Times Staff Writer

CAN a movie be Swift-boated?

That’s what the makers of “Munich,” one of the year’s most provocative titles, are asking themselves as the Steven Spielberg film struggles to find firm footing in a fast-moving Oscar race. Despite mostly good reviews, a handful of award nominations, and the cachet of one of the town’s top directors, the film, Spielberg’s historical narrative about an Israeli Mossad team hunting down the Palestinian perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, finds itself jostling madly for one of the best picture Oscar berths, with hopes that the all-important Oscar nominations will shore up its, so far, middling box office.

“Unfortunately, the political pundits who took swipes at the movie very early on set the course for the movie that’s been difficult to overcome,” says producer Kathleen Kennedy. “That was set by people who hadn’t seen the movie, speculating what the movie was. That’s been frustrating. We always knew, given this subject matter, there were going to be people who were not going to be open to a discussion. Unfortunately, they’ve found a louder voice than the people who’ve supported the movie.

“We live in a time where there is a very loud and strong right-wing constituency that is hellbent on suppressing any of this kind of dialogue. I’ve just been surprised at Hollywood and our own industry. It reveals more conservatism than I thought was there.”

Stacey Snider, head of Universal Pictures, seems more unsure about the effect of the pundits. “I really don’t know. I don’t know if that generates curiosity or hardens perspective. We made [the movie] to be debated and questioned and expected strong points of view. The movie wouldn’t be creatively and artistically successful if it went down easy.”

A number of marketing specialists -- all of whom declined to be named because Spielberg remains one of Hollywood’s sacred cows -- scoff at the notion that Joe Blow moviegoer cares what Leon Wieseltier thinks. Instead, they wonder if Universal blundered by selling the film as an important, thought-provoking event rather than a pulse-pounding thriller. The trailers and the poster all stress the lead character’s moral quandary. In the poster, Avner sits heavy-hearted with a gun in his hand, which some wags have suggested looks like he’s contemplating suicide.


As several marketeers have suggested, a more commercially effective strategy might have been to sell “Munich” like a topical “All the President’s Men"-style thriller, or even a simple revenge tale, using the title of the George Jonas tome on which “Munich” is based: “Vengeance.” That tack, however simplistic, might have found more immediate resonance among moviegoers in this post-Sept. 11 world. Even though a raft of critics have pointed out that “Munich” works as a nifty action pic, the blowback from the political fracas has increased the sensation that the film is more medicinal than fun.

Snider, whose team has worked closely with Spielberg and Kennedy, says they opted to sell “Munich” in the fashion that was closest to the spirit of the movie, adding, “I would have felt bad as an executive and a citizen” to hawk the film in a “blatantly exploitative and commercial way, especially when so much is at stake and people hold such strong feelings about the subject matter.”

Still, the team does seem rattled by some of the logistical snafus that has dogged them it.

After completing “War of the Worlds” in early summer, Spielberg raced to shoot and edit “Munich.” As one Universal operative pointed out, the film was only available to show the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. on Dec. 7, the last possible day before they voted on the Golden Globe nominations. About half of the 86-member association showed up, and there were no DVDs available to show those who missed the presentation. (Although the film didn’t make it into the best drama category, both Spielberg and screenwriters Eric Roth and Tony Kushner received nominations.) A similar snafu beset the BAFTAs, Britain’s version of the Oscars, which shut out “Munich.” The film hasn’t yet opened in Britain, and the “Munich” DVDs were inadvertently made to play on U.S. machines, not European ones, meaning that many British Academy of Film and Television Arts members never saw it.

Hollywood in their sights

“MUNICH” certainly wouldn’t be the first movie subject to a takedown by the nation’s political press. Indeed, movies as diverse as Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and Oscar winner “A Beautiful Mind” have generated blitzkriegs by the truth police, critics enraged by what they see as Hollywood filmmakers taking liberties with the facts. Spielberg’s hit squad isn’t arguing the facts, content to express revulsion at what it sees as a baldfaced attempt to inject balance or the dreaded “moral equivalence” in a situation that is perforce not balanced. (“Moral equivalence” is a buzzword in the debate that means Israelis and Palestinians are equally culpable -- a charge that screenwriter Kushner and Spielberg have both denied.)

Unlike other directors, Spielberg is also contending with his own legend, the expectations heaped upon him as the maker of “Schindler’s List.” That was the last film in which Spielberg weighed in on a subject with special interest to Jews. Before “Munich” premiered, the comparisons were running hot and heavy between the two, with anticipation that “Munich” would repeat the 1993 Christmas film’s slow, inexorable march to the Oscars.

Although “Munich” is garnering box office returns comparable with every other tough-sell political film in the marketplace, the perception and part of the public discourse is that the movie is failing to find an audience. So far, it’s earned $38 million in its first month of release. “Syriana,” which premiered a month earlier and has two bona fide movie stars, has earned $45 million. “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which is far less controversial because it’s set firmly in the 1950s, has earned $25 million domestically, and it has the ever popular George Clooney dropping incendiary bon mots in his urbane, Cary Grant fashion. Ironically enough, “Munich” is doing better at the box office than “Schindler’s List” did at this stage in the game. That film, which went on to earn $96 million domestically, earned $15 million in its first month of release.

Rob Eshman, the editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, says that although “Munich” has provoked the interest of the ardent Israel watchers, “it’s not like a must-see movie like ‘Schindler’s List.’ The people who really love the movie ... don’t love it enough to go to the barricades. I know a lot of people who won’t see it because it’s a difficult subject matter.... Most of us were born after the Holocaust, but most of us remember Munich. A lot of people don’t want to experience it on film.”

Manning the barricades would be required to counter some of the op-ed vitriol. The most virulent attacks stem largely from conservative commentators such as Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, who equated the creator of the Shoah Foundation, which has collected 50,000 oral histories of Holocaust survivors, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president of Iran, saying, “It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian.” Andrea Peyser of the New York Post opined that “Spielberg is too dumb, too left, and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival.”

Although Spielberg and company obviously anticipated controversy, many in town have been left wondering if they’ve somehow been tripped up by the oldest adage of Hollywood publicity: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. That’s the motto on the website of PR crisis manager Sitrick & Co. Spielberg hired Sitrick’s Allan Mayer, who handled the controversy around “A Beautiful Mind,” to ease “Munich’s” entry into the world of politics and media. He also employed former White House spokesman Mike McCurry and former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. A slew of early tastemaker screenings were held in Washington and New York, a strategy that afforded a number of pundits like the New York Times’ David Brooks and the New Republic’s Wieseltier to fire off their shots before the movie hit the theaters.

His ‘prayer for peace’

UNDENIABLY, a number of commentators are using the rather large target of Spielberg himself to rail about issues in the broader culture, such as a pro-Palestinian movement on college campuses and the stir of anti-Israelism in Europe, which sometimes becomes conflated with anti-Semitism. Although the entertainment press tends to be slavish to the celebrities that sell their magazines, the political press can be conversely patronizing to what it views as self-satisfied, shallow-thinking, overpaid Hollywood fat cats.

“I’m a little shocked at the level of vitriol directed at him,” Eshman says. “What has he done to deserve it? He’s made a movie. At worst, it’s controversial.” Last week, Eshman’s paper ran an article by advocate David Lehrer and theology professor Michael Berenbaum, who suggested that the neocon are bristling against the fact that Spielberg and screenwriters Kushner and Roth do not portray the Israelis as merely the victims of terrorism. “The critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they no longer see Israel as a victim,” write the authors.

In general, however, defenders of the film -- from the families of the slain athletes to the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, to a broad array of film critics -- have been drowned out by the cacophony of angry pundits. The film also hasn’t gotten a boost from major Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As one involved in their wooing suggests, it’s not worth the expenditure of the Jewish groups’ political capital to rush to the aid of the world’s most successful director.

That’s left Spielberg himself to carry his cause, and unlike Mel Gibson, Oliver Stone or Spike Lee, he has not embraced the role of filmmaker-agitator. At first, it appeared as if he were going to eschew interviews, leaving the film to speak for itself. He did wind up speaking to select outlets: Time magazine, Roger Ebert and the Los Angeles Times, but he seemed to shrink from confrontation, almost as if it were an anathema to his very DNA.

He told Time that the film was a “prayer for peace” and said, “A response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine.... There’s been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end?” These are undeniably noble sentiments, but hardly the kind of battering ram needed in today’s Rush Limbaugh world.

After the first op-ed strafing, he appeared to regroup, telling the Los Angeles Times that he “worked very hard so this film was not in any way, shape or form going to be an attack on Israel.”

He declined, however, to elaborate on “Munich’s” meaning, stating instead, “The film is a series of structured arguments between the members of the Mossad teams that reflects different points of view and allows you to choose the one that more easily fits how you see the conflict. And maybe even better can maybe change your mind about how you felt about this.”

It was hardly guidance for audience members trying to sort through a morally complex tale. He unwittingly perhaps even provided fodder for detractors who have complained that the film wasn’t polemic enough.

“The movie is all about posing a debate. Frame that,” sighs Kennedy. “It’s the kind of storytelling that allows for a wide range of opinions. I don’t know how you would counteract that. That means we should have made the movie differently. We wouldn’t have done that. Everything we did in the storytelling is very intentional. [Some critics] don’t like the ambiguity.”

Such are the conspiracy theories that circulate through the Oscar season that unnamed sources opined to the online Drudge Report that Universal had decided to favor its critical darling “Brokeback Mountain” over “Munich,” an assertion that curiously enough followed a run of pricey multi-page newspaper ads for the film.

“We are supporting the movie,” Snider says. “I love ‘Munich.’ We didn’t expect a blowout opening weekend. We’d always anticipated that the film would be discussed, debated, savored and passed along over time.”



Courting controversy

A selected list of films that have faced criticism and questions about factual issues or charges of misrepresentation.


Oliver Stone’s 1991 revisionist movie about the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination was charged with playing loose with the facts and for focusing on former New Orleans district attorney James Garrison, who was portrayed by Kevin Costner. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars, including director and picture, but won for cinematography and editing.

“A Beautiful Mind”

Faced charges of misrepresentation and elimination of the more unflattering and uncommercial aspects of its subject’s life. Nominated for eight Oscars, Ron Howard’s 2001 movie won four -- picture, director, adapted screenplay for Akiva Goldsman and supporting actress for Jennifer Connelly.

“The Hurricane”

Norman Jewison’s 1999 movie about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s efforts to overturn his murder conviction drew sustained fire from people who felt their roles in the case were downplayed or left out altogether. Apart from Denzel Washington’s nomination for best actor, the Oscars bypassed the movie.


Steven Spielberg’s 1997 movie about a slave-ship revolt took heat from detractors over historical and racial issues, and an African American author said the movie plagiarized her work but later settled the case and essentially withdrew the accusation. The movie grossed $44.23 million and received one Oscar nomination, for supporting actor Anthony Hopkins.

“The Insider”

Mike Wallace and others vociferously took issue with their portrayal in Michael Mann’s 1999 movie about a tobacco company whistle-blower. It was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture and won none. It grossed $29.09 million domestically.

“Mississippi Burning”

Criticized for focusing on white FBI agents as heroes in infamous civil rights murders and its unenthusiastic portrayal of blacks, Alan Parker’s 1988 movie was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture -- winning only for cinematography.


Spielberg’s movies

A selected list of Steven Spielberg films over the last 30 years:

Title (Year released): Domestic gross (In millions)

“Jaws” ('75): $260.0

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” ('81): $245.0

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” ('82): $435.0

“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” ('84): $179.9

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” ('89): $197.2

“Jurassic Park” ('93): $357.1

“Schindler’s List” ('93): $96.1

“Amistad” ('97): $44.2

“The Lost World: Jurassic Park” ('97): $229.1

“Saving Private Ryan” ('98): $216.2

“A.I. Artificial Intelligence” ('01): $78.6

“Minority Report” ('02): $132.0

“Catch Me If You Can” ('02): $164.6

“The Terminal” ('04): $77.1

“War of the Worlds” ('05): $234.3

“Munich” ('05) *: $38.1

*Still in release.

Sources: Nielsen EDI, Box Office Mojo

Los Angeles Times