I am writing this a bare half-hour after seeing the film. You will forgive me, I hope, the intensity of my emotions. I want to say now, at the beginning, that, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it was a brilliant film. Well-acted, beautifully photographed, tensely edited. Spielberg remains, as always, a master manipulator of emotions and images. Beyond that, it was one of the most morally vile works of art I have ever seen. Whether the fault lies with Spielberg or with co-screenwriter Tony Kushner, I have no idea. I am inclined to blame Kushner, since Spielberg’s public musings on the Arab-Israeli conflict appear to be little more than well-meaning naiveté, whereas Kushner’s bloviations on the subject are of the most startlingly poisonous variety. I have been subjected on one unfortunate occasion to the equally unfortunate Mr. Kushner, and I can only say that I doubt any other Pulitzer Prize winning author in history has managed to be so simultaneously stupid, juvenile, insulting, and megalomaniacal in such a short span of time. In this, at least, Kushner has some claim to uniqueness. Beyond that, the only remarkable thing about him is how unremarkable he is. Here we have yet another self-loathing, pseudo-moralistic, ultra-leftwing Diaspora writer whose sole definition of Judaism is the willingness to acknowledge the humanity of those who would happily slit his throat and those of his children.
The film, as everybody now knows, is based on the supposedly true story of the Israeli assassination squad who hunted down and killed those who planned and organized the 1972 Munch massacre. The massacre, at least, actually happened. As for everything else in the film, I am inclined to think that it sprang fully formed from the fevered imaginations of Spielberg and Kushner. The film’s plot is, putting it very mildly, fantastically ridiculous. In order to swallow the film’s premise, we must believe that the Mossad fielded the single most incompetent assassination squad in the history of modern intelligence work; that French anarchists regularly supply information to intelligence agencies which, despite their massive resources, they are apparently incapable of finding out for themselves; that seasoned assassins fantasize about terrorist attacks while having sex with their stunningly beautiful wives; that Tel Aviv has an elevated boulevard complete with railing…but all of this is largely irrelevant. Spielberg is a fantasist after all, and we can hardly expect a filmmaker whose primary cinematic influence is ‘50s television to be capable of putting together an entirely credible narrative out of life and death events. Let alone in struggling with the complexities of the Jewish reacquisition of the capabilities for power, violence and, yes, we shall speak the dread word, vengeance. Schindler’s List will, of course, be cited as an exception, but in that case Jews were quite comfortably victimized, and so we could spend our time pondering the possible humanity of a mass-murdering Nazi officer. Of course, in this case, it is not the Nazis who are the mass murderers of Jews, and so, apparently, we are in more complicated territory.
The film’s lack of believability aside, at least its fictions are in service of something. That something appears to be a grab bag of ideas – I use the term generously – which could be easily summed up in the kind of high concept buzzwords which Spielberg no doubt uses to sell his films. Revenge is pointless. Vengeance only creates a cycle of violence. Anyone who fights terrorists becomes a terrorist himself. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and etc., etc., ad infinitum. All of this is, of course, a means of sounding complex and intelligent without having to actually be complex and intelligent. A predilection which has made both Spielberg and Kushner rich men, but hardly speaks well for their artistic capabilities. Of course, while Spielberg is a great artist, if only for his extraordinarily manipulative talent; Kushner is the shuck and jive man as artist. The ultimate Jewish Uncle Tom. He never fails to give the Gentiles what they want. The thought that a Jew might have no qualms about killing those who would kill him, that vengeance can also be righteous, that turning the other cheek is the hypocrisy of Christianity and not the creed of the Jews, that Jewish blood matters the most to us because it matters to no one else, that a Jew can be more than a blithering house negro for the beautiful people; all this is too horrifying, apparently, to be even thought of as a rational possibility. So we receive yet another weeping Shylock, wearing the clothes of conscience, which for the righteous is but another Jewish gabardine for them to spit upon. If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? Forgive us, oh beautiful and well meaning souls, for not being Gentiles. And, of course, the final line, the great truth at the heart of Shylock’s rage, which is not a plea, is erased as another shanda before the goyim. Because it is unthinkable. Because it reads thus: If you wrong us, will we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest we will resemble you in that. And it shall go hard, for I’ll better the instruction. I have neither the time nor the patience for those who would deny Shylock his vengeance. Give me Shylock. I will adore him. I will sing his praises. I will fight for Shylock. I will stand up in his name. He is my kinsmen. He suffered because he was a Jew. And he desired vengeance for his suffering because he was a human being. I am both a human being and a Jew. I suffer as my people suffer, and I desire vengeance for my suffering and theirs. And I do so as both a Jew and a human being. And I will not be shamed by callow refugees of the television generation nor by self-satisfied fools masquerading as men of conscience.