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December 26, 2005

Hollywood, Brokeback, Munich and the rest of us

My mother, with whom I apparently share no political DNA, came over for our Chanukah dinner the other night. While we agree on virtually nothing when it comes to politics, I do owe Mom a debt of gratitude for instilling in me a great love of film, beginning with the classics of the '30s and '40s. However, when it comes to modern cinema, we part ways.

A couple of weeks ago, she asked if I was going to see Brokeback Mountain. I paused, then asked if she'd dialed a wrong number. "Why?" she asked, "I hear the acting is wonderful!" "That may be true," I replied, "but can you think of a movie I'd be less interested in seeing than the tale of a 40-year affair between closeted gay cowboys?"

Well, she did, 'cause she was singing the praises of a film about a man becoming a woman, Transamerica, all while she munched on latkes with apple sauce. Again, the acting was simply superb, according to Mom. Again, I was utterly uninterested.

It's amazing, really. Hollywood complains year after year about declining box-office revenue, and yet the films getting the rave reviews seem guaranteed to be hits in only a handful of American cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York.

Have you noticed that the marketing for Brokeback has been softselling the love story between the two male leads? The first movie poster featured the two men together, but all subsequent images have prominently featured the characters with their wives. Ann Althouse has a great series of links showing the posters.

My friend was going to take her stepfather, an old cowboy and stuntman, to see "that new cowboy film." When she heard it was actually a frontier meditation on the love whose name we dare not speak, she said her old-fashioned stepdad would have had a heart attack when the two leads made the beast with two hairy backs.

So, why is the studio depending on the film critics to carry the water on the nature of the tale, instead of using it as a selling point? Could it be because they know this story is just not going to bring the public in flyover country into the theaters?

I read an essay by someone recently (his name escapes me; I'll link to it if I can remember) who had worked as a film critic. He said that reviewers see hundreds, no, wait, thousands of movies, and thus become numb to the experience, seeking ever-greater shocks to the system, more outrageous stories to shake them from their stupor.

Given the great box office films like The Incredibles and Chronicles of Narnia have been doing, I'm inclined to believe that the movie-going public, such as it is, wants to be entertained, thrilled or given an encouraging glimpse of something uplifting for a minimum $8.50 a ticket, and is less interested in having its collective ears boxed for being provincial homophobes.

So, moving on, Mom asks if I'm going to see Spielberg's latest, a bit of moral equivalence and self-loathing about the massacre of Israeli athletes at the '72 Munich Olympics. That's not how Mom described it; she said something along the lines of, "I hear Munich is getting great reviews, and the acting is wonderful, too!"

No, Mom, I'm not. Here's why.

Spielberg has suffered some strange Hollywood-induced moral inversion since he made Shindler's List back in the '90s. The man who at one time recognized that Good and Evil exist, and that good men can and must resist evil, has become a filmmaker incapable of distinguishing between killers and victims.

Scott has posted a terrific roundup of some of the criticism of Spielberg's latest over at PowerLine.

He quotes from a column in the New York Sun:

The most misleading line in Stephen Spielberg's Munich comes near the beginning. Israel's prime minister, Golda Meir, tells her cabinet, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." The implication is that Meir was reluctant to hunt down the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre, and that doing so was contrary to Israeli, and civilized, values.

The truth is just the opposite. Meir understood that Israel's chief obligation is to ensure that Jews will never again be slaughtered with impunity, simply for being Jewish. Holding mass murderers accountable is not a compromise; it is Israel's reason for being. . . .

Nobody can accuse Stephen Spielberg of insensitivity toward Jews and Israel. But by trying so hard to appear evenhanded, he has made an incomplete and imbalanced movie. In Munich, those who would murder racist butchers are no better than the butchers themselves.

Conservative columnist Warren Bell put it best when he described Munich's simple-minded morality like this: "when good guys kill bad guys, they're as bad as bad guys." Liberal writer Leon Wieseltier concurred: "Munich prefers a discussion of counterterrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion. This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold."

If both sides of the political spectrum can agree that a nation is not only right, but obligated, to act as Israel did, why does Munich try so hard to say otherwise?

A large part of the blame belongs to the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, whose literary accomplishments (Angels in America, among other brilliant plays) are too often overshadowed by an extreme left-wing political agenda. Why on Earth would anyone entrust a script about Israel to someone who declared, "I wish modern Israel hadn't been born?" (So much for impartiality.)

Spielberg and Kushner end up glorifying Jewish victims, but deploring those who would keep Jews from becoming victims. Their sense of Jewish tragedy blinds them to the possibility of Jewish heroism.

Scott says he's not likely to see Munich; neither should you, Mom.

Posted by Mike Lief at December 26, 2005 08:11 PM


Great post. It may be that Spielberg is officially entering into his dotage, but more likely he just got suckered by Kushner and company. When you are isolated in that community its easy to lose your bearings. But truly, Kushner has accomplished an extraordinary leftist feat: to take a director whose one constant was simplicity and clarity of vision/values and turn him into mush. . . well, that's talent. Pure, nihilistic, Weimarish, post-modern talent.

The weirdest thing in all of this is that the 'dialog' the leftist Jews are talking about is really a dialog with themselves. The thin sliver of intellectuals/artists on the Arab side have been carefully cultivated and nurtured by the Jews, precisely so as to have somebody to talk to. It goes without saying that, on the Arab side, those same intellectuals/artists 'dialoging' have about as much influence and value as. . . well, as a Jew.

It's just like how there are thousands of books and movies about Holocaust victims, but very little in the way of books and movies about Israeli soldiers. The former, being uniquely innocent and helpfully dead, are easy for vacuous moralizers to pedestal. The latter, alive (hopefully) doing the hard work of the real world, are just too complicated (the irony!) for simple leftists to view as anything other than the moral equivalent of the terrorists they are, thankfully, killing.

Posted by: Sergio at March 5, 2006 06:47 PM

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