Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 'true' story behind 'Munich'

In the past couple weeks, Americans have brooded over fact and fiction in our media -- or perhaps have never stopped brooding since the time of the Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times. If James Frey -- whose memoir "A Million Little Pieces" is likely a brilliant fraud that bamboozled Oprah, Doubleday and millions of readers -- has contributed anything to American letters, it is to lube our skepticism about what is true. Not an entirely bad thing.

I'm skeptical by personality and profession, and against the backdrop of recent news, I saw Steven Spielberg's "Munich" last night. The film opens with the epigraph: "Inspired by a true story" -- which usually means "OK, we made a lot of stuff up, but some names, places and events are sorta maybe genuine if you squint real hard and think way out of the box."

How accurate is the film's depiction of the kidnapping (and subsequent mass murder) of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich? Was the super-secret Israeli hit team that avenged them real? Were the assassinations of terrorist planners accurately rendered? Did the Israeli assassins really find themselves at one point face-to-face with PLO terrorists in a Greek "safe house" and talk themselves out of danger by claiming to be members of various European terrorist gangs like ETA and IRA?

Dr. Cathy Schultz of the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., is a history professor who specializes in Hollywood's treatment of true events. Her essay on the movie "Munich" answers many questions, including "Did this really happen?"

While both Palestinian and Israeli sources have disputed some of the book's accounts, it's Schultz' assessment that much of what you'll see in the movie actually happened. Not so, say some like Rachel Neuwirth, who had trained with many of the Israeli athletes before the '72 Olympics, but didn't go to the fated Games. In a piece for The American Thinker, she wrote:

"Sadly, the average movie-goer will never know where fact ends and fantasy takes over. As a result, many will no doubt come away confused about the moral issues involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, seeing diminished difference between the barbarity of Arab terrorists and the justice meted out by the Israeli agents who pursued them."
In fact, the film was "inspired" by George Jonas' book, "Vengeance," described by publisher Simon&Schuster this way:

"'Vengeance' is a profoundly human document, a real-life espionage classic that plunges the reader into the shadow world of terrorism and political murder. But it goes far beyond that, to explore firsthand the feelings of disgust and doubt that gradually came to torment each member of the Israeli team, and that in the end inexorably changed their view of the mission -- and themselves."

Is it a good film? Yes. It makes you think about the nature of good and evil, whether any culture has rights and superiority over any other -- including the right to kill innocents to induce terror or make a statement.

But is it a true film? The epigraph says it all: "Inspired by a true story." Unlike James Frey, the filmmakers don't say it's true ... then lie. They say up front it's a creative work that takes much/some of its material from actual events. And like Rachel Neuwirth says, you probably will never know where the reality and the fantasy intersect.

"Munich" -- and most other Hollywood fare -- probably shouldn't be shown in World History classrooms as an accurate depiction of real events. But it should be seen in the parallel universe of a movie theater, and truly contemplated. The message is rendered in light and shadow and sound, but it's relevant to the real world outside the theater.

PHOTO ABOVE: Associated Press


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Cowgirl said...

Haven't seen "Munich" and probably wont. I am old enough to remember the actual event, and there was absolutely no justification for it.

I suppose there will be people who buy the "spin" I've read about the movie. There were apparently lots of people who believed F.911 was true. I've enjoyed almost all of Spielburg's films, but if he is going down this left-wing track, I won't be seeing anymore of them.

Ranando said...


I'm glad you wrote this. I saw the movie months ago at a private screening at DreamWorks and I likeed it also. As you said it's a good MOVIE.

I know Mr. Spielberg and I know him really well, he is a good friend of my family. I've known him for over 26 years and I can say he cares. He cares very much about Jewish History and he spends many dollars towards letting the World know their history.

My wife and I sat with Steven and Kate at the Goldnen Globes Awards the other night and then met them for breakfest at Mort's the next morning.

He's a good person and he cares.

Ron Franscell said...

One of the things most remarkable about "Munich" is that the Black September/PLO figures are not mere "black hat" villains in a melodrama. They are depicted as real people with families and sensibilities not unlike the great bulk of the cultures they seek to damage.

Spielberg -- whose sympathies for Jewish history are well publicized -- showed the Palestinian targets as something more than cardboard, easy-to-hate bad guys.

The key scene, to me, is not any explosion but the conversation between Avner and Ali in the stairwell of the hotel. Without it, the whole millennial foundation of the film falls apart. My god, a pivotal scene that is dialogue only ... how cool is that in today's Hollywood?

And Spielberg's willingness to explore the murkiness of every character in this "play" is laudable. Hollywood doesn't often do well with the old themes of "duality of man," and if a director lesser than Spielberg were to bring this film to a production meeting, it'd likely be shot down as too complex and devoid of an uplifting ending -- although the explosions and blood spatters would earn extra points!

(And next time you see Mr. Spielberg, tell him you know a writer who's created the summary Western of our time, a screenplay that carries us through the evolution of a mythic Old West to a New West, and deals with the loss of fictions we hold dear ... and embraces new ones. Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, even Kevin Costner could play the lead. You can have 15%!)

Joey Airdo said...

Very interesting entry. While I was not blown away by "Munich," I consider it a breathtaking piece of art - more so than your average cinematic selection these days.


Ranando said...


Another great comment and well done.

Not to drop names but Sam is one of my best friends. Check my blog for December 2005 and you will see a great oic of Sam giving my wife a big hug.

Who knows, maybe someday we can all get together, Sam, Steven, You and me for a drink.

It's a small world.

Ranando said...

Sam and my wife are 1/3/2006, not December, sorry.