Reimagining the past in 'Munich'

Don't expect historical accuracy from commercial Hollywood in Spielberg's largely fictionalized account of the Munich assassinations.

By EMANUEL LEVY
December 13, 2005 03:26
3 minute read.
steven spielberg 88 298

steven spielberg 88 298. (photo credit: )

To meet its release date and to qualify for Oscar considerations, Munich was rushed into production, and began shooting in Malta and Budapest as late as July. It has yet to open to the wider public, but there are several problem areas in Munich that are bound to stir controversy. Though based on the squad team that set out to kill the Palestinians accused of murdering innocent Israeli athletes, Munich is largely a fictionalized account. Choosing one of the most commercial genres to tell the story, Spielberg has approached Munich as an international espionage thriller, one that's set in a dozen locations, involves a huge ensemble of both lead and supporting parts, and tends to underplay the role of the Israelis in the mission. Spielberg's already taking criticism for going out of his way to present a balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with no clear heroes or villains. There is no doubt that he's treating the subject as a morality tale-the heavy price in the making and unmaking of political assassins. This precarious balance on screen also prevailed off screen, while shooting the picture, as Spielberg recalled in an interview with Time magazine: "I hired Arab actors to play the Palestinians and Israelis to plays the Israelis, and they took it very much to heart. It was a very emotional catharsis, and I was not thinking so much of technique as I was about just holding this cast and crew together and keeping everybody on an even keel. It was a difficult, rugged couple of weeks." It's important to note that like Schindler's List, Munich is first and foremost a Hollywood picture that needs to recoup its high budget (rumored to be over $60 million). Made for mainstream audiences all over the world, many of whom may not be familiar with the historical case, the narrative necessarily adopts a broad, middlebrow sensibility and nonjudgmental approach. Even so, those who hold the late prime minister Golda Meir in high regard may be disappointed with her portraiture in the movie. The film gives Golda a strong speech about the right of Jews to defend themselves, claiming that Israel, like every civilization, may find its necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values. According to the film, Golda endorsed and fully embraced the secret mission, known as "Operation Wrath of God," and considered one of the boldest assassination plots in modern history. Later on, it's revealed that contrary to public statement, Golda was prevented from attending the funeral for the Israeli athletes not because of her sister's death, but because "she was afraid to be booed" by the angry public that demanded immediate retaliation. Spielberg has previously explored historically resonant moments in such epic films as Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. For him, the story of Munich raises imminently vital questions about the world in 2005-and beyond. Spielberg wishes to take the audience into what he calls "a hidden moment in history." In the press notes, the filmmakers claim that though neither the Israeli government, nor the Mossad, had ever acknowledged the existence of such hit squads, several books and documentaries, utilizing inside sources, have since provided details of how the team carried out its goals. They cite two Israeli generals, who have publicly confirmed that the target assassination squads did exist: General Aharon Yariv in a 1993 documentary, and General Zvi Zamir in a 2001 interview for 60 Minutes. According to Ma'ariv, Spielberg will face his Israeli audience in person when he arrives here to publicize the film's release in the next month.


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