THE SPIELBERG MASSACRE
My book was all about avenging evil. Then the King of Hollywood got hold of it.
BY GEORGE JONAS
December 7; 2005.
Janice Luke offers us popcorn. She is a young woman from the marketing department of Universal Studios, setting up a private screening at the Varsity Theatre in Toronto. My wife, Maya, her Seeing Eye dog, Daisy, a colleague of mine and I are about to be shown Munich, the movie: Steven Spielberg’s soon-to-be-released screen version of my book Vengeance. Until now I haven’t seen a frame of the film. I haven’t even read the screenplay. But I think I have some idea of what I am about to see— and not just because I remember the original historic event or because I wrote the book. It’s because I have an inkling of Spielberg’s take on human affairs.
“A win-win situation,” says my colleague encouragingly. “If you like the film, fine. If you don’t, you can cry all the way to the bank.” I wish. But things are rarely that simple.
Late Fall 1981. Vengeance becomes mine be-
cause of a chance encounter. On my way out of Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel, Nick Harris hails me from across the foyer. The dapper publisher of Collins Canada wants to know if I’m free tomorrow to drop by the offices of another publisher, Malcolm Lester of Lester & Orpen Dennys, to meet “a man with an interesting story to tell.” I happen to be free, and I’m curious what kind of story might prompt a large commercial house like Collins to co-publish a book with a small elite house like Lester & Orpen Dennys. And this is how I meet my eventual source for Vengeance who will in due course become known as “Avner” to readers, television viewers, and moviegoers around the world. The 30-ish man in Lester’s office leaves after a short and seemingly pointless conversation. I won’t describe him; suffice it to say that he doesn’t look anything like Eric Bana from Munich. Far from turning heads in the street, he wouldn’t attract a second glance.
The publishers hand me a few pages con-
taining the outline—the bare bones, really— of his story. If I find it interesting, Harris and Lester will pay me for eliciting it in full detail from the source, then verifying it as much as I can. If we all conclude that the tale amounts to a potential book, I will be engaged to write it for a guaranteed advance against a share of the royalties. The bulk of the advance would come from a third member of the publishing consortium: Collins UK.
I glance at the outline. It is about Israel’s prime minister, Golda Meir, authorizing a small group of agents to find and kill 11 people on a list for having masterminded the massacre at Munich. The nondescript man in Lester’s office is supposed to have been the leader of this Israeli hit team.
September 5,1972. Eight Black September terrorists are observed scaling a six-foot wire fence leading to Munich’s Olympic village. The time is around 4 a.m. During the next 21 hours the terrorists will slaughter 11 Israeli athletes: two during their initial assault on the team’s quarters, and nine during a failed German attempt to rescue the hostages ..Five of the terrorists will also lose their lives; three will be captured. Next day the Olympic Games
will continue, with officials taking the view that the show must go on.
Within 41 days of the murder of the Israeli athletes, some Arabs living in Europe, described as terrorist organizers, start meetingviolent deaths. The first to be shot, in the lobby of his apartment building in Rome, is a man named Wael Zwaiter, one of Yasser Arafat’s cousins. The poet Zwaiter is the author—or so Israel’s security service, the Mossad, holds—not only of a modern translation of A Thousand and One Nights but also of an August 1972 attempt to blow up an El Al jet. On Dec. 8,1972, Dr. Mahmoud Hamshari is fatally injured when the phone explodes in his Paris apartment. On Jan. 24, 1973, Abad al-Chir’s bed blows up as he sits on it in his hotel room in Nicosia, Cyprus. Dr. Basil al-Kubaisi is gunned down in a Paris street 2V2 months later, on April 6. In another Paris street on June 28,1973, Mohammed Boudia is blown up by a bomb as he’s about to start his car. These men lose their lives in targeted assassinations, though the phrase isn’t yet in use. No country, government, or organization ever claims responsibility.
Spring and Summer 1982. Debriefing “Avner” and double-checking details of his story takes
the better part of a year, much of it spent in Paris, London, Rome, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rehovot, Nahariya, Zurich, Geneva, Glarus, Frankfurt, Bucharest, and Budapest. In addition to putting meat on the bones of the story of Vengeance, I learn something about the rudiments of “tradecraft,” from surveillance to communication. Nondescript “Avner” turns out to be an enthusiastic teacher. He explains how to select safe houses and to make sure one isn’t being followed.
As company, “Avner” is middling. He’s hygienic to a fault and washes his hands more often than Pontius Pilate. Businesslike but not made of stone, sometimes he turns to look at a passing woman. “Do you fancy her?” I ask occasionally. “She’ll do,” he replies, “under field conditions.”
Why do ex-agents like “Avner” tell their stories? I conclude it is to relive them, mainly. Coming in from the cold, frozen “spooks” need to thaw out. In the beginning they lie low and shiver. Gradually, they get warm and restless. The gulf between their high-wire past and humdrum present is too great. This convinces some that making public their exploits— along with the corruption, inefficiency, treachery, and ruthlessness of their former masters— is a kind of historic duty. Coupled with financial need—ex-spooks rarely have marketable
skills other than security work—the motivation to “confess” becomes overwhelming. Even confessing to murder? The answer is “murder” is a legal term. They don’t view what they did as murder.
Can such tales be believed? I think so, though always keeping in mind many spooks possess the imagination of the Baron Munchausen. They recall being in the thick of every battle and winning it single-handedly. Their information being difficult to check reinforces their inclination to tell tall tales, partly to enhance the financial value of their story, and partly to please their interlocutor by telling him what they figure he wishes to hear.
Checking by conventional means is difficult. One can try going through official channels, but secret services rarely confirm employment. Cover identities—so-called legends— are set up to withstand inquiries. Fact-checking clandestine operations is virtually a contradiction in terms—if a government agency reveals anything about a covert operation, it’s likely to be disinformation. Proof of provenance isn’t proof of veracity. Official confirma-
tion or denial of intelligence matters is just
This leaves the physical edges of a story. For
verification, one can have informers describe the places that figure in their narratives, then
see if they got them right. One can ask if a certain crucial day in their story, nine years ago, was sunny or overcast. Then check the records. The more details check out, the more likely a statement is true. Such evidence would be admissible in court.
On this level “Avner” checks out. He knows how a light switch operates in an obscure apartment building in Rome, the scene of one of the assassinations. He recalls awnings above the stores along a little side street in Paris, where another “target” is being followed. This isn’t the kind of information one reads in newspapers. I make my report to the publishers and we decide to proceed.
Late Spring 1984. The book becomes a minor bestseller, eventually reaching 21 editions in 13 languages. It is viewed as controversial in several ways. Soviet aid to terrorism, as outlined in Vengeance, is still hotly disputed in 1984. So is the question of whether democracies, such as Israel, would ever send—or have ever sent—hit teams to operate abroad. Some critics believe the story, some do not. Maclean’s runs a cover story on the book but then refuses to publish excerpts from it. Writing in the New York Times, Ken Follett says parts of the book are “as convincing as a Breughel” while other
parts seem to him to exude “an air of mendacity.” Gen. Zvi Zamir, former head of the Mossad, dismisses the account as a fairy tale. Former RCMP Security Service director Gen. John Starnes considers the story essentially true. In Britain, Vengeance becomes the only book to make both the fiction and non-fiction bestseller list.
The tale of Israel’s retribution spawns several book-club and mass-market paperback editions, one academic paper, and a madefor-TV movie before it gradually runs out of steam and print. By the mid-’90s it is available in English only in the used-book markets of the Internet. Fourteen years go by.
July 21,1998. The man who phones me in Toronto introduces himself as Barry Mendel. He tells me he’s a Hollywood producer. I’m not surprised when he asks if the film rights for Vengeance are available. Other producers ask that question from time to time, but lose interest when I tell them that not only were the film rights sold long ago, but a film called Sword of Gideon has already been made from the book. Mendel doesn’t lose interest. Who has the remake rights and would they be available to him? I promise to find out.
What follows is a 2V2-year ballet with Amer-
ican enterprise partnering Canadian lassitude. Alliance Atlantis owns the contract containing provisions for the remake of a film—or so everybody thinks but no one can find the records. Feb. 18, 1999—Los Angeles: “Any news?” Toronto: “We’re searching our records.” On March 23,1999, Canada’s super agent-lawyer Michael Levine gets involved. Sept. 23, 1999—Los Angeles: “Any news?” Toronto: “We’re searching our records.” A week later Mendel telephones to say that the interested studio is now Universal. (This must be when the project is being pitched to Spielberg, although Mendel doesn’t yet mention his name.) Feb. 18,2000— Los Angeles: “Any news?” Toronto: “We’re searching our records.” Finally, after 2V2 years, Alliance Atlantis picks up Universal’s offer, putting Mendel in a position to commission a screenplay.
December 2000-February 2004. The phrase used in Hollywood is “development hell.” It means studio bigwigs trying to get screenwriters to write scripts they themselves would write if they knew how. It also means writers— or “stenographers” as the ink-stained wretches are known locally—trying to read the minds of the studio bigwigs. The winning stenogra-
pher guesses correctly, and the losing ones vanish into a black hole.
It will eventually take five writers to satisfy the masters of Universal and Spielberg’s DreamWorks: two credited, three unsung. In hockey terms, Tony Kushner will get the goal and Eric Roth the assist for Munich, but the puck will have been handled by at least three other players: Janet and David Peoples first, and later Charles Randolph.
The producers hear I've been asked to the Golden Globes. Would I please not go?
On “King’s Cross,” as the Vengeance project is code-named by the studio, first to drop into the black hole are Jan and Dave Peoples. They’re no slouches in Hollywood terms: Oscar-nominated Dave Peoples has writing credits on the cult-classic Blade Runner and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Retained to write the first draft, they email me in December 2002, saying that if I find myself in the San Francisco area, they’ll have a finished script to show me. I suggest some dates in January. There’s no reply. In showbiz no reply usually means somebody has been sucked into a black hole. Sure enough, by March there’s an email from Mendel: “Just to quickly fill you in,” it says, “we have brought on a new writer, Eric Roth. He’s written a lot of films, Forrest Gump, The Insider, Ali, many others. He’s been working for about a month, and everyone is very pleased with his work.”
The thing to remember is that in showbiz everyone is “very pleased with” or “very excited by” everybody else’s work, until both exciters and excitees are sucked into the next black hole. The handwriting is on the wall as Mendel continues: “Eric is very deeply impressed by the book, and he and we are sticking very closely to it. The changes being made are more dialogue and such, and the basic story and much of the good work Dave and Jan did remains.” These are the exit lines for Dave and Jan Peoples. It’s the last time anyone mentions their names. As I find out later, Spielberg decides that he’s potentially “in” after he reads the Peoples’ draft script in December 2002, but he still wants new writers. The Peoples have guessed wrong when they retained too much of the spirit of Vengeance.
Spielberg’s entry marks the last time anyone offers to let me read a draft script. It also begins an era of comical hush-hush. Mendel phones to warn that if Spielberg’s potential “in” leaks, he’s immediately “out.” I tell him he might as well kiss the great helmsman goodbye, for a leak is inevitable. To my surprise, it doesn’t come until May 2003.1 email Mendel.
“Barry, I’m told the composer John Williams described on CNN the project as one being developed by the director we talked about. Can you give me an update?”
He replies three days later: “George, thanks for the word about Mr. Williams. The word has been passed along to put a muzzle on it! The bad news is that the rewrite is taking longer than we’d all hoped, and our hopes for shooting this summer are fading. The good news is that the pages (I’ve read 124 of them) are very good. If I had to guess, I would say we are looking at a start date in the first quarter of next year. Enthusiasm is still very high.” Translated from Hollywoodese, “enthusiasm high” means “expectations guarded.” That’s when my correspondence with Mendel gets downgraded to his various assistants. One named Molly is asking questions on behalf of Roth, who (unlike the Peoples) seems too busy to ask them himself.
Nearly a year goes by. On Jan. 20, 2004, there’s a flurry of traffic. Telephone calls and emails warn me to stand by for a voice from the burning bush. Mendel writes,“You may be getting a call from our erstwhile director. He asked for your number. If you do, please do fill me in afterwards.”
Familiar as I am with the vagaries of Malibu
English, “erstwhile” puzzles me. When I ask, Mendel replies that it’s just a figure of speech. “Your email sent me to the dictionary, and I stand corrected,” he explains. Spielberg is still on-board, and I never figure out what Mendel thought “erstwhile” meant. In any event, this is my closest brush with cinematic royalty. Spielberg never calls. The good thing is I’m not holding my breath. A few weeks later my agent, Linda McKnight, informs me that Universal has exercised its option and now owns the movie remake rights to Vengeance. Close to six years have passed since Mendel’s initial phone call.
Spielberg brings to the screen an adolescent's fresh eye-and naïve confusion
February 2004-October 2005There are optimistic rumours of a June shoot, but the movie is nowhere near greenlighted, and Spielberg’s involvement is far from assured. The next call, out of the blue, is a text message on my cellphone: “alian mayer, [phone number], works w. steven spielberg & [producers] kathy kennedy barry mendel—doing background check on your book vengeance— wants to talk to you briefly.” I query Mendel, who says Mayer is “legit.” He’s a crisis consultant, a must in your corner, an aide top Hollywood talent wouldn’t be caught dead without. When I call, a cheerful American voice demands to know if I’ve retained full confidence in my source over the years. “I don’t want you to be defensive,” he tells me.
I can be offensive at times but being defensive isn’t my style. I tell Mayer that my confidence in “Avner” and his information is the same as it was 20 years ago. I add that though he was not without a capacity for invention, I’m satisfied that “Avner” described a string of operations of which he had first-hand knowledge. Whether or not he exaggerated his own role, I couldn’t say.
Mayer subsides. Next I receive word from
none other than my old source, “Avner.” Apparently Spielberg is now in touch with him. Asa result of our conversation, I drop a note to Mendel on March 4, 2004. “Hi Barry,” it reads, “all kinds of rumours are reaching me about new writers, script revisions, timetables, etc. Can you give me a status update?”
On March 10 Mendel replies: “George, sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond. I was on vacation when you emailed me. There has been some movement in the last couple of days. We are now working with Charles Randolph who wrote The Life of David Gale as well as the script for a movie now in production that Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman are starring in and Sydney Pollack is directing called The Interpreter. Charles writes accessible, commercial thrillers that don’t shy away from exploring complex political situations... so he seems like a good fit to keep the project moving forward. SS is still committed.”
So now it’s Roth’s turn in the memory hole. I expect Randolph to follow soon. A young writer of “accessible, commercial thrillers” won’t be a solution to whatever Spielberg’s problems are with Vengeance. In fact, a rumour I hear prompts me to drop Mendel another note: “Barry, the information I received was that the latest writer on the script was going to be the Pulitzer-winning author of Angels in America (a description that fits only Tony Kushner) and that the source (‘Avner’) will be meeting with the writer and SS next week when ‘Avner’ returns from abroad... Can you clear it up for me (or for yourself, in case it’s news to you). I’m curious about the script—naturally—and about the changes you and/or SS feel it still requires. Any chance for a look?”
Mendel falls silent, but now the press starts making noises. I try again: “Hi Barry, now that people can read about the project in Variety, Reuters, CNN, the Guardian, and the Malta Times, do you think it’s safe enough for me to look at the script?”
This finally brings a reply on April 26 from my old friend Molly: “George, we would love more than anything else to be able to show you the script and get your reaction. Unfortunately, even though we’ve put the release out in the papers, Steven is still being incredibly private about the project. He did the press release more out of necessity than anything else (someone at Variety had gotten the story and was going to run with it, so we figured it was best to co-operate). But we have managed to conceal the basis for the film, the main story seems to be Munich Olympics. There has been no mention of hit teams or anything, and this is very important to Steven. He is not letting ANYONE read the script, including actors and key members of the crew. I wish I could help but unfortunately, things are very strict!”
Molly is mistaken; they haven’t concealed the basis for the film. The Internet is fairly buzzing with what the project is about. I ask her to have Mendel call me but he doesn’t. I’m reduced another notch in the communication chain. The next person I hear from is Sarah, presumably Molly’s assistant. She writes in June 2004: “Barry asked me to give you an update on what was happening with Vengeance. He is currently on location with another project of ours, but wanted to make sure you knew the status of things. Despite the reports in the trades, things are not definite re: production, though they are moving in a good direction. As of now, there is no finished script (they’re still working on it). We will keep you posted as things develop.”
The confirmation that production will definitely be put over until 2005, pending a new script to be written by Tony Kushner, comes only in September. It doesn’t come from Mendel. It comes from “Avner” who appears to be very much in the loop—and thoroughly besotted. A spook in the grip of celebrity worship is a sight to behold.
“Avner” writes that with the new script Spielberg is planning “in some aspects to stay parallel with the book. But of course he [takes] the book where only Steven can take it.” Considering Kushner’s stance on Israel, it isn’t hard to imagine where that will be. In addition to his magnum opus, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Spielberg’s new screenwriter is co-author (with Alisa Solomon) of a 2003 book, Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The title forecasts a film that will be a “progressive” Jewish-American response to the Munich massacre. No wonder there’s a reluctance to let me see the script.
As Kushner becomes key stenographer, Vengeance half-joins Jan and Dave Peoples, Eric Roth, and Charles Randolph in Hollywood’s black hole. The book starts as the basis of the film, then it’s “one of many sources,” then it’s the basis again but only because it’s a “contractual obligation,” according to Spielberg’s spokesman, Marvin Levy. There’s no business like show business.
After the production is greenlighted in the spring of 2005, Mendel resumes calling oc-
casionally. He doesn’t offer to show me the script and I don’t ask. We talk once or twice about cast and locations. When principal photography begins on June 29 in Malta, Mendel phones to let me know. When the shoot moves to Budapest a few weeks later, he informs me again. Reflexively—Budapest is my native city— I ask if there’s anything I can do to help. Mendel seems amused. “Help?” he asks. “Maybe you can recommend some restaurants.”
December 1,2005* The phone keeps ringing. Do I expect Munich to be different from Vengeance? I make no comment, but the answer is obvious. My book is incubating an egg that’s not mine. If I’m lucky, it’s a different bird’s. If I’m unlucky, it’s a crocodile’s.
Inevitably, Spielberg’s film will have 21stcentury answers to 20th-century questions— and progress isn’t necessarily for the better. I researched and wrote my book in 1982 and
1983. By the time Spielberg’s film went into production in 2005, the world had become a different place. People had adjusted considerably their sense of right and wrong. In
1984, when Vengeance was first published, no state admitted sending hit teams abroad to perform extrajudicial killings. But while the morality of counterterrorist violence would have been questioned, the immorality of terrorist violence would have been beyond dispute.
In 1972 the hooded terrorists of Black September were the bad guys. Even terrorist chieftains like Yasser Arafat tried to distance themselves from Munich-type massacres. By 2005 matters were far more equivocal. Terrorists and counterterrorists alike were coming out of the closet. No longer abashed, both were flaunting their stuff on TV. Security forces coordinated with CNN News to display live broadcasts of targeted assassinations, while video spots on al-Jazeera portrayed the beheadings of hostages and the apotheoses of suicide bombers. Disputing the moral high ground of counterterrorists, terrorists started claiming justification and legitimacy for their acts themselves. Soon the media were describing hijackers and shoebombers as “militants” and “insurgents,” elevating the blowing up of shoppers and travellers to a legitimate method of political expression. News clips of airliners slamming into the World Trade Center sent people dancing into the street throughout the Arab world. The new millennium was turning into the Terrorist Century.
As if reading my mind, Mendel telephones. The producers have heard that I’ve been invited by a journalist friend to attend as her guest a Dec. 6 screening of the film in Los Angeles for the Golden Globe awards. Would I please consider not going? The studio would be happy to set up a private screening for me in Toronto instead.
I understand. There’s no telling how an author might react to the Hollywood version of his book under the best of circumstances, and here the circumstances may not be the best. The 60 or so voters for the Golden Globes will be at the L.A. screening. The producers
don’t want to take a chance that I might rain on Spielberg’s parade.
My source is besotted— and in the loop. Spielberg, he tells me, is taking the book 'where only Steven can take it.'
I promise Mendel not to go. As it turns out, Spielberg gets the Golden Globe nomination for best director, while Tony Kushner and Eric Roth are nominated for best screenplay. The following day Munich is screened for us in Toronto.
December 7, 2005. The credits have just finished rolling. My wife, Maya, and her guide dog, Daisy, left the screening earlier. My colleague and I are looking at each other.
“Moral posturing,” I say finally, “allows you to have it both ways. In Tinseltown terms, after the gunslinger blows everyone away, he has a proper crisis of conscience.”
“Did ‘Avner’ have a crisis of conscience?” my colleague asks.
I consider the question. Vengeance’s “Avner” had several crises. First, he had a crisis of nerve—understandable, considering his line of work. Battle brings about battle fatigue. The “Avner” I knew also had a crisis of selfimage. He wanted to be seen as the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, and realized how easy it was to go from hero to bum in a second if a dam burst despite his best efforts. Most of all, he had a crisis of expectations. His masters promised him a rose garden—but then they didn’t deliver. He may not have done what he did for money, but he could not get over being cheated of what he understood was his due. My “Avner” may have questioned the utility of his mission toward the end—targeted assassinations barely slowed down terrorism, let alone stopped it—but he never questioned the morality of what his country had asked him to do. He had no pangs of guilt. He just wanted to show his cheating masters—as he saw them—that they couldn’t cheat him with impunity.
Over the next few days I try to formulate the difference between the book and the movie precisely. A mirror image? A coat worn inside out? Spielberg’s Munich follows the letter of my book closely enough. The spirit is almost the opposite. Vengeance holds there is a difference between terrorism and counterterrorism; Munich suggests there isn’t. The book has no trouble telling an act of war from a war crime; the film finds it difficult. Spielberg’s movie worries about the moral trap of resisting terror; my book worries about the moral trap of not resisting it. The story could be called A Tale of Two Avners. “But Mr. Jonas’s Avner, unlike Mr. Spielberg’s, is not paralyzed by moral doubt,” as Edward Rothstein would point out eventually in the New York Times.
The Week of December 12,2005. Here, finally, is something for Palestinian terrorists and Mossad officials to agree on: my book is bunk. Sole surviving Munich massacre mastermind Abu Daoud, No. 2 target on “Avner’s” list, tells Reuters that Vengeance is “full of errors.” He doesn’t specify what they are. Israeli officials talk about many “technical mistakes.” They, too, avoid giving a single example. Both sides feel Spielberg should have relied on their stories rather than mine. It’s a breakthrough, perhaps the first one in the history of the Middle East. It beats Oslo. If Palestinians and Israelis can agree on one thing, perhaps in time they’ll find other things to agree on.
Many who want to discredit Spielberg’s
start by throwing stones at my research in Vengeance. Some stone-throwers live in glass houses. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz floats the canard that my source was revealed to be one “Yuval Aviv” in the late 1980s when I sued him in a contract dispute in New York. The fact is, I’ve never sued anyone in my life, in New York or anyplace else. Later Ha’aretz retracts the story, but not before it spreads to the Los Angeles Times and some other papers. Soon the Detroit Free Press will go one better by writing that I myself am “Avner.” “The film is based in part on a book titled Vengeance by George Jonas, who claimed to be the leader of the assassination squad. (Some of his version has been disputed),” writes a reviewer named Terry Lawson, displaying a particular genius for research.
The Detroit Free Press goes one better by writing that I myself am the Israeli hit man
A couple of friends tell me that former Mossad head Zvi Zamir recently attended a dinner party at the home of a mutual acquaintance in Toronto. When the conversation turned to Munich, the movie, the general remarked that he knew my source. At one time, he said, my source had some lowlevel security job with El Al. He never played a role in any other mission. My friends want to know what I have to say to this.
All I can say is that Gen. Zamir is consistent; he said much the same thing 20 years ago. He is certainly an authoritative source. But impeccable sources don’t necessarily amount to impeccable information. Hearing it from the horse’s mouth means little when the horse may have reason not to tell the truth.
The Week of December 19, 2005. Reviews and press comments on Munich accumulate. Spielberg is quoted as saying that the real enemy in the Middle East is intransigence. He conceives of Munich as a prayer for peace. His screenwriter Tony Kushner says they do not wish to demonize either side.
Such remarks illustrate why, in an era of moral chaos, Hollywood is unlikely to restore clarity. With due respect to pop culture and its undisputed master, one doesn’t reach the moral high ground by being neutral between good and evil. Spielberg is a fabulous entertainer, a magician of a director, a very astute businessman—maybe, just maybe, it’s too much to ask that he should be a significant moral philosopher as well. He brings to the screen an adolescent’s fresh eye: that’s his strength. He also brings an adolescent’s naïve confusion: that’s his weakness. Off-screen, his weakness takes over as he meanders in some peculiar La-La Landesque fantasy: he plans to distribute 250 video cameras to Palestinian and Israeli children, 125 to each group, so they can record their ordinary lives, exchange tapes, and foster dialogue. (Sure, says my wife, and some Palestinian kids will use Spielberg’s cameras to record their statements as suicide bombers.) There’s nothing like a touch of film director’s megalomania mixed with “progressive” delusions.
A few leftist reviewers flavour their remarks with a soupçon of anti-Semitism. They hint that Jews object to Munich because they’re racist, and can’t stand that Spielberg-Kushner view Palestinians as human beings. Writing for Bloomberg, Margaret Carlson says Spielberg treats the Palestinians as people, and that’s enough to turn off a large segment of frequent moviegoers (read Jews). But treating Palestinians as people doesn’t turn off a large segment of the Jewish population, as Carlson implies; what might turn them offis treating terrorists as people. Not demonizing human beings is dandy, but in their effort not to demonize humans, Spielberg and Kushner end up humanizing demons.
(Note to self: Take a deep breath. You only wrote the book. People should see the movie and decide for themselves. Go recommend some restaurants.)
According to Time, the moviemakers talked at length with the real “Avner” during their research. Did he tell Spielberg something different from what he told me? I have no idea. The moviemakers invented certain episodes, such as a meeting and conversation between “Avner” and “Ali,” the fictional leader of a Palestinian group of fedayeen. It’s a didactic, artificial, and faintly ludicrous scene that leaves no cliché unturned—but it’s not illegitimate. Munich isn’t a documentary; Spielberg and Kushner have every right to put their own words in “Avner’s” mouth, even if it makes him sound like a character who wandered onto the wrong set from the daytime soaps: “Tell me something, Ali. Do you really miss your father’s olive trees?” But maybe the helmsman and his stenographer didn’t have to invent much. It’s entirely possible that in the time-honoured tradition of informers and spooks, my source has told the left-leaning moviemakers what they wanted to hear. The information tends to be slanted to fit the expectations of the recipient, whether it is MI6 reporting to Prime Minister Tony Blair, the CIA to Presidem George W. Bush, or “Avner” to the great helmsman Spielberg. If Spielberg, a dove, was looking for a stick with which to beat Israel’s—and America’s—hawks, my one-
time source may have been ready to hand it to him.
The result isn’t so much a celluloid fable of moral equivalence, as a triumphant—indeed, orgasmic—battle hymn of the dove. Its climax has “Avner” fornicating in a grotesque montage, intercut with violent visions of the Olympic hostage drama. The inspiration for it probably comes from the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, whom I quote in Vengeance, celebrating his new-found potency after Israel’s initial setbacks in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Qabbani is sexually aroused by Arab warriors crossing the Suez Canal. Spielberg and Kushner see “Avner” sexually aroused by the massacre at Munich. There’s no accounting for tastes.
Most of the media are in awe. A masterpiece, according to Time. Rolling Stone ups the ante by adding the adjective “mournful” before “masterpiece.” The Hollywood Reporter
calls it “a thought-provoking, highly charged inquiry.” Chicago’s dynamic duo offers two thumbs “way up.” There are dissenting voices— “a lumpy and overlong morality play,” says Variety—but most critics rave.
Inevitably, Variety’s review calls to mind an anecdote about G.B. Shaw. His play is a huge success, the audience is going berserk, the author is taking curtain calls. A gendeman in the balcony boos. Shaw raises his hand for silence. “Sir,” he says to his irate critic, “I agree with you. But what can the two of us do against all these people?”
After the film opens, someone tells me that Spielberg shouldn’t get an Oscar for not solving the problems of the Middle East. I agree. Spielberg should get an Oscar for making Munich, the gritty Hollywood flick. For not solving the problems of the Middle East, he should get a Nobel Peace Prize, like everyone else. M