Whenever questions are raised about the accuracy or the truth of something portrayed in a film, the movie-makers and/or their public-relations representatives have a ready-made response.
"It's just a movie," they say.
The exchange invariably concludes with the film's people advising critics to "Lighten up. Nobody expects movies to be historically accurate or true."
That answer has a lot of resonance with the public. Movies are a big part of our imaginative life, but by and large, they exist in a fantasy world, not the one in which we live and work. Yet there are times when some of us do get pretty worked up about the impact a film might have. Witness the reaction last year of the Jewish community to the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
It's true that those who predicted the film would foment violence misunderstood their non-Jewish neighbors, if not Gibson. But that sort of hysteria aside, the Anti-Defamation League and its national leader, Abraham Foxman, were right to raise questions about The Passion, and to speak out about the danger of the deicide myth that Gibson's film seemed to be raising anew.
But when another flick with the potential for damage to the interests of the Jewish community opened last week, the ADL frontman was taking quite a different line.
When asked about whether he was concerned about the release of Steven Spielberg's Munich, Foxman wanted no part of the dustup. This is, mind you, a film that goes out of its way to portray Palestinian terrorists in a flattering light, and whose conclusion centered around the rejection of Israel on the part of a disillusioned member of that country's intelligence services.
While some of those paid by Spielberg to defend the movie - such as former US peace envoy Dennis Ross - have stumbled in doing so (The New Republic reports that at one Washington, D.C. forum held to promote the film, Ross contradicted both the product and himself in one session), Foxman had no trouble in rising to Spielberg's defense.
"The film presents the issues in a sensitive light," said the ADL head in a USA Today article. He was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as asserting, "We do not think this is an attack on Israel. We do not think this is a film of moral equivalency."
Nor was Foxman deterred by the fact that the source for the movie is bogus, and has been roundly refuted by virtually everyone in Israel in a position to know about the events.
"This is not a documentary, and nobody's pretending it is," Foxman responded in a line straight out of the film's P.R. playbook.
Instead, he chose to use the questions as an opportunity to renew his attacks on the pro-Israel Christian Right while asserting, "If I had my choice, I would choose Spielberg, not [Mel] Gibson to do such a movie."
A dispassionate viewer might think it odd that a man who was prepared to go to the barricades about the potential impact of a film only a year ago would be so willing to give Munich a pass.
After all, it's not as if most Americans had never come across a passion play before Mel Gibson and the always-troubling portrayal of Jews in even the most sensitive versions.
This is a time when the right of Israel to defend itself against terrorism has never been under greater attack in the media and from the liberal Christian denominations that wanted no part of Mel Gibson. At such a moment, doesn't Foxman think a movie that invokes the image of the World Trade Center's twin towers - in a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the idea that Israel is the reason America was attacked - is at least as incendiary a notion as the idea that the Jews killed Jesus.
IF THE potential for a distorted view of the history of the first century was so great in The Passion, why is the ADL so disinterested in a slanted view of the events of the last 35 years?
Doesn't the fact that the movie portrays Arab attacks on Jewish targets as being merely a response to Israel counter-terror operations - the horrendously misleading clich about a "cycle of violence" - something that should have restrained this leader's praise. targets predated the Munich atrocity and, contrary to the film, subsequent attacks were not predicated on Israel's counter attacks. Palestinian terrorism continues whether Israel is making peace or making war - or whether it's undecided about what it should do.
THAT'S WHY an insistence on the truth ought not be treated as a minor detail to be dismissed. So rather than watch Spielberg's fable of moral equivalence, the public would be far better off reading a new book that tells the real story of the response to the Munich tragedy.
Aaron J. Klein's Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response is a dispassionate account of the security blunders that allowed the crime to succeed as well as the subsequent efforts to hold the Palestinians accountable for their deeds.
Klein's book is a powerful antidote to the fraudulent Vengeance by George Jonas, which Spielberg used as his primary source. Klein, an Israeli who works as a reporter for Time magazine, interviewed the actual participants in the Mossad's counterattack, something Spielberg didn't bother to do. And unlike the protagonist of the film, the Mossadniks admit to no misgivings about their efforts to track down key figures in the hierarchy of Palestinian terror.
But that story, while riveting, doesn't tell the story that Spielberg want us to hear. The real problem here is that Munich is not the work of a wacky religious zealot like Mel Gibson or even a talented conspiracy maven like Oliver Stone. It is a movie made by a man who has been lionized by the Jewish community for an award-winning film about the Holocaust.
Seen in that perspective, maybe taking on Gibson and The Passion as Foxman did wasn't as daring as it seemed at the time. Maybe the real test of institutional courage comes when the director of Schindler's List puts forward an offensive film - not when it's done by an easy mark for the organized Jewish world.
With major Israel and American Jewish personalities on Spielberg's payroll, it would take guts for a group to challenge this film. But that's a test the ADL has failed in this case.
When all is said and done, like The Passion, Munich is just a movie, and even if it wins some Oscars, it will be gone soon enough from theaters. But if the defenders of the Jewish community and Israel have understood anything in the past, it's that a defeat in the world of ideas and popular culture can be as dangerous as one on the battlefield.
It's just too bad that some of our leaders were unprepared to fight when the battle didn't look like an easy one.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.