Los Angeles, July 1: On Wednesday, Steven Spielbergís apocalyptic thriller War of the Worlds invaded movie theatres worldwide. But the director had already moved on. That night in Malta, Spielberg quietly began filming the most politically charged project he has yet attempted: the tale of a secret Mossad hit squad ordered to assassinate Palestinian terrorists after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Spielberg has taken risks before: he said he feared being seen as trivialising the Holocaust when he directed Schindlerís List in 1993, at a time when he was best known for blockbuster fantasies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. And with Saving Private Ryan, he gambled successfully on audiencesí tolerance for prolonged and bloody combat scenes.
But with the as-yet-untitled Munich film, already scheduled for Oscar-season release by Universal Pictures on December 23, Spielberg is tackling material delicate enough that he and his advisers are concerned about adverse effects on matters as weighty as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if his project is mishandled ' or misconstrued in the public mind.
Indeed, the movieís terrain is so packed with potential land mines that, associates say, Spielberg has sought counsel from advisers ranging from his own rabbi to the former American diplomat Dennis Ross, who in turn has alerted Israeli government officials to the filmís thrust.
Spielberg has also shown the script to Rossís old boss, former President Bill Clinton. Clintonís aides said Spielberg reached out to him first more than a year ago and again as recently as Tuesday.
The film, which is being written by the playwright Tony Kushner ' it is his first feature screenplay ' begins with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. But it focuses on the Israeli retaliation: the assassinations, ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir, of Palestinians identified by Israeli intelligence as terrorists, including some not directly implicated in the Olympic massacre.
By highlighting such a morally vexing and endlessly debated chapter in Israeli history ' one that introduced the still-controversial Israeli tactic now known as targeted killings ' Spielberg could jeopardise his tremendous stature among Jews.
He earned that prestige largely for his treatment of the Holocaust in Schindlerís List and his philanthropic efforts to preserve testimonies of concentration camp survivors.
Making matters more complicated, an important source for Spielbergís narrative is a 1984 book by George Jonas, Vengeance, based on the account of a purported member of the Mossadís assassination team, whose veracity was later called into question.
In Kushnerís script, people who have read it say, the Israeli assassins find themselves struggling to understand how their targets were chosen, whether they belonged on the hit list and, eventually, what, if anything, their killing would accomplish.