By Jack Cashill
“Everybody is sort of saying they wish I would be silent,” so claims an embattled Steven Spielberg, director of the controversial new film, Munich.
Spielberg, however, willfully misinterprets what his critics are telling him. What they are really saying is that they wish he would be truthful. Although not as flagrantly dishonest as Syriana, a terrorist-friendly film that finesses a Clinton finance scandal into a Bush era Big Oil scam, Munich fully betrays its audience. And although Spielberg, an activist Democrat, would never admit as much, this betrayal has everything to do with the fact that Al Gore was not elected president in 2000. This lingering bitterness has poisoned the Hollywood well and turned the sheepish film community against the American-Israel alliance.
This is a shame. One had hoped for more from Spielberg, arguably America’s best filmmaker and, at least, a sunshine patriot. But as is apparent, telling the truth about Islamo-fascism in real time takes considerably more courage or conscience than telling the truth about German fascism 50 years after the fact.
In a nutshell, Munich recounts the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the consequent pursuit of the terrorist leaders by Israeli’s secret service, the Mossad. Spielberg based the movie squarely on George Jonas's much disputed but fair-minded 1984 book, Vengeance. With a few telling exceptions, the movie tracks with the book scene by scene and rather artlessly at that.
Both movie and book unfold through the eyes of “Avner,” a twenty-something Mossad agent and Israeli Army veteran, chosen to lead a select team of five agents on a clandestine campaign of retributive justice. In the book, Avner and his team are resourceful, competent, focused, and entirely committed to their mission. They debate tactics and sometimes question the efficacy of their pursuit, but they never doubt the justice of killing the Black September leaders.
“If I had it to do all over again,” says Avner in the foreword to the 2005 edition of the book, “I would make the same choice I made when Golda Meir approached me more than thirty years ago.” Although he questions whether his actions had any lasting effect on terrorism, he remains “proud that I was able to serve my country in this way.”
The movie, however, subtly sucks the justice out of Avner’s heroic tale. For reasons known only to him, Spielberg turned the script over to Tony Kushner, a hard-core leftist, homosexual activist, self-hating Jew, and avowed enemy of Israel. Kushner’s wildly over-esteemed AIDS play, Angels in America, poked a nasty little thumb in America’s eye. In Munich, although he takes a few cheap shots at America, his obvious target is Israel--“a historical, moral, political calamity” as he has claimed elsewhere.
Kushner’s Mossad spend an improbable amount of time eating gourmet meals together and kvetching about their repeated screw-ups. Indeed, this bitchy and self-doubting bunch of incompetents more closely resemble the partygoers in Boys in the Band than they do anyone’s idea of professional assassins. At times the movie flirts with self-parody.
The movie deviates from the book not for the sake of cinematic art but rather for the sake of moral sabotage. In one provocative scene in the book, Avner asks his Mossad handler which of the five had been trained to do the actual killings.
“Trained to do a hit?” the handler answers. “Who’s trained for that? You know a place in Israel they train people for it? It’s news to me.” No, as citizen-soldiers, they were all expected to shoulder that responsibility. That scene was critical and memorable, and it is gone.
Also gone is the scene in which the handler reinforces the ground rules on civilian casualties. “Zero risk,” he tells the agents. “That’s part of your job. You’re not terrorists throwing hand grenades at buses or machine-gunning people in a theater lobby.” So central is this imperative that it drives the plot of the book. In the movie, the agents seem to ignore this understanding as the action progresses.
Absent entirely from the movie is the extended section in which Avner temporarily quits his mission to go fight in the Yom Kippur war a year after Munich. As the narrative on the war made clear, Israel was not the Goliath in this fight, but the David. The Palestinians were not hapless Israeli victims, but useful pawns in a pan-Arabic attempt to wipe Israel off the map, an attempt that might well have succeeded in 1973 were it not for the timely aid of the United States.
The newly invented scenes betray the soul of Avner’s story more fully than do the subtractions. In the movie, for instance, the group’s whiny bombmaker renounces the group’s mission altogether and commences to dismantle the bombs that he had constructed. This did not happen in the book.
Even more insidious is an added scene in which Avner meets a would-be terrorist, who makes a case for a Palestinian homeland more persuasive than Avner is capable of refuting. Without that exchange, says Spielberg, '”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.”
Instead, Spielberg does to the heroic action genre what Ang Lee is now doing to the western with Brokeback Mountain. He subverts it and the values it has come to represent. One way Spielberg does so is by humanizing the intended targets of the Mossad to the point where the audience doubts their very guilt.
“I think the thing I’m very proud of,” Spielberg tells Time Magazine, “is that Tony Kushner and I and the actors did not demonize anyone in the film. We don’t demonize our targets. They’re individuals. They have families.” So, of course, did the Nazis, but this bought them no sympathy in Schindler’s List, nor should it have.
“How can we possibly consider turning the other cheek,” asks Avner in 2005, “to adversaries who are willing to commit crimes on the order of Munich or 9-11—or, for that matter, the Holocaust?”
“Understanding is a very muscular act,” answers Spielberg. “If I'm endorsing understanding and being attacked for that, then I am almost flattered."
The Jewish Press calls Spielberg’s rationales “liberal psychobabble at its gaudiest.” The Jewish Press is being too kind. There is nothing “liberal” about apologizing for Islamo-fascism, nothing liberal about using Israel as a proxy to attack President Bush, nothing liberal about slander.
If Spielberg and his Hollywood chums showed half the “understanding” for the Israeli military and the American forces in Iraq that they did for terrorists this would be a safer world.
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