I had a lovely time on Friday night in Toronto with Canada's Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, who were kind enough to present me with the first George Jonas Freedom Award. And so I thought it might be appropriate to have a (sort of) George Jonas film. Unfortunately it somewhat departed from George's source material - and due, I understand, to a bit of carelessness on his agent's part George never made much money from it. Nevertheless:
A third of a century 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 in The Detroit Free Press, Jonas "claimed to be the leader of the assassination squad". Er, no. Jonas claimed 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, George Jonas got to know the fellow who did - an off-the-books Mossad freelance called "Avner" - and what followed was a taut, lean account of vengeance:
Compared to the mean, elegant sweep of line that characterizes most modern automatic infantry weapons, the Kalashnikov looks squat and solid.
That could be the opening of an Ian Fleming Bond yarn, maybe A View To A Kill or The Living Daylights.
George'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 inappropriate.
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 mostly Anglo-Australian - Eric Bana as Avner, Geoffrey Rush as Ephraim (Avner's case agent), a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as Steve (the driver) - 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 just some place they're passing through: I happen to be Canadian 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 instead that 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 re-tuning 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 whiny 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 the last fifteen years - 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, especially about your country, 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. Much has changed since the Munich massacre, not least numbers-wise - the Charlie Hebdo death toll was bigger, the Ariana Grande concert attack was twice as big, the Nice truck massacre seven times so. But Munich lingered in the consciousness the way more recent atrocities have not, and it deserved a better film.
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