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Courting Controversy

Spielberg's new film raises serious issues -- and eyebrows

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The poster for Steven Spielberg's new film Munich (now playing in Charlotte) is simple and stark. A lone man sits gloomily in a dark, heavily draped room, his body sparely illuminated by the light from a street lamp. His shoulders are hunched disconsolately and a pistol dangles from his hand. He seems very much alone.

The legend notes: "The world was watching in l972 as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. This is the story of what happened next."

What happened next is at the heart of Spielberg's most daring, provocative and politically charged movie. Munich, at over two and a half hours, presents a semi-fictionalized account of Israel's decision to track down and kill the perpetrators of the Olympic massacre -- quietly, systematically and ruthlessly.

The film, which is loosely based on Vengeance, the nonfiction book by George Jonas first published in 1984, reflects much of what happened in reality as Israel sought to avenge its murdered athletes.

The Toronto-based Jonas' book, which has been re-released in December to tie in with the opening of the movie in the US, relates the much-debated, dramatically told tale of Avner, the young Israeli recruited to head a team of five assassins assigned to kill 11 Arabs implicated in the Olympic tragedy.

Jonas' primary source was Avner himself, who was the crème de la crème of the Israeli military, a young man who as a crack army officer had been unafraid to kill in battle. Turning himself into an assassin, however, almost destroyed him and his family, and it led him to profound moral questioning that eventually prompted him to leave the task unfinished and reject outright the concept of personal vengeance.

In the movie, the lead roles are played by two Australian actors: Eric Bana (Hulk) as Avner and Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) as his Mossad handler.

Five years in the making, Munich presents Spielberg, who has pulled off blockbuster productions such as Jaws and Raiders of the Los Ark as well as critically acclaimed dramas like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, with a formidable challenge. The subject matter virtually guarantees that the film will satisfy almost no one with deep feelings about the politics of the Middle East.

Universal Studios and DreamWorks SKG are marketing the film as "a gripping, suspense thriller," but the work represents considerably more than that for Spielberg personally and also for his reputation. Spielberg is a hero to many Jews and Israelis for creating the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which preserves the memories of 49,000 Holocaust victims. But if he painted the Israeli assassins as avenging heroes, he would invoke the wrath of not only the entire Arab world but the Europeans whose leftist governments and the people they serve hold predominantly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli positions.

On the other hand, as depicted in the movie, the sponsors of the Black September killers of the Israeli Olympians are men driven by a cause they believe in. They are not monsters. This depiction is likely to outrage Israelis and Jews around the world, and even before the picture opened, it triggered hot debate.

"Munich for us was comparable to America's September ll," explained Reuven Merhav, one-time director of Israel's Foreign Ministry, who served in Israeli intelligence during the events portrayed in the film.

The movie's production was shrouded in secrecy, partly to avoid possible disruption to on-location shoots in Malta, which doubles for Israel, and Budapest, which stands in for Munich. In Manhattan, as part of the low-profile approach, the movie was called by the benign temporary title Kings Cross. In Paris (where Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski visited the set) and the rest of Europe, it was Red Wine.

The $70 million film is powerful anyway one looks at it, but Spielberg is acutely aware of its potential to stir up a hornet's nest. "What I'm doing with this movie is highlighting some of the dilemmas and some of the issues that need to be discussed," notes the Oscar-winning director, who feels that although the violence took place over three decades ago, the issues remain timely.

"The movie, apart from being a human drama that explores what these guys went through, will hopefully stir that discussion," he maintains.

Spielberg's film turns the story into a personal crisis of conscience and attempts to avoid glorifying one side or the other. He believes that the questions he poses -- is an eye for an eye the only way to respond to a vicious unprovoked attack on individuals, and is the cost to the avengers worth the results? -- are relevant to today's climate of unending bombings and targeted reprisals in the Middle East.

"I think this film is relevant for today, and it's not an argument for non-response," he points out. "On the contrary, what this movie is showing is that maybe the right response is still one that confronts you with very difficult issues, by experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing."

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