‘Munich’ — a Risky Move for Spielberg

The billboards for Steven Spielberg’s new film “Munich,” which opens Dec. 23, will soon be sprouting on buses, benches and boulevards around the nation. The image is simple and stark. A lone man sits gloomily in a dark, heavily draped hotel room, his body sparely illuminated by the light of a single window. His shoulders are hunched disconsolately and a pistol dangles from his hand. He seems very much alone.

The legend notes: “The world was watching in l972 as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. This is the story of what happened next.”

What happened next is at the heart of what could be Spielberg’s most daring, provocative and politically charged movie. Munich presents a fictionalized account of Israel’s decision to track down and kill the perpetrators of the Olympic massacre — quietly, systematically and ruthlessly. Something very much like this happened in reality, and that’s what happens in the film, too, which is loosely based on “Vengeance,” the nonfiction book by George Jonas, first published in 1984.

Five years in the making “Munich” presents Spielberg, who has pulled off blockbuster entertainments such as “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Los Ark” as well as critically acclaimed dramas with a formidable challenge, such as “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

The subject matter virtually guarantees that the film will satisfy almost no one with deep feelings about the subject or the politics of the Middle East.

Dramatically, Universal Studio and DreamWorks SKG are marketing the film as “a gripping, suspense thriller,” but the work is more than that for Spielberg personally and also for his reputation. Spielberg is a hero to many Jews and Israelis for creating the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which preserved the memories of 49,000 Holocaust victims. Spielberg has taken on a tailor-made talmudic dilemma: On the one hand if he painted the Israeli assassins as avenging heroes he would invoke the wrath of not only the entire Arab world but Europeans whose leftist governments and the people they serve, hold pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli positions.

On the other, if he attempts to make the Arab killers of the Israeli Olympic team in any way understandable as human beings (as for example in “Paradise Now,” the movie about Palestinian suicide bombers), if he ascribes to them motives that could make them seem less than monsters, Israelis and Jews around the world would be outraged.

“Munich for us was comparable to America’s Sept. ll,” said Reuven Merhav, one-time director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who served in Israeli intelligence during the events portrayed in the film. “It’s Steven’s ‘Passion of The Christ,'” said a studio executive who worked on the movie in Europe. “He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. But he was determined to get the picture made and perhaps only he could have pulled it off.”

Spielberg based his movie partly on the book by the Hungarian-born, Toronto-based Jonas. This much-debated, dramatically told nonfiction account relates the story of “Avner,” the young Mossad agent recruited to head a team of five assassins tasked with killing 11 Arabs implicated in the Olympic killings.

Jonas’ primary source was Avner himself, who was the cr?me de la cr?me of the Israeli military, a young man who as a crack army officer had been unafraid to kill in battle. Turning himself into an assassin, however, almost destroyed him and his family, and it led him to profound moral questioning that eventually prompted him to leave the task unfinished and reject outright the concept of personal vengeance. Since its publication, critics have challenged whether Jonas got either the story right or its implied moral. Jonas’ book was the basis of a l986 television miniseries “Sword of Gideon,” starring Rod Steiger as the Mossad boss, Steven Bauer as the reluctant liquidator and Colleen Dewhurst as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

In the movie the lead roles are played by two Australian actors: Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”), who plays the assassin’s Mossad handler, and Eric Bana (“The Hulk” and “Troy”) as the guilt-ridden young Israeli recruited to set up a small team of experts in skills such as using explosives and forging documents.

The movie’s production was shrouded in secrecy, partly to avoid possible disruption to on-location shoots in Malta, which doubles for Israel, and Budapest, which stands in for Munich. In Manhattan, as part of the low-profile approach, the movie was called by the benign temporary title “Kings Cross.” In Paris (where Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski visited his set) and the rest of Europe, it was “Red Wine.”

Early previews of the film have simply not been available for reviewers, forcing scribes, including this one, to speculate about the movie’s content based on the trailer and on whatever other sourcing they can pry loose. For this article, a source close to the production provided information on a not-for-attribution basis. Spielberg, for his part, has offered some carefully worded official comments, as have some others associated with the film. Universal said the trio most responsible for the film — Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Tony Kushner — were unavailable for interviews.

One thing, though, seems clear: Spielberg has vied to turn the tale into a personal crisis of conscience, trying to avoid glorifying one side or the other. At the same time, he believes that the lessons of the Munich attack and Israel’s revenge have relevance to today’s climate of unending bombings and targeted reprisals in the Middle East.

“Viewing Israel’s response to Munich through the eyes of the men who were sent to avenge that tragedy adds a human dimension to a horrific episode that we usually think about only in political or military terms,” Spielberg said in a statement. “By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today.”

Spielberg became so caught up with the film that he abandoned the idea of directing “Memoirs of a Geisha,” allowing “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall to helm that film although Spielberg retains an executive producer credit.

He hired Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Kushner (“Angels in America”) to rework the original scripts of Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”). Kushner’s assignment was reportedly to “soften” the image of the Black September terrorists.

“Nobody’s going to admit that they wanted to soften things — and maybe that’s the wrong word,” said the source who worked on the Spielberg film. “But it was very clear to many that the earlier version of the Arabs was too simplistic and negative. So Kushner’s job was to make them more articulate and maybe even allow them to express their viewpoints — however distasteful — and to try and understand their motivations.”

“Steven wanted to know who he could get to make them human,” the source added. “Someone who understood and could posit the Palestinian point of view as well as articulate that with strong dialogue. He felt the early scripts dwelt too heavily upon the action — and not enough on the raison d’etre.”

In today’s political climate, Spielberg knew he couldn’t get away with making the terrorists one-dimensional heavies. The nasty Nazis of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” wouldn’t cut it.

Kushner, who is Jewish, co-edited 2003’s “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish American Responses to the Israeli Palestine Conflict,” a book of essays by leading liberal Jewish lights including Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag, which expressed concern about the plight of the Palestinians. It was this reputation, along with his ability to write pungent theatrical dialogue, that convinced Spielberg that he was the person for the delicate job.

Although the movie credits Jonas’ l984 book, which is being re-issued, Spielberg publicist Marvin Levy insisted in an interview, “The book is not the book of our movie.”

In a phone conversation from his home office in Canada, “Vengeance” author Jonas emphasized that he had no involvement or creative control with “Munich.” He’d previously sold his movie rights. Jonas commented that the Spielberg film comes out in a world that has changed since his book was published in the early 1980s.

“It wasn’t until the 1990s that some governments actually began to acknowledge [that they engaged in covert counterterrorism],” he said. “Some 30 years ago the morality of counter-terrorism violence might have been questioned, and governments concealed their actions in that area…. By 2005 matters are more equivocal. Terrorists and counterterrorists came out into the open. Security forces’ assassinations are on CNN. Beheadings of hostages are shown on Al Jazeera [the Arab satellite TV news channel] and now terrorists routinely claim justifications for their acts. Political murder has started to be respectable.”

Spielberg’s retelling uses real live footage of ABC television’s spot coverage of the Black September massacre, complete with Jim McKay’s solemn wrap up: “They’re all gone.”

That is prologue, closely followed by the recruitment of the Israeli secret agent; the make up of his five-man team of experts, including British actor Daniel Craig (the screen’s new James Bond); and Irish actor Ciaran Hinds, last seen as Julius Caesar in HBO’s “Rome.” The agent’s assignment is clear: “You have 11 Palestinian names. Each had a hand in planning Munich. You are going to kill them — one by one,” his Mossad boss tells him.

In Spielberg’s movie, Prime Minister Golda Meir, who sits in her Jerusalem home, sipping tea and sharing fruit with the man chosen to lead the mission justifies the action by noting: “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”

In “Munich” the revenge squad obsess about making sure only their targets are hit — and meticulous care is taken to avoid collateral damage. Yet in one shootout an innocent man is also slain.

(In reality the Israeli hit team, reportedly in pursuit of Palestinian Ali Hassen Salmeh, one of the key Munich plotters, mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter named Ahmed Bouchiki in Lillehammer, Norway, in July l973.) The intense moral contortions the agents experience as the corpses pile up makes up the substance of the movie.

Before shooting began, Spielberg went to great lengths to vet the text, reportedly lining up a bevy of illustrious advisers, including former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and former President Bill Clinton. Another evaluator was apparently Rabbi Levi Meier, the chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, who is close to the director and helped him when Spielberg’s actress wife Kate Capshaw converted to Judaism. Meier declined to confirm or deny his role.

The New York Times reported that Spielberg, also spoke with Clinton’s White House spokesman Mike McCurry as well as Los Angeles PR consultant Allan Mayer whose company specializes in crisis management, on how to cope with the expected firestorm.

Some critics didn’t wait for the movie’s release. Retired former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir questioned the film’s credibility — particularly if it was based on Jonas’ book.

“I am surprised that a director like Spielberg has chosen, out of all the sources, to rely on this particular book,” he told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

Spielberg has said Jonas’ book was not his compass: “The film is based on multiple sources including the recollections of some who participated in the events themselves.”

Retired Israeli diplomat David Kimche, a former Mossad agent in the aftermath of Munich, expressed similar misgivings.

“It’s very difficult to pass judgment about rumors, Kimche said. But “I find it repulsive to even try to condone the actions of the Black September terrorists. I think there’s been an effort to change the truth and the facts. You cannot whitewash murderers and, as far as I’m concerned, the people who did what they did in Munich were murderers — and no amount of painting them in a humane way can make any difference.”

Kimche called Jonas’ “Vengeance” “a negative book.” “I lived through that period,” he said, “and I know in my heart what was right and what was wrong. I say to hell with Mr. Jonas.”

An especially ironic critique was datelined Gaza, courtesy Reuters. Mohammed Daoud, believed by some to be the mastermind of the Munich massacre, was reported to be upset that Spielberg never called: “If someone really wanted to tell the truth about what happened he should talk to the people involved. Were I contacted, I would tell the truth.”

The Jonas book, he claimed, “is full of mistakes.” He added: “They carried out vengeance against people who had nothing to do with the Munich attack — people who were merely politically active or had ties with the PLO. If a film fails to make these points it will be unjust in terms of truth and history.”

Retired diplomat Kimche acknowledged that it matters that Spielberg, rather than someone else, made this film.

“Spielberg is a name one can’t ignore,” he said. “I have a vested interest in the story, of course, and when I see the film I will probably come out very angry because I know the reasoning behind the reasoning that went into what was done.”

Jonas, the author of “Vengeance,” is as curious to see the result of Spielberg’s vision as anyone.

“Spielberg is one of the most influential filmmakers in the world,” he said, “and I am naturally extremely curious on what his take on it is. I am prepared to pay my $10 to see it in my local cinema.”

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.