On the subject of "Munich," there's been much hand-wringing. Was it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews that Israeli assassins were portrayed as conscience-stricken? Can serious moral issues and box-office success be effectively melded by a middlebrow entertainer such as Steven Spielberg? Were Palestinians portrayed too sympathetically — or not sympathetically enough?
But one thing that was never questioned in the movie or in the commentary that followed was the competence of the Mossad, Israel's much-admired intelligence agency. The killers may have been good or bad, right or wrong, queasy, guilty or confused — but they always got their man.
But is that, in fact, the full, true story? Where, for instance, was the story of Lillehammer? Why was it ignored?
"Munich" accurately portrays how, within days after the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were killed in September 1972, Mossad agents fanned out across Europe on orders of Prime Minister Golda Meir to exact revenge. They killed their first man in Rome in October. In less than a year, they killed nearly a dozen more Palestinians they believed were linked to terrorism.
One of the targeted men was Ali Hassan Salameh, a Black September leader who had helped mastermind the Munich killings. Salameh, a playboy and a womanizer, had been dubbed the "Red Prince" by the Mossad, according to authors Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.
In the summer of 1973, the Mossad became certain that it had finally located Salameh in Lillehammer, a ski resort in southern Norway, and on July 21, 15 Mossad agents arrived there. They followed their target for several hours to make sure he was the right man. Then, as he and his pregnant wife walked back to their apartment from a local movie theater (where they had seen "Where Eagles Dare," starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton) two of the agents approached and shot him 10 times at close range with silenced Berettas.
Unfortunately, they killed the wrong man. The man they thought was Ali Hassan Salameh was actually Ahmed Bouchiki, an innocent Moroccan waiter. Yes, the two looked alike. Yes, both spoke French. But they were nevertheless different men.
Worse yet, the agents failed to cover their tracks and, in the end, six of them were arrested. Incriminating documents were found, along with the keys to several European safe houses. The Mossad had built a reputation for competence beginning in 1960, when it plucked Adolf Eichmann from a Buenos Aires street and brought him to Israel to stand trial. But to this day, Lillehammer stands out as the agency's most egregious (publicly known) failure. At least some reference to it would have been appropriate in Spielberg's version of the Munich story. — Nicholas Goldberg is editor of the Op-Ed page and the Current section.
"Capote" portrays an artist making deep moral compromises in pursuit of his masterpiece. Truman Capote is shown befriending, then betraying Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the murderers at the heart of "In Cold Blood."
Capote offers them legal help, the better to stave off their execution so he can extract a full confession from Smith. Once he has it he cuts off contact, the better to hasten the execution that he needs to finish his book. The historical record, however — including Gerald Clarke's biography, on which the film is based — tells a rather different story.
Capote, as is made clear in one of his letters, had obtained a "private" confession from Smith by the middle of 1960 — shortly after the men's arrest and trial and a full five years before they went to the gallows. There was never any question of manipulating the legal process. As the men's court-appointed attorney told George Plimpton, one of Capote's biographers, it is doubtful anyone could have saved them from execution following their confession to police and entirely orderly trial. Capote never cut off contact with the killers but rather went to extraordinary lengths, including bribery, to circumvent the rules of Kansas' death row so he could visit and write to them from June 1963 until their deaths.
It is true that Capote lied to Smith and Hickock about how much of his book he had written, tried to conceal the title from them so they wouldn't think he was accusing them of premeditated murder — the biggest legal question in the appeals process — and told his friends at the end that he couldn't wait to see them hang. On the day of their deaths, he ignored their entreaties to be with them, cabling them that he was not permitted to, which was not true. He ended up saying the briefest of goodbyes before watching their appointment with the "Big Swing."
These could certainly be regarded as betrayals. But the biggest of those depicted in the film never happened. And yet the movie wants you to believe that these embellishments and inventions were responsible for Capote's descent into drinking and drugs, his failure to ever complete another book.
Of course, "Capote" is a feature film, not a documentary. But there's a difference between changing little things — having Capote use a typewriter, for example, when he typically wrote in longhand — and changing motives and behavior to cast a person in a substantially more negative light.
The distortions matter too, because "Capote" is a film about the spiritual and moral consequences of playing with the truth and with other people's lives. "Capote" looks at the question through the prism of an artist searching for glory. It is worth asking if the filmmakers haven't done a little artistic overreaching of their own.
— Andrew Gumbel is the Los Angeles correspondent for the London newspaper the Independent.
In a perverse way, I'm hoping that "Crash" sweeps the field at the Academy Awards ceremony. Not because it's good — quite the contrary. But I figure that turning up the spotlight on the movie's vision of Los Angeles as a simmering, racist hellbroth might finally stem the flood of Canadians and New Yorkers who keep driving up local real estate prices.
It was a Canadian, Paul Haggis, who conceived this fantasia in which Angelenos are high-strung and shouty. (Dude, those of us living west of Manhattan are a bit more mellow.) And it was New Yorker film critic David Denby who gave the film the East Coast cred and small-type blurb it so nakedly pined for, praising its "breathtakingly intelligent" depiction of "a strange automotive paradise in which people live in separate racial and class enclaves, drive to work, and stick with their own."
As someone who rides the Metro to work, lives in the mixed neighborhood of Silver Lake and is married to a foreigner, maybe I'm just not the target audience. But I'm certainly not alone — more than 1 million of us ride L.A. public transit each weekday. We "crash" into each other at shopping malls, the YMCA and the ballpark. And unlike characters in "Crash," we usually react to fender-benders by at least trading insurance cards before screaming racist insults.
The conceit of "Crash" and the Oscar-nominated L.A.-bashing movies it borrows liberally from ("Magnolia," "Short Cuts," "Grand Canyon") is that they have the guts to portray the real Los Angeles. In truth, they tell us far more about the neuroses of their directors — and the prejudices of academy voters — than about our actual city.
Haggis wrote "Crash" after his Porsche was carjacked. A rich Hollywood progressive, he wanted to understand his attackers (in a similar act of condescension, he cast rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as one of the movie's articulate black thugs because Bridges brought "authenticity, the street").
It's hard to observe street-level race relations from an opulent perch (Haggis' house was used as the district attorney's mansion in the film). And hey, I'd have some racial baggage too if I'd written for "Diff'rent Strokes." But "Crash" has about as much to do with the real L.A. as Woody Allen.
— Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor.
The homosexual love affair at the center of "Brokeback Mountain" has sparked no shortage of controversy. But in the midst of the homophobic frenzy, the movie's true offense has been missed.
The film is adapted from a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx. In her story, one of the young "cowboy lovers" is Latino, and in their adaptation, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana kept the character, Ennis Del Mar, Latino.
The Del Mar movie role went to Heath Ledger, an Anglo from Australia. The role of his wife, Alma, also a Latino in Proulx's story and in the screenplay, went to Michelle Williams. And the role of Latino rancher Joe Aguirre was given to Randy Quaid.
The first American cowboys were caballeros from Spain. In "Guns, Germs and Steel," Jared Diamond contends that the Spaniards were able to conquer what became Latin America primarily because they had horses. Horses, in fact, came to the Americas from Spain.
The states and cities of the American West still bear Spanish names given to them by Latino conquistadores. It was in this Latino American West that caballeros who rounded up cattle were first called vaqueros. Vaquero literally translates to cowman — or cowboy.
Proulx is aware of the Latino history of the American cowboy. In her story, she seems to have gone out of her way to be historically accurate. Too bad Hollywood didn't follow her lead.
There are about 40 million Latinos in the United States, and their numbers are growing faster than any other group. Every sector of the entertainment industry says it wants to "reach" us. Given that, the lack of Latinos in a movie about Latinos is inexcusable, and it speaks to how far Hollywood has to go.
— Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is the author of "The Dirty Girls Social Club."
'Good Night, and Good Luck'
Most docudramas give priority to the drama over the docu — for good reason. Just think how tedious "The Amy Fisher Story" would have been without judicious editing (or without Drew Barrymore).
But not all such corner-cutting can be defended in the name of economy and entertainment, especially when the movie pretends to be historically accurate and a political parable for our times, as does "Good Night, and Good Luck."
In dramatizing Edward R. Murrow's role in the political downfall of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in late 1953 and early 1954, screenwriters George Clooney and Grant Heslov give Murrow credit he doesn't deserve. No less a Murrow protege than Eric Sevareid would say decades later that Murrow's "See It Now" reports on McCarthy "came awfully late."
The movie also portrays William S. Paley, the chief of CBS, as a deserter in the war against McCarthyism for yanking "See It Now" from its regular prime-time slot shortly after the famous broadcasts. In fact, the money-losing program kept its slot for another year. It lost its place to entertainment shows because they were more lucrative.
Clooney and Heslov discard not only documentary fact in their treatment of Murrow but dramatic tension. For example, far from regarding his March 9, 1954, destruction of McCarthy on "See It Now" as a professional triumph, Murrow remained troubled by the way his show edited 15,000 feet of available footage of the senator to make him look like a gibbering idiot rather than confronting his ideas.
Murrow "was always uneasy about" the attack, "almost anxious at times to disown it," writes biographer A.M. Sperber.
Neither docu nor drama, "Good Night, and Good Luck" avoids genuine conflict as it panders to its audience (you know who you are). Somebody in TV news should do an expose of it.
— Jack Shafer writes the "Pressbox" column for Slate, where a longer version of this article appeared.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times