Since Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, no unreleased film has generated as much controversy as Steven Spielberg's Munich. The reasons are obvious: Spielberg is the most successful filmmaker in the world, one with a talent for spectacle and storytelling that guarantees that almost all his movies will be enormous popular hits. A handful of his films, notably Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, have also earned him critical respect (and Oscars). Spielberg is also Jewish and although he rarely weighs in on politics (or religion - you won't catch him wearing one of those trendy kabbalah red-string bracelets), he is quite vocal about the fact that he belongs to a synagogue and is giving his children a Jewish upbringing. When it was announced that his most recent film, War of the Worlds, would open the Jerusalem Film Festival, many hoped that he would visit, but he hasn't been here in recent years (which is true for most of Hollywood's prominent Jews. The Hollywood face you're most likely to run into in Tel Aviv, or even Sderot, since this Intifada started, is Richard Gere, who is not Jewish). But Spielberg donates generously to Israel and Jewish causes, notably to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Given his generosity to this and many other organizations and causes, it would seem delusional to fear that he would make a film that would be anti-Israel.
But this is just what many do fear, because, although Munich starts and ends with the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists, the bulk of the plot, according to reports (it has only been screened in Israel for two of the athletes' widows and is not set to open here until late January), is about the revenge killings the Mossad allegedly carried out. Why focus on this aspect of the story Spielberg has given many reasons. Here's a typical quote from him on the subject, from a Time magazine interview: "I'm in favor of Israel responding strongly when it's threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn't solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine." OK, we get it: Violence never solves anything. My colleague Calev Ben-David suggested, in a recent column, that Spielberg's motivation for focusing on this particular story was to create a metaphor to criticize the US presence in Iraq, by equating Israel's revenge killings with US actions in that country. That makes sense to me. The bottom line, though, is that until we see the movie here, there is no way to have an intelligent discussion about Spielberg's perspective or the film's historical accuracy. For what it's worth, Ilana Romano, a widow of one of the athletes and one of the select group of Israelis who has seen the film, has been making the rounds on the talk-show circuit, giving glowing reports about it.
One last thought about Spielberg. He is above all a director with a highly developed commercial sense. When he decided to make a Holocaust film, he chose as his hero not an embattled Jew in a concentration camp, but a noble gentile who risked his life to save as many Jews as he could. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld. But clearly, choosing a heroic Christian as the protagonist would make the film more accessible to non-Jewish US audiences, and, given its subject matter, Schindler's List was a great commercial success. It's #118 on the list of all-time box office champs. It took in over $320 million worldwide, more than such films as Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon 3. The idea of looking at the Olympic massacre through the eyes of a sexy but tormented Mossad agent (Eric Bana) and his colleagues (several of whom were not Israeli, according to the film), will sell a lot more tickets than a film focused on the anguish of an Israeli widow or the frustrations of representatives of the Israeli government who had to step back and allow the Germans to handle the rescue efforts. Guilt-ridden killers are always in fashion and, more often than not, if a hit man appears in a movie, we see how he has relationship troubles at home or suffers through sleepless nights.
Does Spielberg have anything intelligent to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or is he just using our story to make a roundabout comment on the Iraq War? The jury is out until the film opens here.