At the end of a week of bloodbaths and hostage sieges, I went looking for something appropriate for our Saturday movie date, and settled on a nine-year-old Spielberg movie about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The death toll in Munich was, in fact, one less than at Charlie Hebdo. I don't know what significance to attach to that statistic, but I have the vague feeling that Europe, for want of any alternative policy, has decided to live with what British government officials used to call, apropos Northern Ireland, an "acceptable level of violence". Certainly, murdered Jews seem far more routine - and thus "acceptable" - on the Continent of 2015 than they were in 1972. There were four more on Friday - still lying in their blood on the floor of a kosher grocery store, as around the world TV and radio commentators preferred to focus on the as yet non-existent victims of a hypothetical anti-Muslim "backlash". That's the other reason Spielberg's film seems timely. It takes a story propelled by righteous anger, and marinates it in moral equivalence - the default mode of our age:
Thirty years ago George Jonas wrote a book called Vengeance, about the targeted assassinations of various dodgy Arab figures that took place in Europe in the wake of the Munich massacre. According to Terry Lawson reviewing this film in The Detroit Free Press, George Jonas "claimed to be the leader of the assassination squad". Er, no. George Jonas claims to be the former husband of Barbara Amiel, which no doubt is a life of highwire thrills in its own way but not to be compared with whacking terrorist masterminds across the Continent.
Instead of killing the alleged plotters of the '72 Olympic atrocity himself, Jonas got to know the fellow who did - an off-the-books Mossad freelance called "Avner". Jonas's book was a bestseller, got sold to Hollywood, and then stalled in development as the years rolled by until eventually it fell into the hands of Steven Spielberg. The blockbuster hit-maker hired as his screenwriter Tony Kushner (Tony-winning playwright of the gay fantasia Angels in America) and then changed the name from Vengeance to Munich â€” a word that, to Britons at least, evokes not terrorism but appeasement. As things turn out, that's not all too appropriate.
Munich opens at the Games themselves, and Spielberg, in an impressionistic montage of old TV clips mixed in with shots of anxious relatives, rapt viewers and camera crews on stake-out, captures very well the fuzziness of a high-profile siege â€” the kind you follow on TV round the clock without ever knowing what's really going on: glimpses of Black September terrorists, figures piling out of and into airport buses, etc. And then it's all over, and 11 Israeli athletes are dead and just three Black September terrorists are in custody. And back home Golda Meir decides to do something about it. Which is where Avner comes in.
So, for the sake of his country, he kisses his pregnant wife goodbye and heads to Europe to kill the big-league guys behind Munich. As in Ocean's Eleven, The Dirty Dozen and all the rest, he has the usual assorted team members â€” young, old, wisecracking, uptight, etc. Beyond the fact that they never swim into focus as individuals, they seem to me to convey absolutely no sense of being Israeli â€” aside from the accents and a curious choice of running joke about receipts and expenses. It's not because the Israeli agents are variously American (Eric Bana as Avner [CORRECTION: SEE BELOW]), British (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as Steve, the driver) and Australian (Geoffrey Rush as Ephraim, Avner's case agent) as that their Zionism has been all but surgically removed in the screenplay by Kushner (a famously non-Zionist Jew) to the point where Israel might as well be some place they're passing through: I happen to have been born in Canada but nobody "happens to be" Israeli.
That leads to the problem many commentators, although not the full-time film critics, had with the adaptation: George Jonas's book was about avenging evil; Spielberg's movie says in this line of work there's no good and evil, and terrorism and counter-terrorism are merely opposing balls in an endless Newton's cradle of moral equivalence. As an example of what that means in practice, there's a scene drawn from a short almost parenthetical paragraph in Jonas's book about the Israeli team arriving in Athens "to find the safe house in which they spent that first night filled with Arab terrorists". In the print version, it's a booking screw-up which the Israelis turn to their advantage by passing themselves off as Red Army Faction: the PLO guys yak away assuming that their German comrades know no Arabic, and what Avner overhears is not just operationally useful but also "helped reinforce his conviction that his team was doing the right thing". In the Spielbergâ€“Kushner version, it's an opportunity for a terrorist bonding moment, as Avner and an equally fetching young Palestinian lad enjoy their variation on the old "Silent-Night"-on-the-Western-Front routine. Inside, the two groups are squabbling and retuning the radio back and forth from Arabic to, ah, less Arabic music until they find common ground and bridge the sectarian divide by settling on... "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green.
"Humanizing" the Arabs is fine, but the film works hard at dehumanizing the Jews, not just because of the thin characterizations but also through the demands of the narrative arc: the Israelis are cold loners living in the shadows coolly observing Arabs taking their little girls to music lessons in Paris or chatting affably to the local storekeeper in Rome; then the Jews move in and clinically blow them to pieces. The Arabs have fully formed lives, the Israelis don't.
Yet, if you've seen any of Spielberg's other films on big subjects, you'll know what his worst sin is. In War of the Worlds, he turned a Martian invasion into an exercise in parental bonding between Tom Cruise and his alienated son and whiney daughter. As I wrote at the time, "Spielberg seems to be reversing the priorities of Casablanca: this crazy world don't amount to a hill of beans next to the problems of three little people." The reductio ad absurdum of this approach, you'll recall, is that Tom Hanks pep talk to his men about how, in years to come when they look back on the war, they'll see that "maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess". Good to know defeating the Third Reich wasn't a complete waste of time then. Spielberg's limitation as a film-maker is his inability to overcome this ludicrous boomer narcissism. He's utterly incapable of understanding that there are tides in the affairs of men when your levels of self-esteem are less important than just getting on with it. He's lost the big picture â€” there's just you and your feelings and even in the midst of a critical national mission you can sit around obsessing about your self-doubt as if it's some gabby chick flick.
"When we learn to act like them, we will defeat them," declares Daniel Craig. And so, in Spielberg and Kushner's hands, a textbook lesson in effective counter-terrorism from which all western intelligence agencies have benefited over the ensuing four decades becomes instead a sign of moral degeneration that set the Jews on the path to their present incarnation as the new Nazis. In that respect, the film mirrors the decadent public discourse of this last week - it's preoccupied not with the terrorism, only with questioning our reaction to it.
All Spielberg's movies are about movies, because the real world has no real meaning for him: thus, Saving Private Ryan is less a war movie than a movie about war movies. In strictly filmic terms, there are memorable moments here, like the strange and unsettling scene with a Dutch hit-woman on a canal boat. And, for all the tedious clichĂ©s about the cycle of violence, in the end Spielberg's Jews are better than Spielberg's Arabs â€” because the former feel bad about what they're doing, and feeling bad â€” especially about your country â€” is the noblest of Hollywood virtues.
And so crack Israeli agents gradually morph into the apotheosis of effete western narcissistic moral passivity. Fine for movies, but you wouldn't want to send them on a real job.
*CORRECTION: Eric Bana, as a bazillion readers have pointed out, is Australian. If you're wondering where in Oz, Jane Kelly writes to say that "he grew up around the corner from me in Melbourne".