A different take on Munich

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With the approach of Munich's US opening today - a month before its premiere in Israel - media coverage has only intensified, putting those on both sides of the debate on guard. In a short telephone interview, the film's Israeli public relations representative slammed the "anti-Spielberg rumors" he says have been circulating in the Israeli press. Israel's consul-general in Los Angeles, not normally looked to for his views on film, generated international headlines after attending a pre-release screening and calling Munich "pretentious" and "presumptuous" in interviews with Voice of Israel radio and The New York Times.

With the film still unavailable for viewing by general audiences, the frenzy itself has become a source of satire, with an Israeli journalist writing in mock outrage last week that he was the basis for Munich's lead character, and that the film had erred unforgivably in not casting to play him "a Jake Gyllenhaal type with the body of Brad Pitt."

But while the media have arguably been the first and biggest beneficiaries of the controversy thus far, genuine concerns remain about the film's factual basis and portrayal of its protagonist, who some have claimed is a historical phantom and an unacceptable figure to place at the story's center. Complicating the issue is that the film is intended, according to Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy, to be "a historic thriller."

"We weren't making a documentary," Levy said by phone from his Los Angeles office, "and there's always a degree of literary or cinematic license."

Whether that's appropriate in this case, however, is a source of debate. Munich's connection to Middle East history and politics will only endure more scrutiny as it opens to the general public and gains eligibility for Academy Awards consideration - Spielberg's stated ambition and his reason for rushing the film through an unusually short production and marketing schedule.

That Spielberg made Munich at all is something of a surprise. Budgeted at $70 million, the film opens with the capture and killing of 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and athletic judges at the 1972 Summer Olympics, one of the first major international events hosted by Germany following World War II.

With the Dachau concentration camp just 10 kilometers from the Olympic stadium, the games had been designed in part to wash away the stain of Germany's recent past. An official memorial service recalling the Holocaust was attended by Israelis and representatives of most of the European athletic squads, while the hours before the fateful pre-dawn attack saw members of the Israeli team attending a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. In an attempt to avoid recalling the overt militarism of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, security was provided by 2,000 unarmed guards dressed in light blue suits.

The 1972 Games produced no shortage of iconic images and memories. Gymnast Olga Korbut charmed her way into the consciousness of millions of worldwide television viewers, putting a new face on the Soviet Union with her emotional reactions to her competitive successes and failures. In the swimming pool, Jewish American swimmer Mark Spitz won an unprecedented - and still unmatched - seven gold medals, a feat made all the more significant by the event's German location.

But the enduring image of those Games was to become that of an armed, ski mask-wearing Palestinian terrorist stalking the walkway outside the Israeli residence in the Olympic Village. As one of the terrorist leaders would later boast, the saga was followed by a massive worldwide audience before ending in the early morning of September 6 with the deaths of the Israeli team members, five Black September terrorists and one German police officer.

The bloody drama, the focus of the Oscar-winning 2000 documentary One Day in September, serves as the backdrop to the new Spielberg film, which focuses instead on the Israeli response to the attack.

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