The Mysteries of Munich

There will be no press junket, no premiere and, most importantly, no blowout Oscar marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg's certain-to-be-controversial movie, Munich.

Given the immensity of today's spin-or-be-spun promotions to land Golden Boy nods, the decision to have little traditional publicity for the film before and even after it opens December 23 is dicey -- yet it is the director's decision alone. Right now, Spielberg doesn't intend to give press or broadcast interviews -- not even to the usual suspects, like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and 60 Minutes. But the movie may create a big fanfare all on its own -- perhaps even international protests -- given its controversial subject matter.

"The official strategy is for the movie to speak for itself," an insider told me last week. "All they're going to do is just show the movie to people. You have to be Steven Spielberg to get away with that."

But competitors mutter that's because Spielberg's Munich may have snagged the coveted cover of Time magazine. (I'm told a final decision is pending.)

For months now, Munich has been touted as the Oscar front-runner, even when no one had seen the film.

The secret Mossad hit squad that over a period of years assassinated the Palestinian terrorists who directly or even indirectly carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich is the movie's subject matter and its political minefield. Specifically, it all comes down to how the film portrays its principal characters: Will the Israelis be seen as too bloodthirsty? Will the Palestinians be seen as too stereotypical? Insiders say Spielberg and his screenwriters, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, worked hard to create multidimensional characters. But will that play in Peoria?

Hollywood has long been loath to portray any Arabs as villains, much less Muslim extremists, mostly because its movies make a lot of money in the Middle East. Needless to say, this has not gone unnoticed. Already I've been inundated with e-mails from civilians predicting Spielberg will "produce a watered-down, politically correct piece of propaganda that gives the Palestinian Olympic killers credibility" or "depict both the Israelis and the terrorists as morally equivalent. This will be done to hide the fact that the Israelis were totally justified and the terrorists were, well, terrorists (that is to say, bloodthirsty savages)."

As one messager put it: "Hollywood (including Spielberg) doesn't have the balls to tell the truth. Hollywood will give aid and comfort to the enemy, and they'll get rich doing it."

Spielberg has assembled a team of pro advisers to confront the protestations that are sure to occur.

The team consists of Dennis Ross, a well-known U.S. diplomat who played a leading role in shaping Middle East policy in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations and is now the Washington Institute's counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow; Mike McCurry, President Clinton's White House spokesman, now a for-hire political strategist; and Allan Mayer, a crisis PR specialist with Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company who has advised Spielberg for several years.

The director has been deliberately vague as to the origin of the much-disputed facts conveyed in his movie. He has said it comes from multiple sources, and not just from "Vengeance," the controversial book by George Jonas. (HBO adapted that book in 1986.)

Both Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud and Israel's former Mossad spy chief Zvi Zamir have gone public with their anger about not being consulted beforehand by Spielberg about the film. During the summer, Spielberg issued this carefully worded statement to an Israeli paper, an Arab TV station and The New York Times:

"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. 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 standoff we find ourselves in today."
Spielberg has not commented on the film since.

At this late date, I'm told that neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian National Authority has seen the movie. "Nobody's seen anything. We've, as a courtesy, been in touch unofficially at a fairly high level, and they know what's going on," an insider told me. "Given a lot of the other things on their plate, they have much bigger fish to fry than even a Steven Spielberg movie."

The first invitation-only screenings of Munich will soon begin in Hollywood and NYC. Executives for Universal, one of the producers/distributors of the film along with DreamWorks, only just saw the completed movie.

Usually by the start of December, the Best Picture nominations race has slowed to a crawl: What may have seemed like a crowded field back in May has dwindled to just a handful of real rivals because of lousy attendance or lowered expectations. Soon, the film critics' awards narrow the field even further. Brokeback Mountain, Memoirs of a Geisha (which Spielberg co-produced), Walk the Line, Good Night and Good Luck, Capote, Crash, The Squid and the Whale and Cinderella Man are topping the list of true contenders. Of course, there's the usual wild card or two, like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Syriana, The Constant Gardener and A History of Violence. But the spoilers will be the kept-under-wraps King Kong and Munich. Much of KK's chances will depend on box office. Which leaves me to ponder Munich.

At the start of this year's Academy Awards season, speculation centered on the tightness of Munich's postproduction because it began on October 2. But the movie was finished scoring two weeks ago, a few days ahead of schedule. As it is, Spielberg is telling friends that his only film that had a shorter postproduction period was Duel, and that was because it was a made-for-TV movie. So there'll now be plenty of time to show Munich to everyone and anyone, always a good thing come Oscar time.

But Spielberg's refusal to do marketing may be a bad thing.

It's sad but true: The more bucks that filmmakers spend on their Oscar marketing campaigns, the more attention their movies receive. Oh sure, the folks who benefit from this -- the mainstream media and the trades and the bloggers -- will howl in unison to deny this. Besides, missing in action this year is Harvey Weinstein, who single-handedly invented the supersized $15 mil-and-up Oscar campaign (all the while claiming that money was well spent because his films were going wide at the same time).

Last year, Mel Gibson announced that he wouldn't engage in the usual Oscar marketing frenzy for his Passion of the Christ. (After all, there already was a promotional book written about Christ: it's called the New Testament.) But then Passion was rejected at awards time, even though it was a box-office blockbuster and obvious artistic endeavor. The reason, I believe, was that Oscar voters were uncomfortable not just with the religious zealotry of its subject matter but also the widespread whispering about its anti-Semitic undertone.

The chances of that happening to Spielberg's Munich are slim to none this time around, even though I'm told he'll be limiting Oscar marketing to just no-frills "For Your Consideration" ads, banners, posters, etc.

Because of Spielberg's involvement, I think Academy voters will be willing to accept on faith his take on this specific episode within the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, we've seen rivals use the least smidgen of controversy against Oscar front-runners (the flaps over Million Dollar Baby and A Beautiful Mind , for instance).

Let the bitch-slapping begin.

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