Steven Spielberg had hoped that his new geopolitical thriller, Munich, which opened on limited release in the United States yesterday, would generate debate on the morality of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and offer, as he put it, a "prayer for peace". Instead, the director finds himself at the centre of a storm, with conservative commentators, pro-Israel lobbyists and even the Israeli government accusing him of creating a false moral equivalence between the "terrorists" he depicts and those mandated to hunt and kill them.
The film recounts the aftermath of the notorious kidnap and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, sends agents to kill those it believes are responsible, but the effort becomes bogged down in moral ambiguity as doubts emerge about how closely the targets for assassination were involved, and whether perpetuating the cycle of violence ultimately achieves anything.
The parallels with today's world, in which President George Bush has characterised the hunt for al-Qa'ida as a battle between good and evil, are both compelling and a big part of the reason why the film has touched such a raw nerve. The Bush administration doesn't like to be accused of moral ambiguity any more than the Israeli government does, which explains why defenders of both have attacked Spielberg in similar terms.
Two weeks ago, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, emerged from an advance screening and promptly denounced the film in a series of interviews as "presumptuous" and "superficial".
Accusing Spielberg and his team of putting Mossad and the Palestinian guerrilla group Black September on the same moral plane, he complained: "This is an incorrect moral equation. We in Israel know this."
Yesterday, after several days of doubt over whether he was speaking officially or merely giving his personal reaction, Mr Danoch's remarks were fully backed up by the Israeli foreign ministry, according to a report in the entertainment newspaper Variety. That had to come as a surprising slap in the face to Spielberg, who has donated generously to Jewish and Israeli causes in the past through his Holocaust charity, the Righteous Persons Foundation.
In an effort to counter the charges against his film - which several critics and supporters say are unfair and unjustified - Spielberg has retained the services of Eyal Arad, a senior adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to organise screenings and generate more sympathetic opinions. Spielberg's staff say he has also been talking to numerous Israeli officials and Mossad officers.
The PR effort has already had some success. Earlier this month, two widows of the athletes killed in Munich were treated to a private screening in Israel in the company of Spielberg's producer, Kathleen Kennedy, and one of the screenwriters, the renowned playwright Tony Kushner. Ilana Romano, whose husband, the weightlifter Joseph Romano, was killed, said: "I feel Mr Spielberg has put the tragedy of our loved ones into a billion homes the world over. Munich handles the terrorist attack and the plight of the Israeli victims with great accuracy."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies