Monday, February 06, 2006

And now, for something completely different

You may think that a sports blog might spend the Monday after the Super Bowl discussing that event, even if Atlanta, for the 39th time in the past 40 editions of the Biggest Football Game Ever Played!!!, did not have a dog in the fight (although Georgia fans will point out that there was a Dawg prominently involved.) You might also think that someone who lived in Pittsburgh from ages seven to nine, his prime formative football era, and who draped an old Terrible Towel on his entertainment center for the game might want to discuss it in detail. But, I'm just not feeling it today, partly because the game was non-descript and partly out of guilt that I am a sports bigamist, rooting for the Steelers and the Falcons. The magic of blogging is that I get to write about whatever grabs my fancy and today, my fancy has been claimed not by the Super Bowl, but instead, by Munich, or more precisely, the criticism of the movie.

The wife and I trekked up to Shallowford on Friday night to complete the Herculean task of seeing the last of the five Best Picture candidates. I expected to be angry about the movie, based on the criticism that it paints too negative a view of the Israelis who are exacting revenge on the perpetrators of the Munich slaughter or too positive a view of the slaughterers. I came in with the opinion that Operation Wrath of G-d was an entirely appropriate response to the slaughter and I still hold that belief. That said, the criticism of Munich is of a movie other than the one I saw on Friday night. Either someone at the Regal 24 screwed up and showed a "Director's Cut" done by Shimon Peres or the critics are full of it. (Spoilers to follow.)

Here's Charles Krauthammer's criticism of the movie. Krauthammer falls within the realm of conservatives whom I can respect and will listen to, partly because he's generally conservative on foreign policy/military issues, where I can see myself falling towards the right (or at least the center) and partly because he supports Israel. That said, he's off the reservation on Munich:

If Steven Spielberg had made a fictional movie about the psychological disintegration of a revenge assassin, that would have been fine. Instead, he decided to call this fiction "Munich" and root it in a historical event: the 1972 massacre by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games. Once you've done that -- evoked the killing of innocents who, but for Palestinian murderers, would today be not much older than Spielberg himself -- you have an obligation to get the story right and not to use the victims as props for any political agenda, let alone for the political agenda of those who killed them. The only true part of the story is the few minutes spent on the massacre. The rest is invention, as Spielberg delicately puts it in the opening credits, "inspired by real events."

True, but the subject of Operation Wrath of G-d is so shrouded in mystery that some license with the facts is necessary, and Krauthammer's criticism isn't with the "facts" set forth in the movie, but rather in the characterization.

By real events? Rubbish. Inspired by Tony Kushner's belief (he co-wrote the screenplay) that the founding of Israel was a "historical, moral, political calamity" for the Jewish people.

This is Krauthammer attacking the author of the script, not the actual content. And, he ignores the fact that the script was mostly written by Eric Roth and was based on a piece of history by George Jonas called "Vengeance," so attacking Kushner is something of a red herring, not unlike liberals blaming anything and everything on Karl Rove.

It is an axiom of filmmaking that you can only care about a character you know. In "Munich," the Israeli athletes are not only theatrical but historical extras, stick figures. Spielberg dutifully gives us their names -- Spielberg's List -- and nothing more: no history, no context, no relationships, nothing. They are there to die. The Palestinians who plan the massacre and are hunted down by Israel are given -- with the concision of the gifted cinematic craftsman -- texture, humanity, depth, history. The first Palestinian we meet is the erudite translator of poetry giving a public reading, then acting kindly toward an Italian shopkeeper -- before he is shot in cold blood by Jews. Then there is the elderly PLO member who dotes on his 7-year-old daughter before being blown to bits. Not one of these plotters is ever shown plotting Munich, or any other atrocity for that matter. They are shown in the full flower of their humanity, savagely extinguished by Jews.

This argument makes me wonder whether Krauthammer actually saw the film, or at least whether he didn't go to the theater assuming that liberal Hollywood is incapable of presenting the Munich massacre "fairly" and was going to pan it no matter what. Yes, we don't get a lot of background on the Israeli athletes who were murdered at Munich, but the movie opens with them being roused from their sleep by a bunch of raving lunatics with AK-47s and it ends with them being shot in a defenseless posture on helicopters. Their murder is accompanied early in the film by shots of Israeli families crying, Palestinians celebrating, and the victims' images being shown on a TV screen while "Hatikvah" (a really moving national anthem for a situation like this, but I'm biased) is played. How in the world is Spielberg not going to make us feel emotional about their murder?

And as to the point that the Palestinians are given "texture, humanity, depth, history," that's hardly true. The first victim is shown buying groceries, as if that is supposed to make me feel close to him. The second is shown with his daughter, but that image cuts both ways, as the Israeli team tries mightily to off the father without harming the daughter, a plain contrast to the terrorists who consciously tried to kill civilians. The remaining Palestinian targets are not shown doing anything that would make us like or respect them. Yes, the planning stages are not shown, but Spielberg (and the devious mastermind Kushner) have only a limited amount of time to tell their story (they use three hours, as is) and had to make choices. The fact that they chose to focus on the revenge, rather than the initial bad act, is a perfectly respectable choice.

But the most shocking Israeli brutality involves the Dutch prostitute -- apolitical, beautiful, pathetic -- shot to death, naked, of course, by the now half-crazed Israelis settling private business. The Israeli way, I suppose.

Yes, Charles, a Dutch prostitute who murdered one of Avner's (the Israeli protagonist) team members by blowing out the back of his head is "pathetic" and the Israelis are "half-crazed" for killing her after she killed one of their own. You've nailed it. And that scene where Avner wept over his dead friend, thus making the audience understand perfectly his reason for vengeance? Good job ignoring that little piece of evidence.

Even more egregious than the manipulation by character is the propaganda by dialogue. The Palestinian case is made forthrightly: The Jews stole our land and we're going to kill any Israeli we can to get it back. Those who are supposedly making the Israeli case say . . . the same thing. The hero's mother, the pitiless committed Zionist, says: We needed the refuge. We seized it. Whatever it takes to secure it. Then she ticks off members of their family lost in the Holocaust.

Spielberg makes the Holocaust the engine of Zionism and its justification. Which, of course, is the Palestinian narrative. Indeed, it is the classic narrative for anti-Zionists, most recently the president of Iran, who says that Israel should be wiped off the map. And why not? If Israel is nothing more than Europe's guilt trip for the Holocaust, then why should Muslims have to suffer a Jewish state in their midst?

It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian. Jewish history did not begin with Kristallnacht. The first Zionist Congress occurred in 1897. The Jews fought for and received recognition for the right to establish a "Jewish national home in Palestine" from Britain in 1917 and from the League of Nations in 1922, two decades before the Holocaust.

But the Jewish claim is far more ancient. If the Jews were just seeking a nice refuge, why did they choose the malarial swamps and barren sand dunes of 19th-century Palestine? Because Israel was their ancestral home, site of the first two Jewish commonwealths for a thousand years -- long before Arabs, long before Islam, long before the Holocaust. The Roman destructions of 70 A.D and 135 A.D. extinguished Jewish independence but never the Jewish claim and vow to return home. The Jews' miraculous return 2,000 years later was tragic because others had settled in the land and had a legitimate competing claim. Which is why Jews have for three generations offered to partition the house. The Arab response in every generation has been rejection, war and terrorism.

This claim is simply ludicrous up until the final three sentences. Yes, Spielberg views Israel through the prism of the Holocaust, as do many Jews. The fact that he chose to justify Israel's existence through characters making reference to the Shoah is completely reasonable. It's true that Jews had been advocating that they regain their homeland for thousands of years before the Holocaust, but Spielberg (and the Israeli characters) are exactly right that the Holocaust was the spur that got the major powers off their ass to give the Jews a chunk of our Promised Land. The fact that claims had been made unsuccessfully for centuries prior to 1945 only bolsters the connection between Israel's founding and the Holocaust. And if Kushner is trying to delegitimize Israel, why on earth would he include numerous references in the script to the Holocaust, a subject that universally creates sympathy for Jews (except, I suppose, in Iran, where it is both a subject of glee and something that never existed.)

Krauthammer then makes a truly bad argument, claiming that because Iran's President correctly judges that Israel's right to exist (or at least the legitimacy of its founding) is bound up to a significant degree in the unprecedented slaughter of Jews in Europe and therefore feels the need to deny the Holocaust, that it's improper to work off the assumption that he's trying so hard to negate. If anything, Mr. Ahmadinejad's efforts to deny the Holocaust demonstrate its importance to Israel's justification. Krauthammer acts as if the Jews' long-standing claims to the land should be the justification, instead of the Holocaust, but our claim to the land is no different than that of the Palestinians. They had it, then we had it, then they had it, etc. That doesn't get anyone anywhere. We need it because numerous maniacs have tried to kick us out of countries or wipe us off the earth altogether? That's a justification that the Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world) can't match, which is why Ahmadinejad has to try to change history to justify his call to wipe Israel off the map.

And Munich. Munich, the massacre, had only modest success in launching the Palestinian cause with the blood of 11 Jews. "Munich," the movie, has now made that success complete 33 years later. No longer is it crude, grainy TV propaganda. "Munich" now enjoys high cinematic production values and the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg, no less, carrying the original terrorists' intended message to every theater in the world.

Are you f***ing kidding me? This movie is more successful for highlighting the Palestinian cause than the act of bringing the Olympics to a halt by murdering 11 Jews? I'd expect that sort of overwrought rhetoric from NewsMax, not a respected opinionista. Do the Palestinians really want the re-telling of the murder of a number of bound athletes in a helicopter to highlight their plight? Wouldn't Kushner rather have made some sort of fictionalized account of the "massacre" at Jenin if that was his goal? After all, if he isn't bound by facts, that would be a good place to start.

This is hardly surprising, considering that "Munich's" case for the moral bankruptcy of the Israeli cause -- not just the campaign to assassinate Munich's planners but the entire enterprise of Israel itself -- is so thorough that the movie concludes with the lead Mossad assassin, seared by his experience, abandoning Israel forever. Where does the hero resettle? In the only true home for the Jew of conscience, sensitivity and authenticity: Brooklyn.

I understand that different people can take different messages from movies. My Mom thought that Schindler's List highlighted that there are good people in even the most horrible environs and events; my high school debate coach took from it an indictment of capitalism. That said, there's no way that anyone without a blinding agenda could watch Munich and think that it de-legitimizes Israel's right to exist. Character after character make the point that Israel has to defend itself and cannot let the massacre of its athletes go unpunished. It's true that Avner and most of his team members end up disillusioned by the process, but newsflash to Charles and the chickenhawks whom he often defends: war is a disillusioning process, even if the cause is just. Soldiers (especially those in the infantry who saw the killing up close) often come home feeling manipulated after having fought with their own hands. That's a natural reaction to an inherently unnatural situation. The best American war movies have made this point clear, but all Charles has to do for illustration is go to any support group for Vietnam vets. No one thinks that the U.S. is illegitimate because so many of our citizens go to war and find the process disillusioning. This is especially true for Avner, who did not fight men in Palestinian uniforms, but rather was forced to kill men who looked like civilians and his only basis for doing so was trusting his orders. Much as I love James Bond movies, Avner's reaction seems a lot more consistent with how I think someone in his position would react to doing his job than my beloved Mr. Bond would.

And thanks for mentioning that the movie ends in Brooklyn. Charles, I'm puzzled as to why don't you also mention that the final shot is one of the World Trade Center? If Kushner wanted to turn Americans against Israel, why make reference to an attack that Americans universally regard as an evil slaughter of the innocents and thereby connect it to Munich?

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