December 23, 2005

"One of those Hollywood fictions that seem to befuddle those who miss the nuance in the words 'inspired by real events.'"

There's a phrase. It's from the NYT review of the film "Munich." Yes, you dare to carp at a prestige film that distorts historical events? You befuddled, unnuanced fool.


erp said...

Docu-dramas used to display a disclaimer that events depicted were real and "only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."

These days, the names are real, but the events have been changed to reflect the director's world view and protect the guilty.

ALH ipinions said...


I'm always loath to comment on films I haven’t seen. But I enjoy reading professional reviews just to see how they comport with my own after I’ve seen the film in question.

With that, I have read a number of reviews of “Munich” and would suggest that, notwithstanding the apparent condescension of this NY Times critic, it misses the point to expect historical accuracy from this film. Moral relativism is tricky business. And I can see how this film’s exploration of the moral conflicts / angst that Palestinian terrorists and Israeli avenging assassins might have experienced could “befuddle” some viewers.

All the same, I think dramatizing his plea for reciprocal empathy between these seemingly congenital foes is a noble undertaking by Spielberg and well worth the price of admission.

Irene Done said...

I just saw an interview with Aaron Klein, who has written a book about Munich. He said what bothers him about this movie is that it portrays Isreali actions as pure revenge when they should be seen as prevention -- actions taken to guard against another Munich. This is the danger of fictionalizing/distorting history, he argued. And sure enough, "dialogue ends when two enemies, held hostage by dusty history and hot blood, have their hands locked around each other's throats" is a ridiculous sentence, a horrid play on words, given that the preceding "dialogue" involved the massacre of innocent athletes.

Pogo said...

Re: "...I think dramatizing his plea for reciprocal empathy between these seemingly congenital foes is a noble undertaking by Spielberg and well worth the price of admission. "

Gasp. A "noble undertaking"?
A "noble" undertaking?
Sure, what the world needs is more "reciprocal" empathy, the dearth of which must underlie not just the Arab-Jew conflict, but all life's miseries.

What vile nonsense. The world could use with far less such "empathy", and alot more righteous indignation.

By such empathy one can find moral equivalence between a purse snatcher and its owner, between a hit-and-run driver and the teenager he killed, between a rapist and the woman attacked, and between Jesus and Satan. There are some human actions that are just plain evil and wrong. They do not warrant empathy.

To suggest that such empathy is needed, deserved, or superior is doubling that evil. By such immoral or amoral calculus, the evildoer is exonerated simply by asking forgiveness after his violent act. You, forbidden to respond, become compliant (and thus complicit), and he gains permission to kill again and again. Just say, "I'm sorry," and all is forgiven. Every. Time.

Shame on you.

XWL said...

The positive reviews for the film make it sound more unwatchable than the negative reviews.

In David Edelstein's review he unleashes some really loathsome rhetorical touches (and declares the picture his best film of the year)

(and earns a place on my list of grievances)

And Happy Festivus everyone!

SippicanCottage said...
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Tom T. said...

As the review notes, one of the screenwriters on Munich previously did Forrest Gump, another movie famously "inspired" by real events. I wonder if the NYT found that movie to be artfully nuanced.

knoxgirl said...

I just saw a documentary about Munich on ESPN (yes ESPN) last night. I really didn't know much of anything about it before. I was pretty much horrified.

Anyway, I agree with Irene and Pogo--it's bogus for anyone to suggest that the Israelis were merely exacting "revenge"--which implies a sort of violent immaturity and a lack of morality--by taking action against the people who murdered 11 innocent people.

It has been proven again and again over the last thirty years that there's no moral highground to be taken by letting terrorists get away with murder and responding with forgiveness and goodwill. To them that's a tacit request to do it again.

And alh's comment quite nicely encapsulates moral equivalence, imho.

bill said...

I am intrigued by the movie and plan to see it. Though, I, too, was taken by the quote you pulled.

I don't expect movies "based on real events" to be documentaries. I expect liberties will be taken with facts, characters will be deleted and added, and time will be compressed or expanded. There is an essence of a story the writer and director want to tell and a limited amount of time to do it in. I'm fine with that and if the story is interesting, I'll buy the book.

Still, we can discuss these decisions directors make. For example, look at Spielberg's Catch Me If you Can, which I thought was a good movie. Tom Hanks' FBI character didn't actually exist, he's a composite of many agents. I'm ok with that, gives us a single character to focus on. But the movie shows Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) meeting with his father on a number of occasions. But in watching the DVD extras, it's revealed that after running away from home Frank never again saw his father. In this altering of "reality" they've changed the nature of Frank to reveal something Spielberg wanted to say, not necessarily what was true.

And to leave with a pat on the back to Spielberg, when I saw Jaws at the age of 10, the Quint character made me research the USS Indianapolis.

Pogo said...

Re: "There is an essence of a story the writer and director want to tell and a limited amount of time to do it in. I'm fine with that and if the story is interesting, I'll buy the book."

The problem inherent in misrepresenting history on film is that while the director gets to claim hey, it's only a movie, the audience is led to believe something quite different. So while the phrase "inspired by real events" should be understood to mean "complete fiction, may be an historical lie, believe none of this," Spielberg knows quite well that that a popular movie's vision quite often becomes "the truth".

The powerful propaganda effect of film is well-known, but oft-forgotten or ignored. Leni Riefenstahl quite literally made an art of the process. And Spielberg, knowing this to be true, but claiming otherwise, is being dishonest.

I will not see the movie. Based on what I've heard anbout it, I'll be repulsed . Spielberg should have been villified for this. It's not unlike the moral equivalence expressed about Tookie Williams, and equally repugnant.

Why people don't reject such amoral stances is so troubling to me.

Pogo said...

If Spielberg made Jaws in the same manner as Munich, you'd have experienced quite a different movie.

Shark = evil.
Hero goes on treacherous mission, conquers evil
Message: Man can overcome evil.

Shark = Victims
Un-hero goes on treacherous journey, causing evil.
Message: Can't we all just get along with sharks? It's probably our own fault anyway. Here, have another leg.


Henry said...

Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? The hero is a guy who abandons his family to seek aliens who have shown their higher intellect by kidnapping aviators and terrorizing small children.

The vacuum that is Spielberg's moral sense has been sucking for a long long time.

SippicanCottage said...
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Pat Patterson said...

"Inspired by real events" is Hollywood for not really caring for the factual version.

Ross said...


Whatever you might think of the attitudes at your average Code Pink rally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has enough righteous indignation to fuel the USS Independence.

(Come to think of it, Code Pink's not so different, but I digress...)

I'll confess that the sentence that inspired the post befuddles me. I miss the nuance in her tortured phrasing.

SippicanCottage said...
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Finn Kristiansen said...

I think it is important that we should view all conflicts by asking what motivates the parties involved. Unexamined behavior and motivations leads to the repetition of conflict, whether in the wider world, or personally.

It is not enough to look at terror in the world and say, "terror comes from evil" and leave it at that. What motivated Germany to follow Hitler's vile plans? To say "Oh Germans were just evil at heart," does not at all explain the situation, nor does it help it from being repeated time and again (hutu/tutsi) with different faces.

The problem I have with this movie, which I want to see, is that it seems that Spielberg is attempting to make some kind of nuanced philosophical or moral point; if you are going to do that, and ask me to "Understand the enemy", then you have to present the enemy and circumstances according to what actually happened. In order for me to come to that point of empathy or greater understanding, I must have the honest facts and not be manipulated.

There are conditions and ways of living in the world that breed terror, and any approach ought to address the terror with a hard response, but also work on the underlying conditions that make terror such a viable alternative for restive youth. It is very hard to take to terror, when you have a job, a car, a new Ipod, and a girlfriend working at Hooters.

But when you have nothing but the shirt on your back, and left to live in your own mind (uneducated and influenced by biased local media and manipulative imams), then the vaccuum is easily filled.

Wade_Garrett said...


I don't get what you're saying. Are you criticizing the Times' condescending tone? Are you saying that people should be more outraged at Spielberg straying from 'the facts?'

I know in previous columns you've criticized Oliver Stone for his films, and I agree with you -- his films stray so far from what I know to be the truth, and make wild assumptions to fill in the historical gaps, that I can't enjoy his movies anymore. But I'm not outraged because he's straying from history, just that he's straying from history to such an extent that I can no longer suspend my disbelief; I'm too aware of the fact that I'm watching an Oliver Stone movie. But is anybody actually worried that people who don't know much history will go to the movie and walk out believing that what they say was historical fact? I doubt many people do that.

This is the second or third column you've had about the Munich. It has received uniformly good reviews, even from The Onion, which has the most highly tuned bullshit detectors of any reviewing publication I've ever read. When I heard that Spielberg was making this film, I too was skeptical, but the reviews have been such that I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Ann, are you planning to see it?

PatCA said...

Sounds like a "War and Peace for Dummies."

The reviewer hates western civilization in general, America in particular, and earned a promotion from the LAT to the NYT for it. She of course is equating this Israeli "revenge" with our "revenge" after 9/11, which is an unforgivable mischaracterization.

I would buy all the nuance crap if for once we could have a movie about understanding the Islamist movement for what it is, not what we wish it could be: let's see the apes and pigs TV shows, the indoctrinatiobn of children, the gang warfare that passes as governing, the Mufti meeting Hitler. Let's see the lack of "empathy" on their side.

AJ Lynch said...

Meaning of nuance (from "noun : a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude; "without understanding the finer nuances you can't enjoy the humor"; "don't argue about shades of meaning" [syn: nicety, shade, subtlety, refinement]"

IMHO, nuance is the most misused word in the English language, especially by liberals.

SippicanCottage said...
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Palladian said...

Was Spielberg "nuanced" in his treatment of the Nazis in "Schindler's List"? Did he try to understand the nuanced nature of their grievances? If not, why? Have the Palestinians and their "political" organizations not yet killed enough Jews to receive the total moral condemnation that the Nazis (and their sympathizers) rightly received?

Spielberg takes no risks, ever. He always plays the absolutely safest positions possible. That he perceives the capacity for sympathy in the hearts and minds of reviewers and his audience for the PLO and related thugs is the saddest revelation of this film. Because he's right: to many in the intelligentsia and the A-list Hollywood crowd, sympathetic nuance for those groups is the safe position.

He seems to forget that Schindler's List is the backstory for why Israel does what it does.

Pogo said...

There is a significant difference between the Jews as portrayed in Schindler's List as compared to, apparently, Munich.

In the former, the Jews are righteous and deserving of the aggrieved status because they are passive victims of the Germans. The real Munich demonstrated for the world that the Jews, at least those then in Israel, would fight back. And quite effectively, too.

Despite the absence of any widely held moral theory or religious fiat condemning self-defence, there are those on the left that prefer martyrdom as the high road answer to all violence. It's a wretched world-view, and untenable by most people who still believe they deserve to live free from oppression.

Behind the walls of his estate, Spielberg may feel safe to explore such idiocies, but I don't have a wall, or an entourage, or a private jet to whisk me to safety. But I have two hands, and the will.

The Drill SGT said...

I generally like his films, but I have absolutely no interest in seeing a film that seems to humanize terrorists that murder 11 athletes at what should be the quintessential peace setting. Similarly, I am not interested in seeing what I consider a quest for justice turned into moral second guessing.

I think it was settled for me in the use of "Vengeance" in the review and book title. That's a loaded word, for as we all know God reserves that for himself.

"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord"

Lord Floppington said...

While I find myself in agreement with many of the comments to this post, I'm afraid I am in complete disagreement with Henry on Close Encounters.

Spielberg may indeed suck morally, but Close Encounters is certainly not the film that proves it.

bearbee said...

>>Scratch out "imam," and put in "Catholic priest," and you just described every single one of my ancestors standing on the dock for the first time in America.<<

They had the opportunity of escape.

>>Because he's right: to many in the intelligentsia and the A-list Hollywood crowd, sympathetic nuance for those groups is the safe position.<<

Should also play well on the European circuit.

It seems long before anyone else the Israelis understood the terrorist mind and the implacability of their enemy.

May 8, 1972 a plane with ninety passengers including sixty-seven Jews were hijacked by four members of Black September over Greece and directed the pilot to fly to Tel Aviv. They demanded the release of 315 convicted terrorists. Israeli commandos stormed the plane, killing the two male hijackers and capturing the two females. The entire operation took just 90 seconds.

May 30, 1972 there was a massacre of tourists at Lod airport near Tel Aviv.

The Mossad operation for the Munich killings was called "Wrath of God" authorizing assassinations of Black September. Was there an aspect of revenge involved....I believe yes. As PM what action would Spielberg have taken at the time? Who knows but I doubt not much different...he would not have had the luxury of academic reflection.
What action would I have taken? No different than that of Golda Meir.

What was the spend years tracking down, capturing and bringing them before a court of law? While that was going on the terrorists would do what....go on holiday?

Harkonnendog said...

Really interesting responses here. Terrrorism is so polarizing few want to find a middle ground. You've got the "Terrorists are evil and should be put down side," and the "The West and/or the Jews are evil and the terrorists' grievances should be addressed" side.

Once you choose a side EVERYTHING is identified as on the side you've chosen or not. For those, like me, who think terrorists are evil, this movie is on the other side. Because that's the nature of evil, and the nature of this fight. You can find nuance if you like, and yeah terrorism probably has some neato root causes, whatever, but I don't care. They're evil. Kill them all.

Screw this movie.

It is on their side. By pretending their is some moral equivalency between the two sides the movie claims the terrorists are not evil, or that the Israelis were. Bullshit.

The Drill SGT said...


I'm on your side (literally on this one), however: at some level to solve the larger problem, one must have a two pronged approach. The same as dealing with rabid dogs.

1. kill terrorists, whenever, wherever, without mercy.

2. attempt to understand the root causes and do what you can to mitigate them, thus slowing or shutting off the pipeline of new terrorists. That is part of the "Mid-East Democracy effort"

Wade_Garrett said...

Who said Spielberg was humanizing the terrorists?

I've known Vietnam vets who have killed terrorists, IDF veterans who have killed terrorists, and veterans of both Gulf Wars who have killed Saddam Hussein's men, and insurgents. They fully realized that these people were communists or fascists or islamic militants and needed to be killed because it was either them or us, but that doesn't necessarily mean they sleep easy at night.

Some of the commenters on this thread have suggested that if you have any qualms about killing somebody you know ought to be killed, you're a weakling or a faggot or you hate America or you're a terrorist sympathizer or something. Nothing could be further from the truth! If anything, their nightmares make what they did, and the sacrifices they made, more noble.

Palestinian terrorists killed innocent Israeli athletes. If I was prime minister of Israel, I would have done exactly what Golda Meir did. However, if the innocent Israelis are in fact better than the terrorists, then we SHOULD feel remorse about killing human beings, EVEN IF it is in the name of keeping our countrymen safe, and EVEN IF the terrorists 'had it coming.'

Harkonnendog said...
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Harkonnendog said...

"if the innocent Israelis are in fact better than the terrorists, then we SHOULD feel remorse about killing human beings, EVEN IF it is in the name of keeping our countrymen safe, and EVEN IF the terrorists 'had it coming."

Wrong. You are implying murdering innocents, and avenging them, are morally equivalent. And that how a person feels after killing ANYONE, regardless of the reason, is what differentiates good from evil.

Feeling bad for murdering people does not make people morally equivalent to those who kill murderers.

Taken to the extreme your position is that a terrorist who feels bad for murdering innocent people is morally superior to someone who assassinates that terrorist.


You're right. There's a difference between trying to understand in order to excuse, and trying to understand in order to defeat. I should have mentioned that.

Really I'm not even saying that I SHOULD think the way I do. I'm as caught up in events as everybody else. I mean it is the best of some bad choices for everybody now.

Eugene said...

There are real villains out there. Yet, despite it featuring the superhero-supervillain face-off most germane to the real world, I doubt True Lies could ever be made today. And when the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan, it was up to Rambo to stand cinematically alone against the red tide. Good grief, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the moral centers of the geopolitical universe? Is that what the world (or rather: Hollywood) has come to?

Wade_Garrett said...


I am implying no such thing. Rather, I am saying that if you knew anybody who's killed someone while in military service you would know its not that simple. The fact that a killing is justified doesn't necessarily make it easy to sleep at night. My grandfather, for instance, was shaken up by witnessing the deaths of the Japanese soldiers he killed even 50 years after the fact.

Killing innocents and taking revenge on their killers are NOT morally equivalent. Nobody's saying that! Not me, not Spielberg, nobody. If you want to create an imaginary person who views everything ever done in the world as being morally equivalent to every other thing, then boost your own ego by tearing that imaginary person to shreds, then more power to you, buddy, but that's not what I said. Harkonnendog, would you like a medal or a chest to pin it on?

Harkonnendog said...

lol! you wrote this:
""if the innocent Israelis are in fact better than the terrorists, then we SHOULD feel remorse about killing human beings, EVEN IF it is in the name of keeping our countrymen safe, and EVEN IF the terrorists 'had it coming."

YOU made remorse for killing terrorists a condition for them being better than terrorists.

The implication is there whether you like it or not.

I don't need an imaginary person, I can just quote what you wrote. And I'm not looking for a pin or a medal, that's ridiculous. Terrence, would you prefer a flatulent monkey or a greasty spigot to spread 'pon your diadem?

Henry said...

Lord Floppington, please tell me you're kidding.

Spielberg is a terrific action and suspense film maker. Catch Me If You Can is terrific. Indiana Jones, ditto. But Close Encounters?

I first saw it when I was maybe 12. It seemed way cool to my pre-teenage mind. Then I saw the extended version when I was in college and it was almost unwatchable. It's jiggery-pokery drama. Lots of dramatic stuff (aliens kidnap child; man abandons wife and kids) but absolutely no dramatic continuity. Why do the aliens steal children? Why, for that matter, do they make police cars run off the road and terrorize toll booth operators? Do aliens have motivations? Maybe they're drunken teenage aliens. Unfortunately Richard Dreyfus and the other human volunteers won't figure that out until the mother ship takes off.

Lord Floppington said...

Henry, we may very well get different messages from Close Encounters. You got "The hero is a guy who abandons his family to seek aliens who have shown their higher intellect by kidnapping aviators and terrorizing small children."

That wasn't what I got.

How about last part first? I don't recall small children being terrorized by it. I grant you that his mom was afraid, maybe even terrorized, but in her case, it was fear for her son. In fact, Barry was determined to meet the aliens, and actually struggled to get away from his mother, and to them. He wanted to go. The hero, Roy Neary, felt the same.

Everyone taken against their will was kidnapped. However, based on Roy and Barry's cases, we know that not everyone taken by the aliens is taken against their will. There were several aviators and military types who were taken. We might presume that at least some of them would be willing, although in the case of the squadron that was taken, it does seem unlikely that all of the squadron members were willing. There were also a number of civilians who went with the aliens. Some of these may also have been willing.

The problem here is ascribing human motives to nonhumans. I would submit that while those taken unwillingly may have been victims of a kidnapping, those who did the taking were not, in fact, kidnappers. What would you call a pack of wolves who take down a moose and eat it? Murderers? Is a biologist who takes some bug out of the Amazon back to New York a kidnapper now? The answer is no to both questions. We should also say no to ascribing the crime of kidnapping to the aliens.

Further, everyone was returned at the same age at which they were taken. For many of them, this means that their family and friends are all dead and buried. This is a terrible loss for those who were taken, but it also means that they were rather well treated and will be able to live a full life here on earth. They are likely to be treated well by the government and a public who will pay a lot of money to see and hear their stories. Historians and sociologists will have a chance to talk to live witnesses to ways of life that are only faintly remembered by drooling elders, if any of them are still around. If I had a chance to come back a hundred years from now, at my current age, I might consider it, and I'm a disinterested observer.

We can agree now that the aliens don't terrorize small children or kidnap people. We should also be able to agree that they weren't attempting to show their intelligence by their behaviors. We simply don't have evidence from the film that this was the motivation of the aliens. Similarly, the biologist collecting bug samples is not trying to show the bugs how smart he is.

Which leaves us with Roy, the family abandoner. If those were my kids, I wouldn't have many qualms in abandoning them either. Couldn't we equally say that the wife didn't support Roy, and in effect abandoned him? She was the one who left, after all. The argument can't be made that she had to leave because her husband was a crazy alien believer, because there really were aliens. He wasn't crazy.

Put that aside though, the fact that he was right and she abandoned him. No one can deny that he had a life changing experience. He would never be the same again. Out of a nothing existence, the was suddenly a bright, shining light (no pun intended) of clarity. The new Roy has a purpose, a vision that sustains him. A direction and goal to which he can aim his life. He wasn't alone. There were many others who felt the same way. Roy happened to be the only one who made it to the landing site.

At the landing site, we notice that the government has a number of "volunteers" to make this trip, a group to which Neary is quickly added. Yet, when the aliens make their selections, they pick Neary out of the group. What motivates this choice? We might infer that even volunteers are not necessarily ready for the trip. Which implies that those who are ready are the ones who are taken. Which suggests the possibility that none of the people who are taken are taken unwillingly. Another argument against the kidnapping theory.

Back to Roy's family. Having a hero abandon his family (again, not really supported by what happens in the film) is a sign to you that Spielberg's moral sense sucks. Some marriages end in divorce. Some of these marriages involve children. Roy's marriage, while not formally ending with a divorce, is ended. Is it the fact of not formally divorcing that shows the bad moral sense, or is anyone who divorces, immoral?

I do not know Henry. He may very well feel that all divorce is wrong and immoral. This is fine, and certainly his perogative. However, in this case, I don't think he's shown that his opinion is borne out by what actually happens in the film itself. Of course, this is all just my opinion.

As for the police cars, it isn't the fault of the aliens that the cops were bad drivers. And I don't recall much examination at all of how the toll booth operators felt. Couldn't they have been amazed or amused? Was a reaction either way actually shown? Maybe I missed it.

Apologies if the length of this reply is abusing the comments here.

bearbee said...

Hollywood Hooey

Union Trib>

"Reality is a lot more complicated"

Ross said...

Interesting editorial. I couldn't agree more with this statement:

"Reality is a lot more complicated. In Iraq, we see an American president leading an unlikely, ambitious, Wilsonian effort to foster democracy. Meanwhile, in Israel, it wasn't the peaceniks but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – the veteran warrior loathed as the embodiment of bloodthirsty Zionism by faculty petition-signers everywhere – who razed the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

These are striking, fascinating developments ..."

then it pivots and moves on to this:

"...– except to the Hollywood left. Its mind is made up: George W. Bush is an oil-industry stooge, Sharon is a mass murderer, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is a giant who deserved his Nobel Peace Prize and the problems in the Middle East are entirely America's and Israel's fault."

I've not seen "Munich," but I haven't heard anyone say anything about its portraying Sharon as a mass murderer or Arafat as a giant. Are our editorialists actually talking about the movie? Or just grabbing an opportunity to knock Hollywood?

Robert said...

Is this the “inspired” legal professor engaging in the fallacy of personal attack? I’m so sorry that I’ve discounted every. thing. you’ve. had. to say. in the past… not.