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November 01, 2008


There's a great deal to admire about Jonathan Demme, both as a movie director and a person. But this, from the commentary track to his documentary Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, is a big disappointment:

DEMME: I always find this part of the film almost heartbreakingly moving in a way, because the whole idea of leaders, the leader of Israel, the leader of an Arab nation, the leader of America, sitting down, and all they're talking about is this peace that they have dared believe in. It makes you wonder, can this ever happen again? Will there ever be leadership like these three men, who are willing to dare to go that far? And of course it's tragic that both Begin and Sadat were assassinated by people from their own country in the years following this encounter. And Begin himself had done such a turnaround in the presence of a Carter and the presence of a Sadat, he was able to draw upon his belief in humanity and peace...

It's distressing, though understandable, that Demme doesn't understand the reality of the Camp David Accords. They were much more a matter of moving Egypt out of the Soviet Union's imperial orbit, and into ours, than lasting peace in the region. (Hint: four years later Begin invaded Lebanon.)

But it's really bad news that Demme mixes up Menachem Begin, who left power in 1983, with Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. Man from Plains is all about Carter's book tour for Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. And the difference between Begin and Rabin is such basic information about this subject that Demme really shouldn't have made the movie without knowing it. (His producer Neda Armian is also on the commentary track, so she apparently didn't know either.)


LET'S GET BACK TO CRITICIZING PEOPLE I DON'T LIKE: A much more serious example of this kind of thing appears in Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm. Pollack twice refers to the 1982 "assassination" of Israeli ambassador to the U.K. Shlomo Argov:

[I]n June 1982, Iraq would instigate the assassination of Israel's ambassador to Great Britain to try to spark the long-expected Israeli invasion of Lebanon that Saddam hoped would create a new Arab-Israeli war that would somehow convince Iran to cease combat operations against Iraq...
Iraq orchestrated the assassination of Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to Great Britain. Iraq's motives are illuminating...[Saddam] ordered the killing of Argov because the right-wing government of Menachem Begin had made it clear that another terrorist attack would prompt it to invade Lebanon to clear out the PLO presence there.

Pollack clearly doesn't know Argov survived this assassination attempt (and in fact was still alive when The Threatening Storm came out). This is slightly more obscure information than the difference between Begin and Rabin, but not much more. And it's certainly something any "expert" on the mideast should know like their own name. Getting it wrong is like referring to "Israel's 1000-mile long southern border with Lebanon."

Of course, no one cares about Pollack's embarrassing mistake, because he was calling for war! war! war! In fact, as far as I can tell with Google and Nexis, none of the dozens of glowing reviews of his book even mentioned this. In the reviewers' defense, though, few of them probably read it.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at November 1, 2008 01:24 PM

Begin/Rabin, Likud/Labor - what's the difference. Same crap, a couple of letters swapped here and there.

Posted by: abb1 at November 1, 2008 03:52 PM

Oh, sure.
Henry Wallace/George Wallace, what's the difference. Swap a first name, same crap.
Voting the Know Nothing Party this time?

Posted by: donescobar at November 1, 2008 04:17 PM

Demme's fond of making movies about subjects he lacks basic knowledge on. Gays, for example. If I ever find out that Philadelphia is on your list of things to admire about him, John, it'll be a dealbreaker.

Posted by: ethan at November 1, 2008 05:04 PM

"And Begin himself had done such a turnaround in the presence of a Carter and the presence of a Sadat, he was able to draw upon his belief in humanity and peace..."

Right ... From the Carter library --
Document 13: President Carter's notes indicate the difficulty of the last few hours of negotiations at Camp David.
Settlement in West Bank & Gaza
Late in the evening, Saturday, September , P.M. Begin, FM Dayan, Atty Gen Barak, Sec Vance and I were concluding discussions on the final wording of the section on the West Bank & Gaza.
Section 6 referred to the Israeli settlements, and as drafted in the American proposal, stated
" [...] "
Prime Minister Begin objected to this language, and began to make several alternate proposals. They included:
a) a fixed time (three months) during which no new settlements would be constructed;
b) prohibitions against civilian settlements only;
c) right to build a limited number of new settlements; etc
All of these proposals were rejected by me.

Finally, we agreed on the exact language concerning the settlements, and that the paragraph would be removed from the West Bank Gaza section and included in a letter from Begin to me. I told him it could not be a secret letter and the Prime Minister replied that the text would be make public.
The agreed text was " [...] "
It was clear and obvious that the "negotiations" applied to the West Bank and Gaza.

Early the next day I informed Pres Sadat of the agreement.
On Sunday aftenoon Mr. Barak brought to me from PM Begin, a proposed text which differed substantially from that which we had agreed. I informed him that it was unsatisfactory, and read to him the text on which we had agreed, which was still lying on my desk.
He did not disagree with the agreed text.

See also Laurence Davidson --

Posted by: dz alexander at November 1, 2008 06:27 PM

Same crap, Don. One a bit more more boorish, the other a bit more slick, otherwise the same. I prefer Likud - less bullshit.

Posted by: abb1 at November 1, 2008 07:02 PM

Demme's fond of making movies about subjects he lacks basic knowledge on. Gays, for example.

What makes you say that?

Posted by: cemmcs at November 1, 2008 07:02 PM

I don't know what ethan specifically objected to about Philadelphia, but here's a basic critique of the movie by the lesbian AIDS activist, novelist, and playwright Sarah Schulman:

Philadelphia stands alone as an example of heterosexual conceit and disregard for truth. The film has been discussed extensively in other places, but, in brief, Philadelphia is predicated on the idea that there is no gay community. A gay lawyer (Tom Hanks) has AIDS and is fired by his homophobic law firm. He goes to a straight homophobic lawyer (Denzel Washington) because there are no gay lawyers. It is shocking that an entire film could be built on this premise, which is not only absurd but grossly ahistorical, since the abandonment of people with AIDS by heterosexual society is the most historically significant factor in the initial escalation of the crisis in the United States. Despite this, gay people built a world of services, advocacy organizations, and personal relationships in response to the epidemic that later became the foundation of support for HIV-infected heterosexuals. Gay lawyers were among the first professional sectors to respond to the epidemic. In other words, not only was the premise of Philadelphia false, it was the opposite of the actual truth. Yet this film was highly rewarded and made huge moral claims. Throughout the film, gay people are vulnerable, weak, and alone. We take a back seat while the heroic straight people protect us and defend us. In the end of the film, Hanks dies happy.

Posted by: Duncan at November 1, 2008 09:04 PM

How often has the hero in a film ostensibly about black people been a white person?

The underlying message is that bigotry is wrong which is a good message but...

Thanks for responding to my comment. Call me stupid but I really did not understand that about Philadelphia.


Posted by: cemmcs at November 1, 2008 10:47 PM

cemmcs, Duncan's post nailed a lot of it. There's also the fact that according to Demme, gay people are entirely asexual. The happy martyr thing is my biggest problem with the movie, though.

Posted by: ethan at November 2, 2008 10:27 AM

I think the Begin/Rabin mixup was just a brain fart, most likely--even knowledgeable people sometimes make really stupid mistakes like this. Though it should have been caught before it made it on tape.

Possibly the same is true of Pollack, though I have no wish to be fair to that jerk.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 2, 2008 12:16 PM

Well the guy did get his start, back in the '70s, helming women-in-prison pics in the Philippines for Corman. That's gotta affect a guy on some level.

Posted by: AlanSmithee at November 2, 2008 03:57 PM

Well the guy did get his start, back in the '70s, helming women-in-prison pics in the Philippines for Corman

Given the quality of your directing work, Mr. Smithee, I don't think you're in any position to throw stones.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at November 3, 2008 09:53 AM