A different take on Munich

Spielberg's film is drawing fire for how it portrays the avengers of the 1972 Summer Olympics murders.

munich 1 298 88 (photo credit: Universal Studios)
munich 1 298 88
(photo credit: Universal Studios)
Competition resumed at the Munich Olympics on September 6, 1972, but Israel's athletes were no longer among the participants. They were accompanying the coffins of 11 of their teammates on a plane back to Israel. The events of the preceding day would come to be seen as a turning point in global terrorism, when armed Palestinians captured the world's attention in a 21-hour hostage crisis broadcast live around the world. Millions of television viewers could agree on what they had seen before the stand-off's fiery end, but accounts of what followed diverged sharply from there. The carefully documented details of the Olympic killings serve only as the starting point of Munich, director Steven Spielberg's latest film and the most highly scrutinized of his career. Shot primarily in Malta, Hungary and New York on a budget of $70 million, the film sparked controversy even before specific details came to light about its storyline, which focuses on the historically murkier topic of Israel's reaction to the killings. Early critics condemned the project, assailing the film's allegedly critical take on the Israeli response - as well as for the disputed book it uses as its source. With the approach of Munich's US opening today - a month before its premiere in Israel - media coverage has only intensified, putting those on both sides of the debate on guard. In a short telephone interview, the film's Israeli public relations representative slammed the "anti-Spielberg rumors" he says have been circulating in the Israeli press. Israel's consul-general in Los Angeles, not normally looked to for his views on film, generated international headlines after attending a pre-release screening and calling Munich "pretentious" and "presumptuous" in interviews with Voice of Israel radio and The New York Times. With the film still unavailable for viewing by general audiences, the frenzy itself has become a source of satire, with an Israeli journalist writing in mock outrage last week that he was the basis for Munich's lead character, and that the film had erred unforgivably in not casting to play him "a Jake Gyllenhaal type with the body of Brad Pitt." But while the media have arguably been the first and biggest beneficiaries of the controversy thus far, genuine concerns remain about the film's factual basis and portrayal of its protagonist, who some have claimed is a historical phantom and an unacceptable figure to place at the story's center. Complicating the issue is that the film is intended, according to Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy, to be "a historic thriller." "We weren't making a documentary," Levy said by phone from his Los Angeles office, "and there's always a degree of literary or cinematic license." Whether that's appropriate in this case, however, is a source of debate. Munich's connection to Middle East history and politics will only endure more scrutiny as it opens to the general public and gains eligibility for Academy Awards consideration - Spielberg's stated ambition and his reason for rushing the film through an unusually short production and marketing schedule. That Spielberg made Munich at all is something of a surprise. Budgeted at $70 million, the film opens with the capture and killing of 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and athletic judges at the 1972 Summer Olympics, one of the first major international events hosted by Germany following World War II. With the Dachau concentration camp just 10 kilometers from the Olympic stadium, the games had been designed in part to wash away the stain of Germany's recent past. An official memorial service recalling the Holocaust was attended by Israelis and representatives of most of the European athletic squads, while the hours before the fateful pre-dawn attack saw members of the Israeli team attending a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. In an attempt to avoid recalling the overt militarism of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, security was provided by 2,000 unarmed guards dressed in light blue suits. The 1972 Games produced no shortage of iconic images and memories. Gymnast Olga Korbut charmed her way into the consciousness of millions of worldwide television viewers, putting a new face on the Soviet Union with her emotional reactions to her competitive successes and failures. In the swimming pool, Jewish American swimmer Mark Spitz won an unprecedented - and still unmatched - seven gold medals, a feat made all the more significant by the event's German location. But the enduring image of those Games was to become that of an armed, ski mask-wearing Palestinian terrorist stalking the walkway outside the Israeli residence in the Olympic Village. As one of the terrorist leaders would later boast, the saga was followed by a massive worldwide audience before ending in the early morning of September 6 with the deaths of the Israeli team members, five Black September terrorists and one German police officer. The bloody drama, the focus of the Oscar-winning 2000 documentary One Day in September, serves as the backdrop to the new Spielberg film, which focuses instead on the Israeli response to the attack. "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate with its own values," says Munich's Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who has called a secret top-level meeting to discuss possible responses. In the film, the prime minister and her advisers approve the creation of a five-man hit squad, which is dispatched to Europe to hunt down and assassinate the men involved in the planning and execution of the Munich massacre. As the operation proceeds, the squad's leader, Avner (Eric Bana, the Australian star of The Hulk and Troy) grows increasingly doubtful about the morality of the mission, wondering about the effects of the assassinations and whether all the targets were truly involved in the Olympic killings. The film's dramatic climax, say many of those who've seen it, is a three-minute conversation between Avner and one of the Black September terrorists, during which they discuss their backgrounds and the violent conflict in which they find themselves. Many viewers may interpret the exchange in point/counterpoint terms - a likelihood that has drawn the ire of several early critics. Writing in The New Republic, Leon Wiseltier criticized Munich's "glossy caution" and "crudely schematic" set-up, which over time "begins to look ominously like the sin of moral equivalence." Ehud Danoch, the consul-general in Los Angeles, told The New York Times, "And so it's 11 for 11 ... It's these for those." But Spielberg's narrative and marketing approach have earned applause from other quarters. The American Film Institute included Munich earlier this month in its list of the 10 top movies of 2005, and Spielberg and screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) have received Golden Globe nominations for their work. America's Fox News network, not an obvious source of praise for the film, named Munich the best movie of the year, concluding that "Spielberg has merely reported history, not distorted it, with a deft eye." That, however, is a claim that not even Spielberg's spokesperson would make. In addition to acknowledging the "cinematic license" taken in Munich, Levy emphasized that the film was "inspired by real events," not intended as a strictly factual historical document. WHAT IS intended as an accurate historical account is Vengeance, the 1984 book acquired for big screen adaptation seven years ago by Kathleen Kennedy, a frequent Spielberg partner and one of Munich's producers. Written by Canadian journalist George Jonas, the book relays to readers the testimony of "Avner," the pseudonymously-identified head of the Mossad hit squad assigned to take out the Munich terrorists and their associates. Like the Avner in Munich, the book's protagonist leads a team of four other men and ultimately grows ambivalent about the mission and his role in it. Presented as non-fiction, the book raised eyebrows for recreating dialogue between Avner and his associates - and for sections which, because of their secret source, were unverifiable. Perhaps in a nod to its unconventional literary pedigree, Vengeance was reviewed in The New York Times by fiction writer Ken Follett, who called the book "fascinatingly dubious" but said he "believe[d] Avner's accounts of how the Mossad pays its agents, why Belgium is the best place to buy illegal guns, and how to spot a faked passport." Spielberg's film won't be the first to use the book: American cable network HBO aired a Vengeance adaptation in 1986 entitled Sword of Gideon, which includes an anguished Golda Meir commenting remorsefully that "I hate the terrorists - they're forcing our sons to become killers." Vengeance was contradicted later, however, by other works related to Munich's aftermath, including Simon Reeve's 2000 study One Day in September, the inspiration for the Oscar-winning documentary. Details as basic as the number of hit squad members conflict in the different accounts, and doubts about Vengeance grew after its alleged source, an Israeli named Juval Aviv, provided a controversial, widely discredited theory about the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Reached via e-mail, Jonas declined to comment on Avner's true identity but wrote that he had "met and interviewed the man over a period of several months in various parts of Europe and Israel." Asked about critics who claim that parts of Vengeance weren't accurate, Jonas responded, "If they show me which parts and in what way [they are incorrect], and tell me what the accurate version is and how I may confirm it, I will accept their criticism. So far no critic has done so." Responding to similar questions submitted via e-mail to Aviv's New York-based investigation agency, an assistant to Aviv wrote simply, "Mr. Aviv has nothing to say about either Munich or Vengeance." Others with nothing to say include Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad who declined to comment on the Jonas book, its source or the new movie it's inspired. An official at Israel's Los Angeles consulate, while acknowledging the consul-general's previous public statements, declined further comment. Less reticent, however, is another former Mossad official, David Kimche, who occasionally contributes columns to The Jerusalem Post. While he declined to comment on his Mossad experience and said he had not yet seen Munich, Kimche expressed concern about the new film. Vengeance, he said, was "based on the story of a Mossad faker. That person never set foot in the Mossad, never had anything to do with the Mossad. That account is completely false." Calling Spielberg a "genius in his field," Kimche said he worried that the director's prestige and popularity would only further validate "a patently false picture of what happened," and that "there's probably a lot of misrepresentation about what Israel intended to do at the time." Asked what those intentions were, he said simply, "Preventing innocent people from being killed." Reeve, the author of One Day in September, wrote in an e-mail that he found it "very surprising that Spielberg has selected Vengeance as the source material for Munich. There have always been questions and concerns about that book." With Vengeance listed in the bibliography of his own book, Reeve said he had "read and re-read it, and went through a whole process of trying to establish which bits were true." "But," he added, "eventually I turned to other sources." Yarin Kimor, one of Israel's leading experts on the Munich massacre and its aftermath, said he was familiar with Vengeance and surprised by the decision to use it as the basis for a major new film. "The so-called Mossad agent who was used as a source was not very senior," he said. "I hear all kinds of things about him." The director of Borne Aloft, a 1983 documentary he's twice updated about the Olympic killings and Israel's response, Kimor said Spielberg was under no obligation to contact him or anyone else before making Munich. But the film could prove troublesome on other grounds, he said, noting that "you cannot morally compare Mossad agents pursuing the killers of 11 innocent people" with the killers themselves. In perhaps a tacit acknowledgment of the problematic nature of Munich's source material, Levy said that while "no other source had as much basic thematic influence as [Vengeance], the reason the book gets the kind of credit it does on the screen is because of a contractual obligation when Universal bought the book." He added, however, that "when the original book came out, there was a campaign to say that nothing like this happened, but later on [some of those connected to the Mossad operation] did admit it." TO PREVENT potential damage to the film coming from another direction, Kushner and Kennedy flew to Israel earlier this month for a private screening with Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, widows of two of the Israeli team members and representatives of an organization for the victims' families. Spitzer, whose husband Andre was the Israeli fencing coach in Munich, contacted Spielberg when reports first surfaced about the movie, but she was never given the opportunity to speak with him. Levy said the December 7 screening would have taken place even if Spielberg had addressed Spitzer's concerns early on, but that her experience had heightened the need to let her see the film before its general release. "He didn't need to ask our permission," Spitzer said about Spielberg's choice of subject matter. "But he should have gotten in touch with us." Nevertheless, Spitzer said she's satisfied with the finished product. Both she and Romano said they had two major concerns before seeing the film: that it wouldn't be respectful of their husbands, and that it would equate Israel's actions with those of Black September. "I don't think he portrayed the Israeli agents in the same way he portrayed the Palestinian terrorists," Spitzer said. "It was very clear who killed the athletes, and that it was in reaction that Golda decided to send the [assassination] team - that she was very reluctant. This is what the whole security establishment told me at the time - that they had to convince her that if they didn't do this, there would have been another Munich and another Munich and another." "Steven's nightmare," she was told at the screening, "was that we would say after seeing the movie that our husbands were spinning in their graves. We certainly wouldn't have to say that." Romano, whose husband Yossef was a weightlifter and the second Israeli athlete to die, echoed Spitzer's approving response. She said she was pleased that the film hadn't been named Vengeance - "that's not in our beliefs" - and that she was touched to learn about the minute of silence observed by Munich's cast and crew at Spielberg's request on September 5, the anniversary of the tragedy. She said she didn't consider the film an "attack" on Israel, and suggested that Spielberg had instead found a new way to honor her husband and his teammates. "[Black September terrorist] Abu Daoud bragged after the attacks that millions of people saw the terror in Munich," she said, "but now Spielberg has entered the hearts of millions of people to say what happened to our families. We have worked so hard for 33 years so that no one will forget." Romano and Spitzer said they would both attend a mid-January screening of the film for other relatives of the slain athletes. Spitzer said she thought Spielberg would be at the screening, but Levy said that no firm plans have been made for Spielberg to travel to Israel. Whatever effect Munich ultimately has on perceptions of Israel and the beginnings of its counter-terrorism program, the film has already guaranteed a new wave of public interest in the Olympic killings and their aftermath. The post-September 11 crisis in global security only adds relevance to discussions of terrorism and how to formulate a response, Spitzer, Romano and Levy all said. Vengeance is being reissued by its publisher, Jonas said, taking its place in bookstores alongside a new book on the subject by Time magazine writer Aaron Klein. Kimor, the documentary filmmaker, recently completed his contribution to a new Munich-related German TV program, and he says that he's been contacted about projects for French and British TV as well. "Every time I think the story has ended in the collective memory of the nation and the world, something comes up because of the issues of terrorism and response," he said. "Munich is something nobody forgets."