Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get through my Netflix dvd of Stephen Spielberg’s “Munich”. I put it on knowing full well that I would find the politics reprehensible. I didn’t count on it being even worse as a movie.
For the first hour or so, it was the standard Arabs from Mars fare, not as bad as a Bruce Willis movie but pretty bad all the same. Black September bursts into the Olympics dormitory of the Israeli athletes and takes them hostage, gunning down several in the process. It is cinematically akin to the opening scene of a science fiction movie when a flying saucer fires its death ray at an earthling with a white flag.
Spielberg departs from the standard black-and-white narrative by making the Israeli hit squad fairly creepy themselves. So instead of black-and-white, you get black-and-gray. I guess that’s what happens when you work with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, the gay, self-described socialist and Columbia University graduate who wrote the groundbreaking “Angels in America.”
From the attacks on Munich by the Zionist ultraright, you’d think that the screenplay had used Norman Finkelstein as a consultant, but Kushner described his outlook this way in an interview with the liberal Shalom Center:
But my criticism of Israel has always been accompanied by declarations of unconditional support of Israel’s right to exist, and I believe that the global community has a responsibility to defend that right. I have written and spoken of my love for Israel.
For about an hour or so Israeli Mossad agents set off bombs in the beds and telephones of Palestinian activists. After each attack, as they sit around a table celebrating, somebody always expresses a tinge of doubt. It is of some interest that in “Vengeance,” the book upon which Kushner’s screenplay is based, the agents show absolutely no remorse.
At one point, the Israeli gang ends up in a safe house that a subcontractor spook has lined up for them. This character is a Frenchman named Louis (ugh!) who mouths anarchist verbiage about being opposed to all governments, an excuse he makes for taking money from anybody–including Zionist killers. When Louis and his girl-friend make their initial contact with the main Israeli character Avner (Eric Bana–he should stick to costume dramas), they all smoke pot while Avner dishes out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the names and addresses of Palestinians who are to be terminated. The girl-friend proceeds to give a brief lecture on Marxist dialectics that sounds like a cheap Godard parody.
In the safe house, the Israelis wake up in the middle of the night to discover that a bunch of Palestinian terrorists have been assigned there as well. As a literary device, I prefer a coincidence like Queequeg crawling into Ishmael’s bed in Moby Dick. The two groups draw their guns on each other in a manner that has become a cliché by now. You’ve seen it in Tarentino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and a hundred other films by now. It was first used in John Woo’s films and should have been retired a long time ago, along with cowboys riding off into the sunset and Nazi officers saying “Ve haf a way of making you talk.”
Despite their Israeli accents, the Mossad agents convince the Palestinians that they are German ultraleft terrorists. Out on the safe house balcony, Avner speaks with the leader of the Palestinians who tells him that they are fighting to regain their land. It is the first time in the film that the Other is heard from. Not one minute into his monologue, the Palestinian states that Germans like Avner are supporting terrorism because of the guilt they feel over WWII. At that point, it became clear to me that Kushner was not interested in developing realistic characters but in using sock puppets that could articulate his own conflicted views on the Middle East.
Bad film. Bad politics.
UPDATE: I should mention that my good friend Dennis Perrin has an entirely different take on the film.