Munich: Spielberg’s Hot-Button Movie about 1972 Massacre

Munich, Spielberg’s take on the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and its aftermath, has not opened yet theatrically but it is already stirring controversy.

For starters, there is resentment about Spielberg’s refusal to talk to journalists about the film. In today’s movie market, for such a high-profile film like “Munich” not to have a press junket is certainly an anomaly. The exclusive Spielberg granted to Time magazine, and the cover story’s title, “Spielberg Secret Masterpiece,” has created bad vibes among the American press, particularly after the extensive promotion of Spielberg and star Tom Cruise for the sci-fi remake, “War of the Worlds.”

To meet its release date and to qualify for Oscar considerations, “Munich” was rushed into production, and began shooting in Malta and Budapest as last as July. By standards of Spielberg’s work, the film’s production values are uneven, and the whole visual style is less than polished.

The film bows theatrically on December 23 and thus, with the exception of the Time’s piece, which includes reportage, an interview, and some artistic assessment, there have been no reviews of yet, just word-of-mouth and informal opinion exchanged among the few Hollywood insiders who have seen it.

There are several problem areas in “Munich” that are bound to stir controversy and divide critics and audiences along political, historical, and artistic lines. 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. Indeed, as if to cover themselves from charges of historical inaccuracy, the film begins with a big title card, “Inspired by True Events.” The screenplay, credited to Tony Kushner (winner of Tony and Emmy awards for “Angels in America”), is very loosely based on George Jonas’ 1998 book, “Vengeance.”

Choosing one of the most commercial genres, the suspense-actioner, to tell the story Spielberg has approached “Munich” as an international espionage thriller, one that’s set in a dozen of locations and involves a huge ensemble of both lead and supporting parts (though there are only two women).

Another hot-button area is Spielberg and his writer’s tendency to underplay the role of the Israelis in the squad team. In the film, the team consists of five members, only one of whom is Israeli, the group leader, Avner Kaufman (played by Aussie Eric Bana). The rest are international and diverse in background and motivation: British Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) plays Steve, the tough South-African get-away driver; German Hanns Zischler plays Hans, the German Jew with a flair for forging documents; French actor Mathieu Kassovitz plays Robert, the Belgian toy maker turned explosive expert; and Irish actor Ciaran Hinds is cast as Carl, the quiet, methodical man whose job is to “clean up” the mess after the action.

Spielberg is also criticized 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 Spielberg is treating the subject as a morality tale’the heavy price in the making and unmaking of political assassins. Informally, he’s rumored to be concerned that the public might perceive “Munich as just a vigilante movie, in the manner of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” and Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” film series, which were extremely popular in the early-mid 1970s, the time frame in which “Munich” is set.

This precarious balance onscreen also prevailed off screen, while shooting the picture, as Spielberg recalled: “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,” Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film about the Holocaust, “Munich” is first and foremost a Hollywood picture that needs to recoup his 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 in high regard the late Prime Minister Golda Meir may be disappointed with her portraiture in the movie. First, 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 didn’t attend the funeral of the Israeli athletes because of her sister’s death but because “she was afraid to be booed” by the angry public that demanded immediate retaliation.

To provide background for the central line of action, “Munich” contains several didactic and superficial scenes. In one of the film’s weakest scenes, which is of course, fictionalized, Avner meets his Palestinian counterpart and the two talk about the bloody strife in a fake-ringing dialogue that may be appropriate, if at all, for elementary school kids.

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 2005and beyond. Spielberg wishes to take the audience into what he calls “a hidden moment in history” that resonates with the same emotions in our lives today as it did 33 years ago.

Some of the film’s problems derive from the scope of the narrative canvas. Spielberg has acknowledged that “there are many more speaking parts in Munich than in any I’ve ever directed, including ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ Having this many characters in a multi-layered story that spans a couple of years and numerous countries, it was very important to me that even the smallest character be as interesting as the central character, and to humanize every character.” Spielberg says he felt “it was very important not just to find different looks for each of the five men, but also different acting styles, accents, and personalities.

If each of the film’s assassinations is depicted in a distinctive manner, it’s intentional. For Spielberg, with each assassination, “the members’ views about what they’re doing change, the group dynamics shift, and they change their feelings about themselves and each other. Since there is more and more stress, anxiety, and pressure, each of the missions has it own personal character.”

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.”