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Judgment on ‘Munich’

Controversy arises over new Spielberg film about hunt for '72 Olympics terrorists

by Tom Tugend

December 15, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Director Steven Spielberg, second from left, with Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana on the set of "Munich." Photo by Karen Ballard

Director Steven Spielberg, second from left, with Daniel Craig, Hanns Zischler and Eric Bana on the set of "Munich." Photo by Karen Ballard

"Munich" ranks as one of those movies that has been analyzed by so many and, so far, seen by so few. All the buzz and fuss isn't about the quality, pacing, acting, music and cinematography of the movie. After all, "A Steven Spielberg Film" carries the imprimatur of the Hollywood gold standard, of the creator of megahits from "Jaws" to "Schindler's List" to "Saving Private Ryan."

"Munich" goes deeper than that. The film, opening in a limited rollout on Dec. 23, looks at the aftermath of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. But it is also about a filmmaker's obligation to historical fact. At the most profound level, "Munich" confronts the old and new question of how war and terrorism transform the perpetrator and, even more, the one who takes up arms to oppose the evil.



In this 1972 photo, a member of the Arab terrorist group Black September appears on the balcony of the Olympic village building where the commandos were holding several members of the Israeli team hostage.

The film opens with still-haunting black-and-white television footage from the Munich Olympics, as sportscaster Jim McKay reports on the capture and eventual killing of the Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian Black September terrorists.

When a botched attempt by German police to rescue the Israeli hostages fails, we hear McKay's somber, "It's all over. They are all gone."

Although there are flashbacks to the massacre throughout the film, the focus shifts to a meeting between Prime Minister Golda Meir and her top military and intelligence leaders. The decision is made to send a five-man Mossad team (among others) to Europe to hunt down and assassinate the 11 surviving massacre participants and planners who are at large.

Picked as the leader is agent Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), son of a Holocaust survivor (Gila Almagor) and whose wife is expecting their first baby.

His companions make up a properly diverse, if fictionalized, team, including an aggressive hit man (Daniel Craig), a meticulous bourgeois type (Ciaran Hinds), a toymaker turned bombmaker (Mathieu Kassovitz) and an expert document forger (Hanns Zischler).

From this point, the two and a half hour film incorporates three storylines.

The first is that of a first-class action thriller, as the squad tracks and hunts down its targets in Italy, France, England and Spain. There are some hits, some misses, lots of explosions and shootings, James Bond capers, a few car chases and a bit of sex. All along, Avner is fed tips, against hefty payments, by a mysterious Frenchman with unlimited contacts, who may also be a double agent.

The movie's second storyline centers on the interaction among the team's five men, and occasionally with their hard-nosed Mossad boss in Tel Aviv (Geoffrey Rush).

At first, they talk shop about the technical aspects of their job, but as some of their hits lead to inevitable overkill and collateral damage, the discussions turn more subtle and intense.

Some wonder if there is a moral dimension to their work, and whether this is in conflict with millennia of Jewish history and teaching. The concerns of the "moralists" are followed by the "pragmatists," who ask if the constant cycle of attack, retaliation and counterretaliation will ever lead to a solution.

Spielberg has said repeatedly that this question is at the top of his mind, and he cleverly stresses the point by alternating headlines of a terrorist airport bombing, a Mossad assassination and a plane hijacking.

"I am always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it's threatened," the filmmaker told Time magazine. "At the same time, a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine."

A third subtext, relatively brief but central to Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, is a confrontation between Avner and Ali, the young leader of a PLO squad, on the aims and justifications of the Palestinian's violence. It is a polemical but well-handled piece of theater, and as an Israeli official who has seen the movie put it, "There isn't a Palestinian spokesman who could express his case in three minutes as well as Ali."

Throughout, Avner, not an especially introspective type, remains mission-oriented. He is, however, beginning to be torn between the voice of his mother, who tells him that he is the kind of man the victims of the Holocaust prayed for, and the pull of his wife and newborn child.

In the end, he demands to know whether all the men he has killed were actually involved in the Munich massacre, but receives no direct answer.

Since "Munich" started shooting last June in Malta and Budapest, it has been shrouded in a blanket of secrecy, which is only now beginning to lift as the movie begins to be screened.

Because of or despite the news blackout, there has been a constant stream of critical reports from Israel, most denouncing the film as historically inaccurate.

"This is simply fiction, not a documentary," said Ehud Danoch, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles and one of the few Israelis to have seen "Munich."

High-ranking Israelis in and out of the Mossad have expressed astonishment and annoyance that not one was consulted by Spielberg or screenwriter Kushner. Nor was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, which oversees the intelligence service. It is not certain whether the filmmakers would have received any cooperation, since Israel has never acknowledged that it carried out the post-Munich reprisals.

Also within Israel, the main source book cited by the film, "Vengeance" by George Jonas, has been widely criticized.

"The man who came to Jonas and represented himself to be, in effect, the Avner character of the movie, was actually never in the Mossad and only served a few months as an El Al security guard," said a knowledgeable Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He cited a number of obvious technical inaccuracies, but what most upset the official was the depiction of some of the Mossad agents' actions.

"You can argue that violence begets violence, but there is a line our security officers will not cross, and that is the ethos of the purity of arms," said the official, himself a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces. "The IDF is the most moral army in the world."

It is also Israel that has consistently striven for peace, and thus an end to violence, he added.

After seeing "Munich," the official drew an unfavorable comparison to the controversial "The Passion of the Christ."

"In 'The Passion,' you have two short scenes that make the Jews look bad," he said. "But in 'Munich,' some Jewish characters are depicted badly from the beginning to the end."

Also displeased with the portrayal of the Mossad agents is historian Michael Oren, who told The New York Times, "It's become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hitman. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. Somehow, it's only the Jews."

An intriguing question was raised by Calev Ben-David of The Israel Project, writing in The Jerusalem Post in the form of a letter to Spielberg.

"What I really suspect, Steven, is that you are using 'Munich' as a means of commenting, in your own way, on the situation of the United States in a post-9/11 world," Ben-David writes.

"But by setting those concerns against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you cleverly sidestep having to contend with the kind of overwhelming backlash you would face if your movie made any direct politically charged controversial statements about America's own current war on terror."

Spielberg declined to make himself available for an interview, but in limited public statements he focuses foremost on how his movie relates to ongoing, tit-for-tat Middle East conflict. It is perhaps telling that "Munich's" final scene shows Avner walking along the New York waterfront, with the World Trade Center's Twin Towers clearly silhouetted in the background.

The criticism of "Munich's" historical accuracy is probably correct but of little importance, because Spielberg lays no claim to it. The film is clearly labeled as "Inspired by real events," and the director and writer have referred to the contents as "historical fiction."

What appears to be of more fundamental importance is whether Israel and her supporters are better served by portraying its agents as robotic "I'm only following orders" hit men or as men with some feelings, conscience and doubts. To ask the question is to answer it.

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum of the University of Judaism observed after seeing the fascinating but "long and draining" film: "I am prouder of a man who undertakes a violent mission and is tortured by it than one who doesn't give it a second thought. If you are transformed by such an experience, that is the price you pay for what you have to do."

Berenbaum warmly praised "Munich" as a theatrical experience, "which is the first duty of the filmmaker, as we have a responsibility to be open to the art."

Even beyond the film, the debate on the aftermath of the Munich massacre continues. A book by Time reporter Aaron J. Klein is coming out, arguing that the Mossad eliminated only minor activists in the Olympic massacre but missed most of the major ones. Two additional books are in the works in Israel, and seven networks, among them the BBC, are reported to be preparing documentaries on the making of "Munich."

 

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