BY BRET STEPHENS
Sunday, January 1, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
Steven Spielberg wants you to know one thing about "Munich," his just-released, semihistorical, instantly controversial account of Israel's efforts to avenge the massacre of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics: "I worked very hard," he says, "so this film was not in any way, shape or form going to be an attack on Israel." So why is his movie raising such hackles among Israelis and those generally known as the "pro-Israel" crowd?
Maybe it has something to do with his choice of a screenwriter, Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright brought in by Mr. Spielberg to rework the original screenplay by Eric Roth. Mr. Kushner (who, like Mr. Spielberg, is Jewish) believes that the creation of the state of Israel was "a historical, moral, political calamity" for the Jewish people. He believes the policy of the government of Israel has been "a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people." He believes that responsibility for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians lies primarily with the Israelis, "inasmuch as they are far more mighty." He believes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is an "unindicted war criminal."
Maybe it has something to do with Mr. Spielberg's curious use of "Jewish" tropes. Again and again in "Munich," the Israelis are seen counting the cost of each kill, down to the last dollar: $352,000 for an assassination in Rome; $200,000 for a bombing in Paris. "Killing Palestinians isn't exactly cheap," remarks one of the members of the Israeli team. A Frenchman in the business of retailing the whereabouts of wanted men praises Israeli squad leader Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) because he pays "better than anyone." A Mossad officer warns Kauffman not to overspend his budget. "I want receipts," he says.
Maybe it has something to do with the historical liberties Mr. Spielberg takes in telling the story. "Vengeance," the George Jonas book upon which the film is largely based, is widely considered to be a fabrication. The book is based on a source named Yuval Aviv, who claimed to be the model for Avner but was, according to Israeli sources, never in the Mossad and had no experience in intelligence beyond working as a screener for El Al, the Israeli airline.
Maybe it has something to do with Mr. Spielberg's depiction of the Palestinian targets. The Israeli team's first quarry is an elderly, evidently kindly man whom the audience first encounters reading from his Italian translation of Scheherazade. Target Two is a well-spoken diplomat and doting father. Target Three offers Avner a cigarette from across a balcony; Avner repays the gesture by having him blown to bits in his bed. Another target gives a moving speech about his longing for his homeland and the agony of 24 years of dispossession. There is nothing wrong with depicting Palestinians--even those involved in terrorism--as fully rounded human beings. Yet not one of these characters is seen performing the deeds for which they have been targeted, unlike the Israelis in the film, who perform dirty deeds by the dozen.
Maybe it has something to do with the straw-man arguments the Israelis offer for exacting their revenge. "The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood," says Steve (Daniel Craig), the most macho of the Israeli hit men. Steve is a South African Jew, blonde and blue-eyed, and somehow it's no surprise that this Jewish Aryan is made to utter this most racist of views. Avner's mother offers her son an ends-justify-the-means rationalization for his killings: "Whatever it takes," she says, "we have a place on Earth at last." And then there is Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) who justifies the assassination policy by saying, "forget peace for now, we have to be strong." Never mind that in 1972 neither the Arab states nor the PLO was prepared to live in peace with Israel on any terms. Never mind, too, that peace and strength are not incompatible options.
Maybe it has something to do with the false dichotomy the film establishes between Jewish ideals and Israeli actions. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values," pronounces the fictional Mrs. Meir. Yet the Torah and Talmud are replete with descriptions of the justified smiting of one enemy or another. (Hanukkah, for instance, commemorates the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid empire.) It is Christianity, not Judaism, that counsels turning the other cheek.
Maybe it has something to do with what in Hollywood is known as the hero's "character arc." Avner is introduced in the film as the quintessential sabra, the son of Zionist pioneers personally selected for the mission by the prime minister herself. But as his doubts about his mission grow, so does his disillusionment with Israel. On a return visit to Israel, he can barely bring himself to shake the hands of two soldiers who congratulate him for his rumored exploits. By film's end, he has moved his family to Brooklyn and convinced himself that the Mossad is targeting him for assassination.
Maybe it has something to do with the film's final scene. Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), Avner's snarling Mossad handler, has come to New York to ask Avner to "come home." Avner refuses; Israel, apparently, is no longer a suitable place for a morally sensitized man. Next, Avner invites Ephraim to join him at home for supper. "Break bread with me," he says. "Isn't that what Jews do?" Now it's Ephraim who says no, as if to suggest that such old-fashioned courtesies are no longer of interest to today's hard-of-heart Israelis.
Maybe it has something to do with Mr. Spielberg's decision to depict the actual slaughter of the Israeli athletes (bizarrely interwoven with an especially vulgar sex scene) at the end of the film rather than at the beginning. The effect is to jumble cause and consequence; to make the massacre seem like a response to Israeli atrocities; to turn Munich into just another stage in the proverbial cycle of violence, or what Mr. Spielberg calls a "response to a response." Mr. Spielberg has said he made this film as a "tribute" to the fallen athletes. What he has mainly accomplished is to trivialize their murder.
"If you start with an ax to grind," Mr. Kushner recently told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, "then you write a bad play or movie." To watch "Munich" is to recognize the truth of that statement.