Munich.

In 1967 Israel lashed out against a gathering flock of vultures (Egypt, Syria, Jordan). In an astonishing triumph, this “Six Day War” put Israel in possession of the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights. It also put them in possession of a large population of Arabs and Palestinian refugees cast up by the agony of Israel’s initial creation in 1948. The problem became what to do with the conquered lands and people. Israel offered to “trade land for peace” with its neighbors. The neighbors showed little interest. Meanwhile, the Palestinians launched their own war on Israel through terrorism. In 1972, members of the “Black September” group kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer Olympics. Most of the captors and all of their captives died in a botched rescue operation by the Germans.

In revenge, Israel launched “Operation Wrath of God.” In theory, the objective was to kill eleven of the “Black September” leaders who were responsible for Munich. The operation went on for years. It killed many more than eleven men. Eventually, the operation wound down.

In 1984, Yuval Aviv, one of the assassination team leaders who then was living in New York and no longer working for Israel’s intelligence agency, became the source for a book about the operation.[1] Soon afterward, HBO brought out a movie based on the book.[2] Then the story languished for almost twenty years.

Then, early in the 21st Century, Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the book and made his own version, “Munich.” Why did Spielberg want to re-make somebody else’s movie? There are a couple of possible answers.

On the one hand, Spielberg has made a bunch of historical movies that can be thought of as grouped in pairs. The pairs deliver different perspectives on the large historical subjects. Thus “The Empire of the Sun” (1987) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) consider the legacy of surviving traumatic events in the Second World War; “Amistad” (1997) and “Lincoln” (2012) deal with the fight against slavery, a problem which continues to haunt America; and “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Munich” (2005) turn on the struggle for survival by Jews in a hostile world. In the case of the latter two movies, “Schindler’s List” made an argument for Israel as a Jewish refuge; “Munich” asked how Israel differed from other states.

On the other hand, maybe the movie isn’t about Israel at all. Maybe it’s about America. At the end of “Munich” the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” are visible in the backdrop. On 9/1101 Al Qaeda terrorists attacked sites in Washington and New York, most famously the WTC. The United States responded by invading Afghanistan in an effort to get Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Missing their punch, the Americans became bogged down in a long struggle that hasn’t yet ended.[3] Then, in 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq on the grounds that the country possessed a program for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that contact had been alleged between al Qaeda and Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein. Here the Americans became embroiled in an even worse conflict than in Afghanistan.[4]

Where does vengeance lead? Does it lead to “justice” and “closure”? Does it lead to an open-ended conflict with an ever-rising death toll? Are we captives of our past experiences? Are we even conscious of how our views of the past shape our present actions and our future?

[1] George Jonas, Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team.

[2] “Sword of Gideon” (1986, dir. Michael Anderson). See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvemVhD_M3k

[3] See: “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg).

[4] See: “Generation Kill” (2008, HBO); “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow); “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

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The Special Forces Solution.

Many of the international problems confronting the United States these days seem both intractable and incomprehensible.[1] This is deeply frustrating for people living in a country with what is still the leading economy and the most powerful military—by far–in the world. There may be a sense that there is a solution at hand, if our leaders would just employ it.

You can see where this attitude comes from. In truth, the “armies” of many developing countries aren’t made up of real “soldiers.” They’re just “men with guns”[2] hired to prop up the regime in power. The collapse of large parts of the army of Iraq in Summer 2014 illustrates this point. In contrast, the Special Forces of Western nations are highly skilled and motivated. In the American popular imagination, SEALS, Rangers, and Delta Force troops are almost mythic heroes. People often are quick to point out that the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993 left 17 Americans dead, while the Somalis suffered 1,500 to 3,000 casualties.[3] If only we could lay the weight of our real advantage (elite troops, Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs), drones) on the primitive enemy, they would be vanquished.

Recent war movies have epitomized this belief.[4] As one of the SEALS surrounded by Taliban says, “I think we’re in for one Hell of a gunfight.” However, all of these movies both built on and diverge from earlier, more cautious movies.

The movie “Clear and Present Danger” (1994, dir. Philip Noyce) asked what if the “war on drugs” was a real war? It answers that we wouldn’t fight it with cops and lawyers bound by legal forms and trials. An angry American president orders his National Security Adviser to launch a secret and illegal war on the cocaine cartels. An elite platoon recruited from Hispanic-American soldiers is inserted into Columbia. They begin to destroy drug labs and transport aircraft. They call in an airstrike against a meeting of cartel chiefs, leaving the building in ruins. The operation is aborted when a henchman of the surviving cartel chief discovers that it is Americans who are doing the killing—without a formal declaration of war. The National Security Adviser betrays the troops to save his own skin, but the remnants are rescued by men of honor. A series of clips begin at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4xO0k9LcIU

The movie “Tears of the Sun” (2003, dir. Antoine Fuqua) asked what if we had wanted to stop the Rwanda genocide? A squad of Navy SEALS is sent into Nigeria in the midst of revolution[5] to rescue an American-by-marriage doctor working in a do-gooder camp. She refuses to leave without her ambulatory patients, so the SEAL team commander (played by Bruce Willis) is forced to take them along. They are hunted through the forests and mountains by the rebels. Along the way, the Americans change their attitudes. Willis’s character says “I broke my own rule: I’ve started to give a fuck.” One of his men says they need to fight “For all the times we stood down or stood aside.” A series of fire-fights display American prowess, but the SEALs and refugees are finally saved by a belated airstrike. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_MELX1MMoI

Both movies are cautionary tales in which elite forces are never all of the answer.

[1] The same probably can be said about the domestic social and economic problems.

[2] See: “Men with Guns” (1997, dir. John Sayles).

[3] The movie about the event, “Black Hawk Down” (2001, dir. Ridley Scott), was a huge hit and remains very popular.

[4] See: “Lone Survivor” (2013, dir. Peter Berg); “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[5] Curiously, the trouble arises from a reheating of the quarrel with the southern Ibos, rather than the current war with northern Muslims. See: “The Dogs of War” (1980, dir. John Irvin), another example of my argument. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyxBxmBjC0U

War Movies 8: “American Sniper.”

Chris Kyle (1974-2013) had a rare talent at shooting, joined the Navy SEALS at the beginning of global terror’s war on us, did four tours in Iraq as a sniper, wrote a book about his experiences, and was killed by a disturbed military veteran he was trying to help.

Warner Brothers bought the movie rights to the book and signed Bradley Cooper to star. First, David Russell (“The Fighter” (2010), “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” (2013),) was going to direct; then Stephen Spielberg; and finally Clint Eastwood.[1]

Kyle’s father instructs his son on shooting and in manly conduct: “there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs.” Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) takes the message to heart. He is determined to use his skill to save the lives of endangered American troops in Iraq. A chance encounter with his younger brother, who had enlisted after 9/11, drives home the importance of this mission. The younger man is skittish and eager to be gone from Iraq. This sense of duty leads him to serve four tours in Iraq. He becomes a legend among the common soldiers and Marines. A dead insurgent plunges off a rooftop into the midst of an American patrol. An officer casually remarks “that’s the over-watch; you can thank him later.” Increasingly, Kyle becomes obsessed with an insurgent master sniper called “Mustafa.”[2] He returns for his final tour in hopes of killing Mustafa. He succeeds and comes home.

The price is very high: Cooper plays Kyle as “calm and confident,” so he doesn’t emote much about stress. He’s just increasingly distant, uncomfortable with the emotions of other people (both his wife’s and those of grateful veterans), with flashes of rage. Eventually, this self-contained man makes his way home by finding a new means to “save” fellow soldiers.

The movie has been criticized from the Left for de-contextualizing Kyle’s story. Eastwood portrays Kyle as motivated by the Al Qaeda attacks on the American embassies in East Africa and by 9/11; then the events in Iraq focus on the effort to kill Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. How the United States came to invade Iraq is scrupulously left out. The critics are mad that this wasn’t about the lies that led us to war. That would be a different movie. Indeed, it has been. Several times. All of which were flops. “Rendition” (2007, dir. Gavin Hood); “Lions for Lambs” (2007, dir. Robert Redford); “Redacted” (2007, dir. Brian de Palma); and “Green Zone” (2010, dir. Paul Greengrass) all lost money or fell short of earning expectations. That says something about audiences and what they’re willing to acknowledge. . In contrast, “American Sniper” is well over $200m in the black.

“American Sniper” falls into a different category of war movie from the ones that haven’t succeeded with American audiences. “The Hurt Locker” (2008, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow) became huge hits by focusing on driven individuals, the personal price they pay, and on the shameful American indifference to the human costs of wars waged by their country.   However, “American Sniper” ends on a different note than do Bigelow’s two movies. In her work, the protagonists (played by Jeremy Renner and Jessica Chastain) are lonely souls, estranged from their less-driven colleagues, cut off from home, and unknown to their fellow Americans. “American Sniper” ends with Kyle’s funeral procession across Texas. On a rainy day masses of people line the highway and the overpasses, fire-engine ladder trucks hoist huge American flags, Stetsons and baseball caps come off as the cortege passes. Eastwood is in his eighties. This may be his last movie. Hell of a way to go out.

[1] “American Sniper” (2014, dir. Clint Eastwood).

[2] It’s worth noting that the film portrays Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheikh—who has portraying evil Muslims down to a fine art) as an insurgent version of Kyle: skilled, committed, and with a family that is shut out of his work.

“Cabaret.”

So, what’s a cabaret? It’s entertainment consisting of singing, dancing, telling jokes, and performing little bits of theatre. A Master of Ceremonies introduces each act and makes some jokes. Cabaret takes place in a restaurant or night-club, rather than in a theater. The audience can have some drinks or something to eat while watching the show. (SNL and Jay Leno are cabaret-on-television.) The first cabarets opened in Paris—naturally—in the 1880s. They spread all over Europe. Any place you had a big city, crowded apartments, people with some money to go out in the evening, and a sense of pride in being citizens of their city, you got cabaret. German cabaret developed along different lines than in France. Both the German and the Austrian empires censored what could be said in public performances. When those empires gave way to democracies after 1918, a flood of pent-up political smart-alecky performers hit the stage.   Mostly, the comedians didn’t write their own stuff. Instead, some really smart guys who wrote for the newspapers also wrote routines for cabaret comics. Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kastner, and Klaus Mann are good examples. Also, lots of the cabaret performers leaned left politically, so German cabaret often targeted the rich and powerful. Once the Nazis got into the saddle in January 1933, cabaret artists came in for a lot of trouble. (You try sounding smart with a broken jaw.) Still, between the end of the Second Empire and the coming of the Third Reich, you could hear a lot of funny, offensive stuff from a cabaret stage. The “Cabaret Red Light” in Philadelphia sort of falls in the German tradition.

The characteristic forms of this material were cynicism (you don’t trust the motives people give for their actions), sarcasm (you ridicule somebody, often conveying meaning by tone of voice), and irony (you mean the opposite of what you say and the hearer understands this). Cynicism: Paul Krugman of the New York Times thinks the “grassroots” Tea Party is a false front for a few rich guys who want to buy an election. Sarcasm: “Americans are the most charitable people in the world. Look at how we gave democracy to Iraq.” Irony: Stephen Colbert is all irony all the time.

 

The British writer Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) went to Berlin for the first time in 1928. He was looking for book material and boyfriends in about equal measure. Isherwood found all he wanted of each, so he went back several times before 1933. He later wrote about his experiences in Goodbye to Berlin (1935) and Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1939). The books were published together as The Berlin Stories (1946). These experiences provided the basis for a play called “I Am A Camera” (1951) by a very talented, but now forgotten, English writer named John Van Druten. Then (1955) it was turned into a movie of the same title, with a script by a very talented but now forgotten English writer named John Collier, but it suffered from the prudishness of the Fifties. (It’s difficult to convey decadence when married couples have to be shown sleeping in separate beds and wearing pajamas.) Later still it was turned into a Dr. Seuss book called Sam I Am A Camera. Ten years later, public morals were a lot harder to offend. [See: “Easy Rider.”] The not-yet-great producer Hal Prince bought the rights to the story, then turned it into a musical called “Cabaret” (1966). It was a big hit, so Cy Feuer, an important Broadway producer, decided to make a movie out of the play he had not produced. He hired the fabled choreographer and director Bob Fosse (1927-1987) to direct “Cabaret” (1972).

The movie won eight Oscars (including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor). The original Broadway show ran for 1,165 performances. A 1998 revival ran for 2,377 performances. The movie made six times its cost in profits. What has made it so popular with people who live in a different society and culture?