Why Spielberg's `Munich' Needs a Peace Envoy: Margaret Carlson
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Steven Spielberg's long-awaited movie, ``Munich,'' about the brutal slaying of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, opens next week. It is so grisly and contentious that rather than engage a Hollywood publicist or do the couch bit with Jay Leno, Spielberg has hired his very own Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross.
Ross, who held that job in both the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations, isn't showing the movie for the three-cheek air kissers at private screening rooms with a fancy dinner afterwards. He's presenting it in dreary theaters to audiences invited by think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
At the council's screening three days ago, Ross introduced the film with the disclaimer that it wouldn't provide answers, easy or otherwise. Instead, he said, it would provoke questions, get us thinking anew about violence in the Middle East, and arguing.
I went in feeling certain that Spielberg, who has donated millions of dollars to Jewish causes and charities, would make a pro-Israeli movie, if not a polemic. What are movies for if not to have the good guys triumph over the bad ones? And the bad ones who invaded the dorms housing innocent athletes, at the very Games whose purpose is to bring us together, couldn't be more blood-thirsty monsters.
In this film about the first televised terrorist act (negotiators are surprised to learn they're being watched by the terrorists on a small TV set), Spielberg's camera shows the massacre again and again. You think you know where he stands.
But by the end of the movie, you aren't sure, which is why Ross may be practicing shuttle diplomacy for weeks to come.
Spielberg treats the Palestinians as people, and that's enough to turn off a large segment of the folks who would otherwise see the movie in this country and maybe most of them in Israel, a big Hollywood market, where it won't open until Jan. 26.
Already the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles has called the movie pretentious and superficial for comparing Mossad secret service agents with terrorists.
That's too bad, because we have a lot to learn from a director who has spent his life producing movies designed to make us see humanity where we might have overlooked it: in aliens, in robots, in just about everybody but Nazis and sharks.
Why not see it in a suspected terrorist who works at his desk as his daughter in her plaid school uniform practices piano in the parlor? That doesn't forgive him for what he's done, but it does make us gasp at the thought that he and his daughter will be blown up as she answers the phone.
When Avner Kauffman, leader of the Israeli team, sneaks up on a mastermind of Black September partying in a villa, he has to shoot a guard, no more than a boy doing what he's been told. He should be swimming in that pool, not bleeding to death in it.
In another scene, Kauffman listens to his Arab counterpart explain why he does what he does. It is eerily similar to why Kauffman does what he does. In allowing that speech, Spielberg doesn't want his hero to die for his sins, rather than the Arab for his. He just wants us, however briefly, to see the world through the enemy's eyes.
Whether the movie is a hit may depend on how well Ross sells its message, but it also works as sheer entertainment. It's part buddy movie, part road movie, part Dirty Harry, with geopolitical scope.
Eric Bana, who plays Kauffman, is a hunk -- Tom Cruise with eyes burning with devotion to Israel instead of Scientology. He gives up his middle-class existence and his excessively beautiful, pregnant wife to answer the call of Golda Meir to join four men he doesn't know in a campaign to kill, up close and personal, the perpetrators of Black September.
A few running jokes relieve the darkness. Since, as paid assassins, they don't exist, the Israelis have neither checking accounts nor dental insurance. But they still must keep receipts for all their expenses, paid for with cash from a Swiss safe deposit box, as if they were traveling salesmen.
They're the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Not one of them is trained for the job, including a toymaker turned bomber so incompetent he blows himself up. Despite being a mean, lean killing machine, our hero Kauffman longs for a gourmet kitchen in which to prepare cuisine his current roommates couldn't appreciate. Toward the end, when Kauffman meets with his informant, he does so gazing into the window of an upscale cookware store.
Good or Bad?
The complexity of motives and morality that make the movie so controversial is what makes it engrossing. If Kauffman's pangs of conscience didn't grow along with the body count, if he didn't wonder what it was all about, the movie would have sagged as killing caper followed killing caper.
As Kauffman comes to doubt his superiors, doubt that by exacting vengeance he's making the world any safer, doubt himself, the movie becomes more than an action-packed thriller. The mercenary who doles out intelligence based on who can pay warns Kauffman that it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad. At the end, Kauffman can't tell either.
What we do know is that then, as now in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are an unlimited number of killers waiting to take the place of those snuffed out. The new killers are sometimes worse. Does anyone feel safer from terrorism because all those ``Number Twos'' in al-Qaeda are dead?
Can moral ambiguity enlighten and entertain when the feuds are ancient, the blood is boiling and so many have chosen sides? As cable TV and the best-seller lists show, people these days want an echo of their beliefs, not a challenge to them. What Spielberg has to fear is that the hatred that fuels violence in the Middle East attaches to his movie and keeps those who should see it from going.
They will miss a Jewish filmmaker with a Christian message, not of moral equivalence, but one saying that thine enemy has his history and his grievances, too. And a child who plays the piano.
To contact the writer of this column:Last Updated: December 15, 2005 00:07 EST Advertisement: $7 Stock Trades and More Powerful Trading Tools at Scot
Margaret Carlson at email@example.com