background through which the audience can get a feel for what actually happened. The beginning of the movie depicts the kidnappings of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic village, using frequent clips of actual images of news coverage from the event. Scenes are shown in which families are huddled around the televisions waiting for news about the athletes to come from the reports. Spielberg recognizes the impact that the news media had on the perception of the event, and captures it thoroughly.

Because television was omnipresent at the Games, the entire world was witness to that awful event. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that most of us for the first time perceived the face of modern terrorism in the images that ABC and the other networks broadcast of those frightful 24 hours. Or, in fact, did not fully perceive it, since the iconic image of the attack was of a ski-masked terrorist standing on the balcony of the Israelis’ Olympic Village quarters peering back at the cameras that were peering at him.(Scheckel, Philadelphia, 2005)

In a similar vein as “Bloody Sunday”, the use of real footage in Munich mimics the collective memory of the event from the public’s perspective. Scenes like the kidnapper standing on the balcony represent the images that people most remember from when the event occurred. What this essentially does is reinforce a sense of legitimacy in the scenes being depicted on the screen, and provides a historical context that is viewed as true by the audience who remember the event and forges new memories in those who are uneducated in what happened.

Throughout the rest of the movie, however, Spielberg uses his own dramatic interpretations to frame the impact of counterterrorism on the mindset of Avner, the main character in the film, and his team. The interplay between the five Israeli men and their mission helps represent Spielberg’s own mindset, as the dialogues are largely fictitious. This TIME magazine excerpt from the director (Spielberg) and production partner (Kathleen Kennedy) shows the dramatic style and creative license incorporated into the film. 

“We all talk in genres,” Kennedy says, “and this is clearly a thriller from a movie-making standpoint.” On the other hand, it had to be a character driven and intellectually acute thriller to satisfy her and Spielberg’s ambitions for it. So “we knew and took the approach early on that we are not making a documentary.” At some point the phrase “historical fiction” entered their conversations. They understood that they would have to compress and conflate some of their material. And, yes, do some inventing as well. “The fiction,” says Spielberg, “comes in the interpersonal relationships of the five members of the ex-Mossad team” on which the film focuses. “I was very careful,” he says, “to start the movie by saying ‘Inspired by real events,’ because until the secret files are opened up nobody will really know actually who did what.”(Scheckel, Philadelphia, 2005)

What must be taken into account is that the majority of the dialogue and interactions that take place within the film are subjective. Because of his freedom to fictionalize the interplay between the men, the director’s purpose is revealed through a variety of important scenes in the film. 

One scene which exemplifies the ‘violence begets violence’ viewpoint is when the members of Avner’s team are watching a newscast talking about Palestinian terrorist attacks that are killing civilians and the hijacking of an airplane. The footage provides the members of the team with doubts about the effectiveness of their mission, prompting one to respond, “I think they’re trying to talk to us.”(Medved, 2006) The idea that the Palestinians and Israelis are sending messages to each other through retaliation and alternating attacks symbolizes the mindset that  they are doing nothing more than creating more violence. These doubts come to typify the majority of the members of the team, including Avner, throughout the rest of the film as they struggle to come to terms with what they are doing. Spielberg supports the belief that responses to attacks are merely counterproductive in that they incite more violence then they stop. 

“I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine,” he says. “There’s been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?” (Schickel, Philadelphia, 2005)

As the death toll rises on both sides in the film, this idea of a ‘quagmire’ is reinforced. The quote in the final scene of the movie sums up the popular Israeli mindset that Spielberg is criticizing, as Avner’s government handler responds to the idea of more and more killings by saying “my fingernails grow back, does that mean I should stop cutting them?”(Brenzican, 2005) By this time however, Avner is disenchanted with his homeland, refusing to return to Israel or continue operations with the government. 

Another memorable exchange that supports the idea that the violence will continue if the attack/counterattack model remains in place comes when both the PLO members and Avner’s team are staying in the same hotel room. The PLO member challenges Avner’s assertions that the Palestinian effort is futile by responding that the effort will be carried on by his children, and their children, and in the subsequent generations the violence will continue to occur. The scene rationalizes both sides in showing the passion for a national homeland. Spielberg sheds a sympathetic light on both sides as they share a dialogue back and forth. 

Without that exchange, “I would have been making a Charles Bronson movie, good guys vs. bad guys and Jews killing Arabs without any context. And I was never going to make that picture,” Spielberg said. (Schickel, Philadelphia, 2005)

In humanizing both sides of the conflict, Spielberg doesn’t just push for the traditional 

Israel versus terror mindset.

Although the movie chooses to make a political commentary on the idea of 

counterterrorism, it avoids coming down on either the pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian side. Scenes of violence from the Israeli team are alternated with Avner’s flashbacks to the Olympic killings. One side is not shown as being more violent then the other, as Siwar Bandar, the spokewoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee points out, “the positive is that everybody seems to be holding a gun in this film. It’s not just the Arabs.”(Brenzican, 2005) By not taking the role of showing absolute support of Israeli policy however, the film has been blasted by members of the Israeli elite, supporting the idea of patriotic hegemony (Barnett, Reynolds, 2009). Ehud Danoch, the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, attacked the movie because of the alleged ‘equivalency’ it created between the Munich combatants and the Israeli government. “The attempt to balance between victims of terror and those who killed them. . . is to make light of the issue,” he said.(Brenzican,2005) Spielberg draws criticisms because of his departure from the popular, mainstream opinion, which generally favors the U.S. and Israeli policies.  

The issue extends far beyond just Israel, however, as the movie points a finger at the idea of counterterrorism in all modern applications. Recent data has done little to reveal the true impact of counterterrorism on violent activity, helping fuel the debate over which side is right. A study done over the Northern Ireland conflict showed that in three out of four cases of British counter-terrorism interventions, the results fell into the ‘backlash’ model, meaning that the risk of future attacks was increased. (Lafree, Dugan & Korte, 2009 ) Another study done over the Israel response to PLO attacks showed that an increase in targeted killings by the Israeli military resulted in less Israeli deaths by suicide bombings. (Frisch, 2006) The important thing to note is that Spielberg’s viewpoint is just one of many on the issue of counterterrorism. There is no clearly defined ‘right choice’, and the debate will continue. But in the film “Munich”, the ideas of Israel’s response to terrorism must be viewed through the acknowledgment of the director’s bias. The film supports the idea that violence in response to violence does little more than create a void for more violence to arise.