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December 23, 2005

Munich, the movie: "Inspired by Real Events"

This entry is part of a series on the Munich Massacre and “Munich” the movie, to provide factual background to accompany the movie's release. The authoritative documentary on the massacre is One Day in September.

munichtable.jpg

Several small films had already been made about the Munich Massacre, but the topic haunted Steven Spielberg for years before he decided to tackle it. In an LA Times interview, Spielberg talks about following the massacre on TV as a young man, and being deeply affected. His desire to make a moral statement about such a fraught subject, as well as tell a story, gave him pause, and after 9-11 he put it aside, concerned that it would be seen as exploitative.

But now Spielberg is seen as part of a new trend: Films which humanize terrorists. Although the DC Area Critics List has already awarded Munich top director and top film, it's been added to various top ten lists, and is nominated for several Golden Globes, negative reviews are easier to find than positive ones. Written by people passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter, the negative reviews appeared early and attracted a lot of attention.

Most of the positive reviews take the movie's premises and moral dilemmas at face value, are unaware of its significant divergences from fact or don't care.

For example, Salon and Der Spiegel joined up to defend “Munich”'s message from its detractors, claiming that the movie “dares to break the rules of post-9/11 political correctness.” (Funny, I thought the main criticism of the movie is that it embodies post-9-11 political correctness in its solicitousness for the humanity of terrorists.) Michelle Goldberg inveighs against what she perceives as unjust criticism of the film, yet she uncritically parrots its received wisdom, which is exactly what the detractors are trying to debunk. She says:

The story is full of moral ambiguities -- few would dispute that Israel had the right to retaliate, but its pursuit of revenge became an end in itself, sometimes compromising both Israel's ethics and its own security.
No, Andrea Levin and Stratfor (excerpts in this post) both explain the rationale behind Israel's program. It was not “a pursuit of revenge,” but a carefully calculated attempt to disrupt a terrorist network and render it ineffective. Goldberg says that “Munich” “bears little resemblance to the piece of mushy leftist agitprop its critics describe,” but in the next paragraph she says,
Munich“ is about the way vengeance and violence -- even necessary, justified violence -- corrupt both their victims and their perpetrators. It's about the struggle to maintain some bedrock morality while engaging in immorality. [It] does mourn the way Israel has compromised its values in the fight against terrorism, while leaving open the question of whether the compromises were worth it.
which is a perfect example of the mushy leftist agitprop its critics describe. To her, it's a foregone conclusion that Israel has compromised its values. The critics make a case that this is not so, but she doesn't engage that question. Goldberg quotes another defender of the film: ”They see the name Tony Kushner, and it's like the script is written before they even get in the theater.“ Well, all the reviews I link to are by people who have seen the film, are familiar with Kushner's work and his politics, and make cogent criticisms based on that knowledge.

Two reviews which ”see under the hood,“ as it were, and still like the film, are by liberal Jews Steve Silver and George Robinson. Silver thinks it's well-made and not Israel-bashing, but isn't happy with the ending, which he blames on Tony Kushner:

Remember when ”A.I.: Artificial Intelligence“ came out four years ago, and cineastes debated which parts had Spielberg's fingerprints and which had Stanley Kubrick's? I found myself doing much the same watching ”Munich,“ spotting which parts had the director's fingerprint and which bore that of screenwriter Tony Kushner. And while the first 95% of the film is mostly Spielberg, the film's sorry epilogue is all Kushner.

Like ”A.I.,“ ”Munich“ has about five endings, and also like ”A.I.,“ the last one is the worst. It indulges all of Kushner's worst tics as a writer: bizarre dreams/visions, the insertion of sex where it doesn't belong, a disturbing lack of subtlety, and wildly off-the-charts leftism.

Robinson (who's friends with Kushner and admires his work) isn't offended by the film's political stance, but he doesn't take it seriously either:
it is pretty hard to read ”Munich“ as an apologia for the Palestinians or as a work that posits the dreaded ”moral equivalence“ argument. The focus of the film is on Avner’s growing uncertainties about his mission, but except for a painfully perfunctory final scene between him and Ephraim those uncertainties owe more to the tropes of the undercover cop subgenre. . . . . The few scenes in which characters discuss the larger moral or political implications of the team’s activities feel like the irrelevant ”socially redeeming content“ that used to be inserted into ‘70s porn in an effort to avoid obscenity busts.

Then there are the aesthetics of the film. Is it a cinematically artful political thriller? Or is it turgid and pretentious? Variety is agnostic on the politics, but says the film is so slow no one will care:
Beautifully made pic will spur newsy media coverage and possible consternation on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, but members of the general public will be glancing at their watches rather than having epiphanies about world peace. . . . the laborious, ”Ten Little Indians“-style plotting overwhelms the technique, so what could have been a heart-pounding two-hour drama with serious overtones instead emerges as a lumpy and overlong morality play on a failed thriller template.
Ouch. The Forward (usually in the same political ballpark as Tony Kushner) concurs:
. . . a film that manages to be very intense without being particularly good . . . At the end of nearly three hours, ”Munich“ amounts to little more than a stylish bumper sticker — well meaning and eye catching but ephemeral, a deceptively slight work that dissolves in its own seriousness.

Predictably, the neo-cons see antisemitic stereotypes. Among other scathing condemnations, Andrea Levin of CAMERA points out nudge-nudge wink-wink ”antisemitism is okay if Jews do it“ cliches:
A leitmotif linking Jews and money will make more than a few viewers wince. A Mossad handler growls: ”I want receipts!“ We're not the Rothschilds, he says, just a small country. ”We need receipts. You got me? Whatever you're doing somebody else is paying for it.“ Or: ”A Jew and a Frenchman - we could haggle forever.“

In other coarse invocations of supposed Jewish banter and attitudes, a team member demands a comrade drop his pants to ”see if he's circumcised“ when the teammate doesn't understand the need for Jewish violence. An argument among the team has one Israeli shouting: ”The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!“

Leon Wieseltier notes the same cliches applied to Israel:
There are two kinds of Israelis in Munich: cruel Israelis with remorse and cruel Israelis without remorse. One of the Israeli killers recalls a midrash about G-d's compassion for the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, and keeps on killing. Another one of the Israeli killers protests that ”Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong. ... We're supposed to be righteous,“ and keeps on killing. . . . . When Avner's reckoning with his deeds takes him to the verge of a breakdown, he joins his wife and child in Brooklyn and refuses to return to Israel, as if decency is impossible there.
But leave it to the bloggers to imaginatively critique ”Munich“ by invoking Spielberg's previous films. Dr Horsefeathers on Indiana Spielberg and His Jewish Problem:
In the fantasy world of Steven Spielberg, ever since he was a little boy making movies, every hero has had a secret bit of magic up his sleeve with which to win the struggle against evil and this time the magic is his new movie ”Munich.“ It is with ”Munich“ that he plans to solve the Arab/Israeli problem.

. . . . Not at all like ”Schindler’s List,“ a serious film about the real people on Schindler’s list ageing but still alive and breathing at the end of the movie, ”Munich“ is more like ”Raiders of the Lost Ark,“ a fantasy peopled by creatures of Spielberg’s imagination. Unfortunately, it is a work of the imagination corrupted by Spielberg’s moral egotism and grandiosity.

Horsefeathers develops this idea thoroughly and the whole post is worth reading.

While Horsefeathers finds Spielberg's worldview and motivation in Indiana Jones, Richard Landes (creator of "Pallywood," the expose of Palestinian propaganda techniques) plumbs Spielberg's idealization of alien beings in ”Close Encounters“ and ”E.T.“ for clues to his treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What follows is a thorough dissection of the guilty liberal:

Granted Spielberg wanted to get the voice of reason and hope into his film: he is by instinct optimistic and it is one of his great strengths. But why put that voice in the mouth of a terrorist? How does Spielberg count on the near-miraculous redemption of a culture of men who have convinced themselves that targeting civilians by teaching their children merciless hatred is the way to get what they want? . . .

Where does all this hope lead Spielberg? Apparently towards solopsistic Jewish self-criticism: four dimensional Jews, agonizing over the need to engage in violence when they’d rather not, against a backdrop of two dimensional Arabs, cardboard figures with no depth, no real passions — except, of course, the acceptable ones like civic nationalism, that we liberals believe they should have.

Joseph Schick takes this equivocating to its logical conclusion by hilariously inventing similar scenes for ”Victory at Entebbe,“ ”Golda's Balcony,“ and other documentaries which treat Palestinian terrorism. He also imagines Spielberg applying the same moral agonizing to ”Saving Private Ryan“ in a parody of actual Spielberg interviews about ”Munich“:
”You are assigned a mission, and you do it because you believe in the mission, but there is something about killing people at close range that is excruciating,“ says Spielberg. ”Perhaps the Nazis are leading double lives. But they are, many of them, reasonable and civilized too.“ Killing them, he says, has unintended consequences. ”It's bound to try a man's soul, so it was very important to me to show Miller struggling to keep his soul intact.“

We don't demonize our targets,” Spielberg added. “They're individuals. They have families.”

Indeed, there is an entirely fictional scene in the movie in which Miller and his German opposite number meet and talk calmly, with the latter getting a chance to make his case for the creation of Nazi Aryan world domination. That scene means everything to screenwriter Tony Kushner and Spielberg. “The only thing that's going to solve this is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills,” says Spielberg. Without that exchange, “I would have been making a Charles Bronson movie—good guys vs. bad guys and Americans killing Germans without any context. And I was never going to make that picture.”

Predictably, Israelis aren't overjoyed with the movie. Even the reviewer in the ultra-liberal Ha'aretz says the film “leaves him uneasy. As part of a media blitz designed to win over the Israeli public, Spielberg screened the movie for two widows of the slain athletes and got a mixed response.
While [Ilana] Romano said Munich contained ”historical surprises“ -- on which she declined to elaborate, citing reluctance to spoil the film for viewers -- the widow credited Spielberg with fairly exploring Israel's reasons for mounting the reprisal missions. ”At the time, I had no dilemma (about the policy),“ she said. ”There was simply no other way. The film strengthened this view, for me.“

Spitzer, whose fencer husband Andrei was killed in a botched German attempt to rescue Israeli athletes taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen, could not be reached for comment.

For 30 years Spitzer has challenged complacency and equivocation about the massacre, and my guess is that she is choosing to lay low rather than blast the film.

Uh oh:
A new book by Time magazine Israel correspondent Aaron Klein will challenge Steven Spielberg's ”Munich“ and the book it is at least in part based on, Vengeance. From Daily Variety:

Filmmakers ”can say whatever they like, but it doesn't change the fact that both the PLO and the Mossad think Vengeance'is bull----,“ said Striking Back editor Will Murphy. In what it is dubbing a ”reverse tie-in,“ Random House will release its book next week, several days before the movie opens, and make the controversy a cornerstone of its campaign.”
But do Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner care? Between Kushner's didacticism and Spielberg's portentous romanticism, facts don't stand a chance.
In a situation rare in modern filmmaking, the screenwriter was on the set 90% of the time. “When something was more action driven, Steven would take the lead,” says Kennedy, “and when something was more dialogue driven, Tony would take the lead.” Says Spielberg: “It was as close as I've ever come to directing a play.”
The two did argue about politics, affectionately, but Spielberg relied on Kushner - co-author of a book harshly critical of Israel - as the subject matter expert. Kushner says, “Did it happen in exactly the way we describe? No. That's where our licenses as artists kick in. We're not claiming to make 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. . . . “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.”
Ah, the Oliver Stone method: If the material that supports your point of view isn't there, invent it. As long as you discreetly post a disclaimer, you're covered. Of course your verisimilitude and depiction of real people, interspersed with news footage, will have a greater impact on your audience's understanding of events than the short disclaimer that quickly scrolls past in the credits.

Spielberg's account of the filming process does leave him open to charges of a cloistered and naive idealism:

They spent three weeks re-creating the Munich massacre in Malta and Hungary, with Arab actors from Syria, Iran, Libya, Egypt and France playing the terrorists and Israeli actors playing the Israeli athletes. None of the actors had read the entire script, only their small portion.

“It was just very, very difficult for me to play war with them,” says Spielberg. “With real people from the real regions, and then to be staging these scenes of brutality as well as compassion. And it was — it was brutal and cathartic at the same — all in the same breath, to stage a scene where Jews have been killed and then I say, 'Cut.' The Palestinian with the Kalashnikov throws his weapon down and runs over to the Israeli actor who is on the ground and picks the actor up and falls into the Israeli's arms and is sobbing. And then the Israeli actors and the Arab actors all running into this kind of circle and everybody is crying and holding each other.”

“It wasn't like we all held hands and sang, 'Let's give peace a chance,' ” says Kushner, who was on the set every day. “People were very careful, and really sympathized with one another. Everybody arrived sort of saying, 'I know this is hard for you coming from where you're coming from.' ” Kushner has seen this before, working with Israeli and Palestinian actors both in Israel and the territories. “There's a real — sometimes it's clumsy, sometimes it's not — but a real desire to say, 'OK, we're trying to speak to one another across an enormous divide.' ”

To be charitable, Palestinian and Israeli actors are no different than actors anywhere else in the world: they have unrealistic ideas about the redemptive power of feeeelllings, and in this case the director and screenwriter agreed. I believe these actors sincerely turned their movie set into weepy encounter groups as described. And this has about as much relevance to the geopolitical reality of the Middle East as those carefully-orchestrated interfaith “dialogue” groups that liberal Jews like to think provide a model that the rest of the world is going to emulate real soon now. That is, zero.
Spielberg seems to come closest to describing the point of “Munich” as he grapples for the words to describe all the young actors, steeped in the history and suffering of their two tribes, nonetheless trying to communicate with one another. His voice is tremulous, as if the words can't hold the emotion behind them. “It was so positive to see these two sides — actors, professional actors — coming together and being able to discuss what's happening today in their world. Over dinner, between shots. There was always open discussion. No fighting. Just understanding and listening. I wish the world would listen more and be less intransigent. These kids weren't talking on top of each other like trying to win an argument. These kids took time to listen before they spoke.”
Kids. I didn't realize all the actors were under 21. Never mind. Off the movie set, there are despicable deeds and ideologies that require intransigence, and arguments that need to be made, and won.

This sounds about right:

Here is a film director, extremely good at what he does, one of the best at work today, who’s built his reputation and fortune on fluff, glorified B-movies, monster flicks and sci-fi stuff. He’s tried to do more significant movies a couple of times in the past and succeeded pretty well because those were labors of love but they weren’t exactly cutting-edge commentaries on the contemporary. Now, post-9/11, it seems he believes he HAS to do things that relate in a more timely and pertinent manner to today’s world. But he doesn’t have a clue, he lives a very sheltered life in Hollywood. . . .

So he works with writers, what else can he do? and these writers (Koepp, Kushner) are much more militant than he is and they use him and his films and his fame and his skills to push their own agendas. Very unfortunately, these agendas are completely at odds with his filmmaking persona and the confrontation creates movies which are, at best, totally incoherent and no longer even know what they’re trying to say. And I think Spielberg has just realized that, hence the depressed state in which the LA Times writer appears to have found him. Just read the idiotic crap Kushner is spewing and try to square these words with Spielberg’s filmmaking. Impossible…

“. . . you can’t approach this situation with a notion of simple right or wrong”??? Spielberg’s career is ALL about simple right or wrong and not much else. Why did he ever hire this guy?

Judith | 12/23/05 at 05:41 AM | Categories: - Munich Massacre

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Blogs which link to Munich, the movie: "Inspired by Real Events":

» A surprise from the Times from Kesher Talk
This entry is part of a series on the Munich Massacre and “Munich” the movie, to provide factual background to accompany the movie's release. The authoritative documentary on the massacre is One Day in September. Since “Munich” officially opene... [Read More]

Tracked on December 26, 2005 09:21 PM

Comments

Spielberg's movies are wretched,
just take a look at War of the Worlds.
He is without literary sense. Everything is visual.

FJHarris | December 23, 2005 11:15 AM

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