complex heroes and villains
Movies like to provide us with noble heroes to root for and nasty villains to hate. Films based on actual history are no different. But real people tend to be a tad more complex than the typical movie villain or hero. So historical films often fudge the facts a bit. The “heroes” become better than they actually were, and the “baddies” much worse.
But Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Munich,” refuses to go that route. The film details the actions of a covert Israeli assassination squad as it targeted organizers of Black September, the terrorist group responsible for the kidnapping (and subsequent massacre) of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
“Munich’s” Israelis are flawed “heroes.” They bumble occasionally, lose their moral compass at times and agonize over whether their actions are simply feeding into an endless cycle of Arab/Israeli violence.
And the film takes the time to humanize the Palestinians, as well. We see them at home with their families, reading poetry, espousing dreams of a homeland.
So when they are killed, we feel as uneasy as do the “heroes.”
Some critics have given Spielberg flak for this approach. But in the end, it makes for a more powerful film. And one whose history is more complex, and more relevant.
Q. Were Avner and his assassination squad real people?
A. The film is based on George Jonas’ book, “Vengeance,” which chronicles the experiences of the Israeli hit squad, and most particularly its leader, Avner. Jonas claimed that “Avner” (reported to be Israeli security expert Yuval Aviv) was his key source for the book.
Palestinians as well as Israelis have challenged some details of Jonas’ account and Spielberg’s film. But we’ll probably never know what “really” happened. In the secretive world of terror and counterterror, where both Israeli and Palestinian officials disseminate the truth for their own purposes, it’s hard to find the truth.
Q. The film shows the young daughter of a target causing momentary panic among the strike team when she almost sets off a hidden bomb. Was that real?
A. No, the little girl never came near the telephone bomb. It blew up the Palestinian target as planned. But that story, and the other exaggerated close calls in the film illustrate a key aspect of the assassination squads-their efforts to kill only their intended targets, avoiding innocent bystanders. They most often succeeded.
But “clean” assassinations weren’t the only Israeli response to Munich. As the film mentions, Israel also bombed PLO camps, killing at least 200 people, many of them women and children.
Q. The film shows Avner’s men and a PLO team sharing the same “safe house” at one point. Did that happen?
A. Improbable as it sounds, it did happen. The real Avner and his men passed themselves off as European radicals, and the Palestinians apparently didn’t suspect their actual identity.
But the conversation that takes place there between Avner and a Palestinian-in which the latter voices the Palestinian point of view eloquently and passionately-was entirely fictional. Spielberg, though, sees it as a highlight of his film. Without that exchange, he said in a recent interview in Time magazine, “I would have been making a Charles Bronson movie-good guys versus bad guys and Jews killing Arabs without any context. And I was never going to make that picture.”
Q. Did the operation take as long as shown in the film?
A. Longer, at least for Avner’s group, which spent two and a half years on the mission, a much longer stretch than implied in the film.
Q. Did Avner actually get information from a mysterious Frenchman named Louis?
A. Yes. “Le Group” was Avner’s chief source of information on the whereabouts of their Palestinian targets. This shadowy group, run by Louis’ father, gathered information on spies, terrorists and radical organizers throughout Europe, and sold it to any clandestine group with enough cash.
But though the real Avner liked both Louis and his “Papa,” he could never wholly trust them. And when his own men started getting killed, he certainly suspected “Le Group” of selling them out.
Q. Was there really an Israeli bureaucrat who demanded “receipts?”
A. The line gets a chuckle, but the story is straight from “Vengeance.” Yet the book also notes a curious irony. Secret agents had to submit receipts for every personal expense, even a one-dollar cup of coffee. Yet they were trusted, no questions asked, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, which was used to pay off informants or arms dealers. Neither of those groups, of course, were willing to offer “receipts.”
Q. Were those assassinated the actual planners of Munich?
A. That’s disputed. Some may have been key planners, but others may just have been minor Palestinian activists.
To its credit, the film shows Avner and his men struggling with this issue, raising questions over the evidence supporting their targets’ ties to Black September. The answers they get are ambiguous; like the film itself. It doesn’t provide easy answers, or clear heroes and villains. But it does make us think. And that’s the best thing an historical film can do.
Q. Where to find more background information?
A. Jonas’ “Vengeance” is good, though, of course, it focuses primarily on the Israeli point of view.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies