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Now is not a good moment for Israelis to be looking too deeply into their souls.
It's the screenplay, not the politics, that deserves the scorn, writes David Bernstein.
STEVEN Spielberg's controversial, angst-ridden Israeli/Palestinian morality play, Munich has figured prominently in this year's Oscar nominations — much to the consternation of many Jewish and pro-Israeli filmgoers, who see the Jewish director's latest effort as a betrayal, a factually distorted exercise in "moral equivalence" that seeks to put Israel's struggle for survival on equal footing with the repugnant efforts of those who seek to destroy it.
This is a grotesque and unfair over-reaction.
Yes, the movie is, in my view, fundamentally flawed — and it has been widely panned by critics for its shortcomings as an action movie and as a realistic, credible re-enactment of actual events.
For me, however, the most egregious flaw lies not in the liberties Spielberg takes with historical accuracy (it's not a documentary) or any perceived "moral equivalence", but in the conception of the leading character, Avner (played by Australia's Eric Bana). The notion of a conscience-racked Mossad assassin leading a hit-team to avenge the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics, borders on ludicrous.
Not all Mossad operatives would be cast in the mould of the crudely caricatured, cold-blooded South African-born psychopath in Avner's team, who is driven by the simple credo: "No one f---s with the Jews". But surely they would all be carefully selected, emotionally robust individuals who would do what they had to do, efficiently and ruthlessly, and not lose too much sleep over it. An attitude best captured, perhaps, by the Israeli pilot who, when asked a few years ago what he felt about bombing a building in Gaza in which several innocents as well as the targeted terrorist were killed, replied: "I felt a slight jolt as the bomb left the plane."
The Bana character, Avner, is a sympathetic, recognisable Israeli of the type one might encounter at a Peace Now demonstration, or even as an officer in an elite army unit. But it strains credibility that he, or anyone even remotely like him, would be the leader of a hit team charged with eliminating some of Israel's deadliest enemies in cities around Europe.
To give him his due, Spielberg makes it plain, from the outset, that the film is not about the Munich massacre or even the events that followed, merely inspired by them.
What he appears to be doing is using the story of the Israeli revenge operation against the terrorists implicated in the atrocity as a vehicle to play out his own deep post-September 11 misgivings about the war on terror and the toll this takes on the moral fabric of terrorists and their victims.
This is not, in my view, "moral equivalence", as many of his Jewish detractors are now claiming — those making the claim of "moral equivalence" tend to be "moral absolutists" who can see the world only in terms of "right" (us) and "wrong" (them) — but an acknowledgement of the moral complexity that bedevils Israel's relations with the Palestinians.
Spielberg is by no means the first Jewish artist to acknowledge and be exercised by this. It is a staple of Israeli writers such as Amos Oz and David Grossman. But where Spielberg comes a cropper is in attempting to play out his own personal angst about the war on terror, and perhaps even about where Israel is headed morally, through a grossly inappropriate vehicle.
He has "implanted" the soul of a conscience-ridden American diaspora Jew in the body of an Israeli Mossad assassin — and the result is a nonsense. Think Woody Allen playing Spartacus.
Which is a pity. For Spielberg's heart is clearly in the right place and he is attempting to say something profoundly important to him. Munich is not E.T. or Jaws. It belongs squarely with Schindler's List, Spielberg's most deeply personal project, and could even be seen, in a sense, as a troubled sequel. Schindler's List ends with a hope-filled technicolour scene in Israel, in stark contrast to the monotone horror and despair of Holocaust Europe. Is, Spielberg appears to be asking himself, the technicolour now beginning to fade to monotone?
This is a bleak question for Jewish and Israeli audiences — especially in the wake of the Iranian President's recent blood-curdling threat to Israel's existence, coupled with his alarming nuclear ambitions. And there's the triumph in last month's Palestinian election of terrorist group Hamas, which makes no secret of its ambitions to "eliminate the Zionist entity".
Now is not a good moment for Israelis to be looking too deeply into their souls. Spielberg, from the safe distance of California, may feel he can indulge himself; most Israelis, sensing they are under an existential threat greater than at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, probably can't.
One wonders whether, had he been making Munich today, Spielberg would have handled it differently — or perhaps not proceeded with the film at all.
David Bernstein is a staff writer.