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New Spielberg Political Thriller <i>Munich</i> Dramatizes Israeli Response to 1970s Olympic Massacre

A new political thriller from director Steven Spielberg dramatizes actual events of the 1970's to explore the contemporary challenge of dealing with terrorism. Alan Silverman has a look at Munich.

"Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."

The film gives those words to Golda Meir, who, as Israel's prime minister in 1972 had to choose how (not whether, but how) to respond to the deadly attack at the Summer Olympic Games. In what became known as the 'Munich massacre,' members of a Palestinian faction calling itself 'Black September' murdered 11 Israeli athletes. As her nation mourned, Golda Meir and her top aides secretly authorized the Mossad - Israel's intelligence agency - to form an assassination squad.

Munich tells the story of that undercover operation, the men involved and the impact of what some have called their mission of revenge. To director and producer Steven Spielberg it is more than a historical drama.

"When we face terror, we have to respond to it; but how do we ensure that we don't become what we're going after? That's a key in our story and one of the things that is highlighted here is that these people did not lose their humanity," explains Spielberg. "That was very important for me. If anything, for me that's kind of heroic. It's not a criticism. It's a reminder that if we have to respond in certain ways - and it's pretty clear that you have to respond - what's most important is that we never lose our perspective or our humanity."

Eric Bana stars as Avner, head of the Mossad team. The Australian actor says because Munich shows the perpetrators and victims on both sides as human beings and because it offers no easy answers, it is likely to make audiences uncomfortable.

"I guess because it challenges so many notions with us as human beings," Bana says. " For me, the politics in it is almost irrelevant in how that makes me feel uncomfortable because it is about 'how do I feel about blood lust?' 'How do I feel about whether something is right or wrong?' There's the whole sense of inevitability of conflict continuing and being unresolved and so forth (and) being able to relate to all the characters within the film, not just one or two, makes it, I think, a more conflicting experience."

English actor Daniel Craig plays Steve, a South African-born member of the Israeli squad. Like the character, he found it impossible to remain unaffected by the unfolding events.

"There is no CGI (computer-generated imagery) in this movie. There's no special effects. It is all on set and some of it is very disturbing," he says. "I watched playback of some of the scenes that we did and, yes, it affects you. I'd be very thick-skinned if it didn't."

But is it the 'true story' of what happened? Craig says 'of course not.'

"This is a movie. This is a movie, and that is the bottom line," he stresses. " We don't know and nobody knows and nobody is actually going to tell us. So this is a bunch of characters we created so that we could tell this story to the best of our ability."

The script for Munich is based, in large part, on the book 'Vengeance: The True Story of an Israel Counterterrorist Team' by Hungarian-born author George Jonas, who said his source was the actual leader of the Israeli hit squad. Some critics have charged that the book is filled with inaccuracies; however filmmaker Spielberg defends using it as his source material.

"When we decided that we wanted to tell this story, we turned to the most credible account we could find," he explains, "and, in fact, the only account we could find that offers an extensive history of Israel's covert response to Munich (and) that looks at the mechanics of assassination was George Jonas's book, which, by the way, has been in print since 1984 and it has never been discredited," explains Spielberg. " It has been attacked by various people - by ex-Mossad agents and even one of the 'Black September' terrorists; but being attacked isn't the same as being discredited. Plus we did our own research and I'm very comfortable with having used the book as a source."

Co-star Daniel Craig contends a work of drama like Munich should do more than just tell the facts of a story.

"My hope would be that it will raise a debate and also get people to look into this and discover the truth for themselves ... or discover some of the facts and have an opinion about it. Certainly you can look directly ... and the movie sort of says this ... at the trouble we are in at the moment. This was one of the first moments when terrorism was used on such a grand scale; and here we are today in this troubled world ... and anything that raises a debate on that subject, I think, is a good thing.

Munich also features Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Lynn Cohen and Geoffrey Rush. The screenplay is by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. The cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski and the musical score is by another frequent Spielberg collaborator, John Williams.