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French Version

Articulate Arabs, conflicted hit-men

Steven Spielberg's 'Munich' is more about profitability than accuracy

There's little that's new in commercial cinema. So when it seems something new does happen, as with Steven Spielberg's "Munich," it's normal that some will compare it to other movies. The question is, what's it best compared to, and according to what criteria?

"Munich," which opened in Beirut recently, is "inspired by true events."

During the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian Black September militants held 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. The German authorities helicoptered militants and hostages to the airport, where the former were to be flown to friendly territory.

They arrived to find a trap. German security personnel opened fire. The hostages were killed in the melee.

The government of Golda Meir decided to exact revenge. Aside from the usual bombing of refugee camps, they compiled a list of 11 European-based Palestinian activists and directed a Mossad team to track them down.

This hit squad was remarkably successful in killing Arab intellectuals, militants and guest workers. Some of them may even have had a hand in planning the Munich operation - Mosaad isn't the most transparent of agencies, so it's difficult to know what evidence they'd marshalled against their targets.

Eventually the self-declared team leader, naming himself "Avner," spilt the beans and a number of books about the Mosaad operation emerged. One of them, George Jonas' 1984 "Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," provided the raw material for Spielberg's scriptwriters.

Avner (Eric Bana) is at the center of the film. Here Golda Meir personally asks the idealistic young Mosaad agent to take the mission. He "resigns" from the agency, leaves his pregnant wife and goes into deep cover.

"Munich" begins with the original Black September operation, which Avner flashes-back to whenever he doubts the righteousness of his labor. In some of the most inadvertently funny direction of Spielberg's career, he has Avner imagine the final deadly moments of the Munich operation while having sex with his wife.

The film trails Avner's team as they make the contacts needed to wipe most of the men on his list, along with a few dozen more Palestinians, a KGB man and a Dutch assassin.

Though they celebrate the first success - Wail Zwaytar (Makram Khoury), a middle-aged poet who's translated "A Thousand and One Nights" into Italian - the team's misgivings swell along with the body count.

These qualms - not the sort of thing Beirutis normally associate with Mosaad agents - deplete the team's moral reserves even as they themselves fall victim to assassins.

By film's end, Avner has so many reservations about the morality of his actions that - despite the celebrity status he's earned in Israeli intelligence circles - he exiles himself and his family to America. The irony is consummated in a final conversation in a New York park with his former Mosaad handler (Geoffrey Rush), the World Trade Center towers still intact and looming in the background.

Spielberg's detractors generally dislike the virtuosity of his emotional manipulation - a talent exercised harmlessly in "ET" and "Indiana Jones" and more questionably in his serious films.

The director's frankly pro-Zionist position has made some question his intentions in making "Schindler's List," for instance, which slides a little too glibly from contemplating man's inhumanity to man to advertising the state of Israel.

The big surprise in "Munich" for Spielberg critics is that the director's Palestinian militants aren't devils. Avner's first few victims are depicted as affable, well-spoken intellectuals and one is a loving father.

Ali (Omar Metwally), another militant with lines, argues with Avner (who claims to be Baader-Meinhoff Gang) that his Palestinian parents aren't the ones who gassed Europe's Jews and they shouldn't be made to pay the price. European Reds fighting for revolution at home, he says, can't understand what it means to have no home.

Inevitably perhaps, critical responses to "Munich" have been more political than aesthetic. It follows the standard plot conventions of the Hollywood thriller, so aficionados of that genre will likely enjoy it. Mainstream critics are impatient with the screenwriters' efforts to "thicken" the conflict with the Mosaad agents' moral ambivalence, which contributes greatly to the other thing they dislike - the film's 160-minute length.

Politically, Spielberg's aroused animosity from both hard-core Zionists, who dislike Avner's hand-wringing, and anti-Zionists, pre-disposed against anything smelling of Israeli apologetics. The director can be pleased with this result, since it suggests he's captured the political middle ground - which, in liberal terms, means "fair."

Shortly after its North American release, the film provoked an opinion piece on this very page, written by Palestinian-American academic Joseph Masaad. More cultural criticism than film review, it argued that for all its ethical nail-biting, "Munich" is as much a Zionist apologia as Otto Preminger's "Exodus" (1960).

It's hardly a surprise that Spielberg's writers don't elaborate the argument that, far from being a victim, the state of Israel has consistently drawn first blood in this conflict. It isn't simply a matter of their Zionist leanings: it's a matter of aesthetic and commercial necessity.

Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," an otherwise leaner and more effective thriller, is a sort of mirror image of "Munich." The film follows a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers dispatched to avenge the Israel army's spilling of innocent blood. Like Avner's team, Abu-Assad's three central characters debate the efficacy and morality of their actions.

Some critics dislike this moral hand-wringing as much as they do in Spielberg's film. Others have attacked Abu-Assad for having no Israeli characters at all. The director has convincingly argued that this Palestinian story doesn't require Israeli content. The same is true of "Munich," in obverse.

None of the Palestinians in "Munich" are proper characters. Unlike the Israelis, for instance, they have no conscience. They're simply more sympathetic Arab caricatures than the ones Western audiences are used to - the sort lampooned in short films like Hesham Issawi's "T is for Terrorist" and Jacqueline Salloum's "Planet of the Arabs."

In this, Spielberg's Palestinians serve the same function as Ghassan Massoud's impressive-looking but two-dimensional Salah al-Din in Ridley Scott's Crusader epic "Kingdom of Heaven."

As in "Kingdom," the Arab caricatures in "Munich" are foils for the development of non-Arab characters in a non-Arab story.

As such, they help reaffirm for liberal American audiences - perhaps sensitized by decades of critique from anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein - that Israelis are nice guys too. Israel may have done questionable things, but what state hasn't?

Indeed "Kingdom" and "Munich" occupy much the same position in the oeuvres of these two A-list directors. Scott and Spielberg embody "Hollywood" and their filmic nuts and bolts are chosen according to commercial criteria as much as aesthetic or political ones.

In one key scene, Avner's team tracks down the Dutch Mata Hari who seduced and killed one of their number (Marie-JosŽe Croze).

She's dressed in a bathrobe. Euro-American audiences watch as she tries to distract her assailants by letting her robe slip to reveal her breasts. Audiences hereabouts, though, find she's wearing a halter beneath her robe.

Evidently Spielberg shot the scene twice to remove an element that might slow the film's penetration into this culturally sensitive but extremely lucrative market.

His decision is emblematic of the film as a whole. If his representatin of Palestinians is less objectionable than usual, it's as much about putting bums in seats as it is showing what nice guys Mosaad agents are.

Obsessive-compulsive film-goers can see Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now" consecutively, in Circuit Empire cinemas.

Amman,05 09 2006
The Daily Star
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