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Cultures in conflict

Steven Spielberg's historical 'Munich' unfolds amid still-present tensions.

November 06, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S only one thing that Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud and Israel's former Mossad spy chief Zvi Zamir can agree on: They're both publicly miffed that they weren't consulted beforehand about Steven Spielberg's new film, "Munich."

The film focuses on the 1972 Olympic massacre of 11 Israeli athletes -- carried out by Black September, Daoud's organization -- and the Israeli retaliation, in which a Mossad team hunted down and killed the terrorists, the first instance of Israel's still controversial practice of "targeted killing."

Months before the Dec. 23 release of "Munich," interested parties across the political spectrum are gearing up for the film, which has been shrouded in intense secrecy -- even by Hollywood standards.

Shot this past summer in Malta, Budapest, Paris and New York, "Munich" was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") after passes by such notables as Oscar winner Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"). It stars Eric Bana, Daniel Craig (the newly named James Bond) and Geoffrey Rush.

Spielberg is well known for his wrenching depiction of the Holocaust in "Schindler's List" and his philanthropic Shoah Foundation, which records the oral histories of Holocaust survivors. But until now he has largely eschewed wading into the contentious fray of Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, until he actually began filming, some associates privately wondered if he'd ever really make the movie.

He has been proceeding cautiously, soliciting advice from a raft of political and public relations experts, among them former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, former President Bill Clinton, former White House spokesman Mike McCurry, and Allan Mayer, a Hollywood public relations executive who specializes in crisis management.

Spielberg is focusing on one of the seminal events in the modern history of terrorism, a bloodbath that played out on American TV and wound up publicizing what was then a little-known cause.

On Sept. 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed an Olympic Village apartment building, killing two Israeli athletes and holding nine others hostage in an effort to gain the freedom of 200 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. In a failed rescue attempt after a 20-hour standoff, the nine hostages -- as well as five terrorists and a German policeman -- were killed.

The attack dealt a blow to Israel's confidence with the message that there was no place in the world where its citizens could be safe. After the massacre, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir instructed Israeli intelligence agents to hunt down the terrorist perpetrators and kill them, in a counterterrorist campaign that was called "Wrath of God."

To this day, it remains a charged topic in Israel.

In a carefully worded statement issued this summer to an Israeli paper, an American paper and an Arab TV station, Spielberg, in his only public comment thus far, explained his intentions: "Viewing Israel's response to Munich through the eyes of the men who were sent to avenge that tragedy adds a human dimension to a horrific episode that we usually think about only in political or military terms. 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, I think we can learn something important about the tragic standoff we find ourselves in today."

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