Steven Spielberg's most controversial film to date has a name after all: "Munich."
The film, about Israel's counter-terrorism initiative after 11 of its athletes were killed in an attack at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, remains highly secretive. The Hollywood trade publication Variety, however, finally got a lead on what had been referred to for months as an "untitled historical thriller."
"The Tony Kushner script is under such a lockdown that a Mossad agent would be hard-pressed to infiltrate its cover page," the story read. "But Variety can at least reveal what that cover page starts with: 'Munich.' That's the official title of the film."
The story went on to say that the production team hopes the title "might defuse the notion that the movie is based on 'Vengeance,' a book based on input from a purported member of the hit team. Its veracity has been widely questioned."
The 1984 book Vengeance was written by George Jonas, who told the story of "Avner," the purported leader of a hit squad tasked with killing terrorists that Israel deemed too dangerous to let live. Several men on the hit-list were involved in either the planning or execution of what was called the "Munich massacre."
The book was adapted into a 1986 TV movie, "Sword of Gideon," but various individuals from the Israeli intelligence community have questioned Jonas' account of Avner and his operations.
Variety quoted one of these men, Gad Shimron. Shimron is a former officer in the Mossad (Israel's intelligence agency) and author of The Mossad and Its Myth.
"I know the 'Vengeance' book," Shimron told the publication. "It's nonsense, totally baseless."
EthicsDaily.com contacted Jonas via e-mail in Toronto, where he lives and works. Jonas had no comment on his "sources or alleged sources, or to the Spielberg film."
"I'm not much for interviews, though, as you can see," said Jonas. "If I have something to say, I prefer to write it myself."
Jonas did, however, say, "I stand by Vengeance as set out in the 1984 Foreword." In it, Jonas explains the circumstances under which he met "Avner."
"Even before contacting me, my publishers had satisfied themselves about the man's bona fides," wrote Jonas. "After the meeting I made what inquiries I could on my own, and came to the same conclusion that they had. It was evident to us that we were talking to an Israeli agent who had 'come in from the cold'—to our knowledge, the first one."
Several years after the book was published, a third party alleged in a law suit that a man named Juval Aviv was the "Avner" character. Aviv is the founder of a New York-based intelligence firm called Interfor. He has authored several books on personal safety and contributes to Fox News Channel.
Aviv bills himself as a "former Israeli counterterrorism intelligence officer," but other officers in the Israeli intelligence community deny that is the case.
EthicsDaily.com sought comment from Aviv via Interfor but received no reply as of press time.
Spielberg and company have stressed that Vengeance is just one source of several that the script relies on.
"While people think this is based on 'Vengeance,' I'm telling you that there were also memoirs from involved parties from both sides," said Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy, according to the Variety article. "They did tremendous research on this."
A July 5 press release from Levy's DreamWorks office said "the narrative is based on a number of sources, including the recollections of some who participated in the events themselves."
No other sources have been publicly named.
Levy also said part of the controversy stemmed from efforts by some Israelis to discredit Jonas' book because, in it, "Avner" says then Prime Minister Golda Meir personally authorized the counter-terrorist initiative.
In chapter three, "Golda Meir," the prime minister takes an intimate meeting with "Avner" and a few other high-ranking Israeli officers.
"I want you to know," she says, "that I've made a decision. The responsibility is entirely mine."
This scene was depicted in the 1986 TV movie, but no one except those on the inside of Spielberg's production know if anything similar appears in the new film, planned for a Dec. 23 release.
One thing is for certain: Spielberg has a public relations challenge, as well as a film, on his hands.
"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," said Spielberg in the July 5 release.
"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 stand-off we find ourselves in today."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
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Book Review: 'Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team'
Movie Review: 'Sword of Gideon'
News: Spielberg Making Film About 1972 Munich Attack