Published: 21 January 2006
Steven Spielberg's Munich is absolutely brilliant. I can hear readers groaning already. It won't open in Britain until next Friday. But in the United States, Arabs have condemned the movie about the Israeli assassination of Palestinians after the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics as an anti-Arab diatribe that dehumanises an entire people suffering dispossession and occupation.
Jewish groups have suggested that Spielberg has dishonoured his Jewish roots by portraying Mossad agents as criminal, self-doubting murderers who ultimately come to despise their own country. There must be something interesting here, I said to myself, as I sat down on the other side of the Atlantic to watch the director's blockbuster of murder and bloodshed.
There's plenty to be appalled by: the killing of the athletes interlocked with scenes of assassination leader "Avner" copulating with his wife in a New York apartment; the Israeli murder of a Dutch call girl who has set up a Mossad killer for assassination - she walks naked and bleeding across the floor of her canal barge, trying to breathe through the bullet wound in her breast; and the Middle East cliché of the year. It comes when "Avner" - in an entirely fictional scene - talks to an armed Palestinian refugee whom he will later kill. "Tell me something, Ali," he asks. "Do you really miss your father's olive trees?"
Well, of course, "Ali" does rather miss his father's olive trees. Ask any Palestinian in the shithouse slums of the Ein el-Helwe, Nahr el-Bared or Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon and you'll get the same reply. It's a staged, creepy scene in which Avner's educated, philosophical approach is contrasted with the harsh, uneducated Palestinian's anger.
And there's a lot else wrong. The same Mossad team's real-life murder of a perfectly innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway is deleted from the narrative of the film - thus avoiding, I suppose, the embarrassment of showing one of the murderers later hiding in the Oslo apartment of the Israeli defence attaché to Norway, a revelation that did not do a lot for Scandinavian-Israeli relations.
But Spielberg's movie has crossed a fundamental roadway in Hollywood's treatment of the Middle East conflict. For the first time, we see Israel's top spies and killers not only questioning their role as avengers but actually deciding that an "eye for an eye" does not work, is immoral, is wicked. Murdering one Palestinian gunman - or one Palestinian who sympathises with the Munich killers - only produces six more to take their place. One by one, members of the Mossad assassination squad are themselves hunted down and murdered. Avner even calculates that it costs $1m every time he liquidates a Palestinian.
And the film's ending - when Avner's Mossad minder comes to New York to persuade him to return to Israel, only to be rebuffed when he fails to supply evidence of the murdered Palestinians' guilt, and to walk away in disgust from Avner's offer to break bread at his home - suggests for the first time on the big screen that Israel's policy of militarism and occupation is immoral. That the camera then moves to the left of the two men and picks up a digitalised re-created image of the twin towers through the haze was what I call a "groaner". Yes, Steve, I said to myself, thank you - but we've got the message.
Yet that's the point. This film deconstructs the whole myth of Israeli invincibility and moral superiority, its false alliances - one of the most sympathetic characters is an elderly French mafia boss who helps Avner - and its arrogant assumption that it has the right to engage in state murder while others do not.
Perhaps inevitably, the author of the book upon which Munich is based - George Jonas, who wrote Vengeance - has done his best to deconstruct Spielberg. "One doesn't reach the moral high ground being neutral between good and evil," he says. What turns audiences off the movie is "treating terrorists as people ... in their effort not to demonise humans, Spielberg and Kushner (Tony Kushner, the chief screenplay writer) end up humanising demons". Yes, but - that's the point isn't it? Calling humans terrorists does dehumanise them, whatever their background. The "why?" question - prohibited after the 11 September 2001 crimes against humanity - is the very same question every cop asks at the scene of any crime: what was the motive?
Presumably intended to coincide with the movie, Aaron Klein has come out with a new book on Munich, published by Random House. As one reviewer has pointed out, he writes of the same Mossad hoods as cold-blooded hit squads rather than self-doubting mercenaries. In quite another context, it's interesting to learn that Klein, a captain in the Israeli army's intelligence unit, also happens to be Time magazine's military affairs correspondent in Jerusalem. I assume that august pro-Israeli journal will soon appoint a Hamas member as its military affairs reporter on the West Bank.
But again, all this misses the point. It's not whether Spielberg changes the characters of his killers - or whether Malta doubles for Beirut in the film and Budapest for Paris - but that Israel's whole structure of super-morality is brought under harsh, bitter self-examination. Towards the end, Avner even storms into the Israeli consulate in New York because he believes Mossad has decided to liquidate him too.
So now the real challenge for Spielberg. A Muslim friend once wrote to me to recommend Schindler's List, but asked if the director would continue the story with an epic about the Palestinian dispossession which followed the arrival of Schindler's refugees in Palestine. Instead of that, Spielberg has jumped 14 years to Munich, saying in an interview that the real enemy in the Middle East is "intransigence". It's not. The real enemy is taking other people's land away from them.
So now I ask: will we get a Spielberg epic on the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 and after? Or will we - like those refugees desperate for visas in the wartime movie Casablanca wait, and wait - and wait?