The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Mel Gibson's Maccabee movie: Penance or career self-destruction?

September 9, 2011 |  1:38 pm

No, it isn't April's Fool Day. But I had to do a quick check of the calendar when I heard the news that Mel Gibson was developing a movie for Warner Bros. about the life of Judah Maccabee, the much heralded warrior who led a heroic revolt in 160 BC that is celebrated every year at Hannukah by Jews. You know, the same Jews that Gibson has infamously maligned, not only in a nasty anti-Semitic rant after he was arrested for drunken driving but in his enormously successful film "The Passion of the Christ."

The announcement of the project makes it clear that Gibson is back in good standing in Hollywood, at least at Warner Bros., arguably the industry's leading studio, despite the fact that Gibson as recently as last summer was in hot water again, for making racist and misogynistic remarks in a taped conversation with his then-girlfriend. If Warners was at all worried about its image, it easily could have decided to wait until Gibson finished the film before agreeing to do a deal with the star, who will be directing but not necessarily appearing in the film.    

The fact that Warners agreed to bless the Gibson film before it even had a script in hand -- it's being penned by Joe Eszterhas -- shows that the studio felt it was on safe ground in terms of blowback about lending the Warners shield to the project.

Of course, the blowback is already here, with a host of Jewish leaders, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Marvin Hier and Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, already blasting the decision. Foxman said it would be a "travesty" to have the Maccabee story told "by one who has no respect and sensitivity for other people's religious views." Hier topped that, railing against the way Gibson portrayed Jews in "Passion of the Christ" as "idiots and buffoons" before adding a coup de grace, saying that having Gibson at the helm of a story about Judah Maccabee "is like casting [Bernie] Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or a white supremacist as trying to portray Martin Luther King Jr. It's simply an insult to the Jews."

But is it? It's true that Gibson's portrayal of Jews in "Passion of the Christ" was one-sided and deeply stereotypical. And it's pretty clear, from his own actions, that Gibson, drunk or sober, is a man with a lot of enmity inside him, not just for Jews but for African Americans and women. But does that disqualify him from making a movie about Judah Maccabee?

Hardly. First off, until Eszterhas turns in a script, we have no idea what sort of story will be told, much less how it will portray its characters, in terms of tone and shading. Gibson clearly loves mythic heroes from the past -- remember "Braveheart"? -- so his adoration for an embattled warrior might trump his lack of respect for his religion. Stranger things have happened. Conservatives were in an uproar when it was announced that big fat liberal Oliver Stone was doing a 9/11 movie. Yet the final product, "World Trade Center," was viewed as incredibly reverential and uplifting, even by longtime Stone critics.

Gibson has a lot of serious flaws as a human being, but he has always been a gifted filmmaker. It's unfair to judge him so soon. What concerns me most is Gibson's motives for making the film. Even though he has been notoriously self-destructive in his personal life, he surely must realize that a film from him that in any way undercuts the heroism of Maccabee would be a career killer of the highest order. But it would be almost as bad if he were doing the film as an act of penance for his sins, since dutiful acts of penance rarely lend themselves to great artistry.

There are many hurdles to come, starting with the fact that Gibson has put the story in the hands of Eszterhas, the author of all sorts of pulpy, over-the-top thrillers who, even by the most generous standards, hasn't written a decent screenplay in 20 years. But if, Hanukkah miracle of all miracles, Gibson were to end up with a great story to tell, I'd be happy to see him celebrating one of the great Jewish heroes. When it comes to art, sometimes the people who have the most demons to confront end up being the most riveting storytellers of all.

-- Patrick Goldstein  


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Photo: Mel Gibson appears in a Los Angeles courtroom to settle a long-running custody dispute with his former girlfriend over their young daughter. Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press