Movie vs. Reality: Munich
By Felix Quinonez
April 4, 2012

Hey, look. It's the Hulk. I thought *you* were the Hulk.

When it comes to movies there are few words that pique audience interest more than “based on a true story.” No matter what someone’s personal preferences are, everybody loves a good story and if it’s true(ish), then even better right?

But I’ve always been surprised by how many people seem to ignore the “based on” part and just focus on the “true story.” There have been too many occasions when I criticized one of these movies - for being boring, or predictable, or whatever - only to be told, “But it’s a true story!” I’m always taken aback by this reaction. I mean, do people think these movies are documentaries? So, needless to say, I was very happy when I got the chance to write this column.

In each entry of this column I’m going to be looking at a different movie “based on a true story” or whatever phrasing is attached to it and compare it to the actual story. Hopefully I’ll be able to separate fact from Hollywood. But I’m also going to be talking about what those changes mean and why they were made. Do the changes have some artistic merit or are they just attempts to make the story fit into a neat Hollywood package?

The first movie I’m going to be looking at was directed by one of my personal heroes; Steven Spielberg. That movie is the Oscar nominated Munich (2005), which deals with the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the hand of a Palestinian paramilitary group known as Black September during the 1972 Olympics. But its main focus is the Israeli response to these murders.

I’m not any sort of history expert so I had to do a lot of research before I felt comfortable enough to judge the movie’s historical accuracy. My biggest reference is George Jonas's book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, which Spielberg used as his source material for Munich. I also used Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response, written by Aaron J. Klein. Aside from these two books I also read an article that Jonas wrote in response to Munich called “The Spielberg Massacre.” Also on my list was, Wrath of God: The Israeli Response to the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre, written by Thomas B. Hunter. I also referenced articles found on the history news network,,, Time Magazine,, and I watched the documentary Munich: Mossad’s Revenge and footage of Spielberg discussing Munich.

One of the biggest issues people have taken with Munich’s accuracy is its inspiration. Since it was published, many people have questioned Jonas’s book. From the beginning, people have cast shadows on the book and its main source; a former Mossad agent known as “Avner” who is portrayed by Eric Bana in Munich. But it should be noted that a lot of the facts remain classified and to this day Israel denies any involvement in the revenge mission known as “wrath of God.” Because of this it is obviously impossible to be completely sure on how the events went down.

One last detail to consider, though, is the fact that the people who claim that the book is filled with inaccuracies might not want the truth to get out. When Spielberg was discussing the film, he pointed out that although people have questioned the book’s merits, it has never been discredited or as Jonas said, “hearing it from the horse's mouth means little when the horse may have reason not to tell the truth.” But let’s check out the movie.

What the movie got right:

The Hostage Situation:
Although Munich only briefly focuses on these events at the beginning, it returns to the hostage situation and the rescue attempts throughout the movie in various flashback scenes. This was also the part of the movie where the accuracy was least challenged.
As the movie opens, we see the men from Black September - dressed as athletes - about to climb over a fence to gain access to the apartment housing the Israeli team. When they notice a team of athletes, they stop in their tracks in fear of getting caught. But it is soon discovered that those athletes - presumably American - are returning from a night out and are also about to scale the fence to return to their respective apartments. The athletes help the Black September members over the fence and then both teams go on their separate ways.

Once the athletes are out of sight, the Black September members remove the guns from their duffel bags and head into the apartment building. When they reach the room where the Israeli team resides, one of the Black September members jimmies open the door. Before they can enter the room, one of the Israeli athletes sees the gun and tries to shut the door on them by throwing his body in front of the door. He begins screaming and wakes up a teammate who comes to help. That teammate grabs a knife and fights back but is shot in the cheek. Meanwhile, another athlete is seen exiting through a window. He is shot at but is able to safely escape.

The athlete who was shot in the cheek is forced to lead the Black September members to the room of the other athletes. He instead elbows one of the kidnappers in the face knocking him unconscious but he is killed after that. This allows one of the athletes to escape through the parking garage. Meanwhile another Israeli teammate who got free during the mayhem is about to escape through the window. But before doing that he sees a knife on the ground and turns back. He grabs the knife and heads back towards his teammates. On the way, he stabs an intruder in the head and takes his gun. He attempts to rescue his teammates but is killed. Two athletes were killed and the remaining nine were held hostage.

The Rescue Attempts:
German officials try to take charge and rescue the hostages, but the members of Black September discover the plan by watching the news on TV. The athletes were then loaded onto vans blindfolded. When they arrive at the German airport, the athletes are seen begging to talk to their families, just to let them know that they are alright. Their captors assure them that once they get on the planes the athletes will be able to go back home or to the Olympics. But the German Army stages an ambush and a shootout ensues. When the members of Black September realize they won’t escape, they shoot the hostages and throw a grenade into the helicopter where the athletes were being held.

The Mission Introduction:
Avner is picked up at his house by some Israeli Government officials and taken to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s house. She talks to Avner and a couple of other people about how they must respond to the events that occurred at the Munich Olympics. Avner is asked to lead a secret mission but is not given any details. Avner is given one day to decide.

The Team:
The team has five members. Avner is the leader, Hans is in charge of forging documents, Robert makes the bombs, Steve is in charge of transportation, and Carl cleans up the scene of action.

The Kills:

First kill - Wael Zwaiter

The team’s first target was a Palestinian writer and translator living in Rome but Mossad believed he was deeply involved in planning the Munich incident. His name was Wael Zwaiter. The team did a thorough stakeout to get Zwaiter’s routine down. While he was across the street from his apartment building making a call, Avner and Robert waited for him. Once he came home, Avner and Robert approached him in apartment lobby from behind as he was about to enter the elevator. They asked him who he was then shot him.

Second Kill - Mahmoud Hamshiri

The second kill was done with a phone bomb. Robert pretended to be a reporter who wanted to interview Mahmoud Hamshiri and when he was out of the house, the team planted the bomb. The next day, when the wife and daughter have left, they call him. Once the team is sure it is him on the line, they detonate the bomb.

Third Kill - Abad al-Chir

The third target was a man Israel believed to be the head of Black September in Cyprus. He is killed by a bomb that the team places under his hotel room bed. Avner gets a room next to him so he can signal to his team when the target goes to bed. He does this by turning off the light. When the bomb goes off, it nearly kills the newlywed couple next door and Avner.

Fourth, fifth and sixth kills - Kamal Nasser, Mahmoud Yussuf Najjer, and Kemal Adwan

The team heads to Beirut to take part of a mission. They, along with another team, raid an apartment building. Some of the members of this other team dress up like women. They raid the apartment building and kill their targets one by one. As they are about to leave there is a big shoot outside of the building.

Seventh kill - Zaid Muchassi

The team planned to blow up Muchassi’s room with him in it. They had the room rigged and were going detonate the bomb from their car but the bomb didn’t go off. Because of this that Hans takes matters into his own hands. He grabs a bag of bombs and walks into the building. He goes up to Muchassi’s room and throws a bomb inside and closes the door behind him, killing Muchassi. After this they have to take a hotel employee who witnessed the murder with them.

Eighth kill- “Jeanette”

I remember actually rolling my eyes and thinking “Yeah, right” when I saw this part of the movie. It all just seemed so manufactured. But it turns out, it really happened. After failing to take out their main target in London, Avner is seen at the hotel bar by himself. He soon spots an attractive woman and after the two make eye contact, he walks over to her and they have an innocent yet somewhat flirty conversation. Pretty soon she suggests that they go upstairs for another drink. But Avner turns down her advances, pays his bill and says good night.

As he’s going up to his room, he runs into Carl and the two talk for a minute. Avner tells him about the woman and gets in the elevator. The next morning he smells the woman’s perfume coming from Carl’s room. He knocks on the door but becomes worried when there is no response, so he opens the door to see Carl dead on his bed.

When he breaks the news to his teammates, they all agree that they need to avenge their partner. Avner sets up a meeting with the man who provides them with information. Once they get the woman’s information the team tracks her down and they kill her at her boathouse. They used a one bullet gun made from a tubular section of their bikes.

Ninth Kill- Arab guard

The team gets info that Ali Hassan Salameh, their biggest target, will be at a mansion in Spain. Steve and Avner go there to kill him, but a young Arab guard spots them and they are forced to kill him and flee the scene.

What the movie got wrong or left out

The Hostage Situation/Rescue Attempts:
Like I mentioned before, these were the least contested parts of the movie so there aren’t too many inaccuracies I found. One of the mistakes the movie makes is the number of people that Black September wanted released. The movie puts this number at 200 and the list only includes Arabs. But the members of Black September actually wanted 234 people released and they weren’t all Arabian. The list also included German prisoners.

The movie does not actually spend too much time on the Rescue attempts, but from what I gathered it was pretty accurate. I have read that some of the news footage shown during these segments of the movie had actually aired after the events occurred.

The Mission Introduction
Before the operation “Wrath of God” even took place, Israel retaliated by launching air strikes on Palestinian refugee camps. And Ankie Spitzer, one of the athlete’s widows, stated in the documentary Munich: Mossad’s Revenge that Golda Meir invited the families of murdered athletes for a private meeting where she promised them that they will “hunt down those that were involved and have blood on their hands.”

The Team:
A former Mossad agent Gad Shimron told Reuters that there were always female agents on the field teams to avoid looking suspicious. An article from the History News Network called How Accurate is Munich? stated that unlike in the movie, not all of the members were Israeli. One of the members was actually a Danish-born volunteer who was not trained by the intelligence agency. The article also suggests that the team of assassins was most likely much larger than the five-man group in the movie. But it should be noted that towards the end of Munich the team’s boss lets Avner know that there were plenty of other teams involved in the operation and it would make sense that they wouldn’t know about each other.

In Munich, the main source of information is a mysterious Frenchman but in reality Mossad agents had various sources. Some of these sources included paid informants, other Israeli officers and friendly European intelligence organizations. The teams also did a lot of test runs before the actually pulling off any hits.

The Kills

First kill - Wael Zwaiter

In the movie Zwaiter was clearly an older man, at least 50 but in real life he was actually in his 30s. The real hit actually employed at least 15 agents, besides the team members, to do surveillance on Zwaiter. In the movie, the target appears very calm as he is about to be shot, he even tries to reason with his assassins but the real Zwaiter actually tried to run.

Second Kill - Mahmoud Hamshiri

Again, the actual events employed a lot more agents. In this case, the plan involved 20 field officers. Although there was a fake interview set up with the target, it took place at a nearby café, not his apartment like the movie portrays. Once the target was out of the house, a team stepped in. Their process was a lot more complicated than what the movie shows. They took a lot of pictures and a sliver of the table on which the phone rested. In a lab they reconstructed the same table only there was a bomb inside of it.

Third Kill- Abad al-Chir

Before Avner gives the signal to blow out the target, he sees him on the balcony. The two of them wind up having a small, pleasant exchange and Al-Chir is actually a nice guy who even offers Avner sleeping pills because the newlywed couples are really loud. I didn’t see any record of this and it seems to be purely fabricated. It seems to be an attempt to humanize the targets. It could also be to make viewers better understand Avner’s doubts.

Fourth, fifth and sisth kills - Kamal Nasser, Mahmoud Yussuf Najjer, and Kemal Adwan

The mission was portrayed fairly accurately, but the movie does not mention that at least 20 innocent people were killed or that this raid sparked furious protests in the Arab world.

Seventh kill - Zaid Muchassi

Although they did have to kill someone after blowing up Muchassi’s room, it was hardly the shootout that the movie makes it out to be. It was just one undercover agent who was supposed to be guarding Muchassi. In the movie it was a few people and it included a PLO team leader - fabricated by the movie - that Avner talked with the night before.

Eighth kill - “Jeanette”

This was portrayed very accurately in the film. There were only few minor differences that I could find. For example, Jeanette actually lived with another girl who could have been her lover and the team was forced to wait outside her boathouse for hours until this girl went out. Also, Hans actually stayed outside and only went in after Avner and Steve had shot her.

Ninth Kill - Arab guard

They didn’t spend too much time on this kill but what they showed was fairly accurate.

Other Notable Differences:
At the beginning of the mission, one of Avner’s superiors stresses the fact that above everything else, he should get receipts. It’s kind of a funny, lighthearted moment before the team gets on their way with their mission but according to former Mossad agent Shimron, it was also inaccurate. He told Reuters that they were discouraged from keeping receipts as this could from a paper trail that would make it easier for them to get caught.

In the movie, three Mossad members are killed but we have different information from Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote The Quest for the Red Prince about the Israeli Hunt for Ali Hassan Salameh, the PLO leader who masterminded the Olympic Games Massacre. He told Reuters that only two officers were killed during the missions.

Although the movie left out a couple of people that the Mossad team killed, the most notable omission is the one that occurred in Lillehammer. Mossad had gotten some information that their number one target, Ali Hassan Salameh was in Norway. Unfortunately their top agents were on other missions so they had to send officers with no field experience to do the job. Not only was the team spotted but the person they killed wasn’t even Salameh. It turned out that he was just an innocent waiter.

There was also a very important scene that was completely fabricated. After the team comes back from their mission in Beirut, they go to Athens to Kill Muchassi. The Frenchman set up a safe house for the team in the area. But as luck would have it, a team of PLO agents had also made arrangements to stay at that house. After a brief standoff, the two teams agree to share the space but the Mossad agents don’t reveal that they are Israeli. In the middle of the night, Avner and the PLO team leader wind up having a conversation at a staircase. Because he doesn’t realize that Avner is a Mossad agent, he speaks to him candidly. The Palestinian tells Avner - and by extension the audience - why Palestinians want so badly to regain their home. It’s a manipulative scene but powerful nevertheless.

But the liberty Spielberg took with the Munich that sparked the most heated debate is at the center of the movie. In Spielberg’s film the Mossad’s agents - well a couple of them - experienced some real doubts about what they are doing. They questioned the effectiveness of their actions, if they were still different from the people they were hunting and what all of their killings were doing to their souls. They are bold questions but it seems they are questions that the Mossad agents never actually raised themselves. Aaron Klein, who interviewed 50 current and ex-Mossad agents for his book about Israel’s response to the Munich massacre, said that no one he talked to expressed remorse or doubts for the work they did. The Avner interviewed in Jonas’ book and the agents who speak on the Mossad documentary all echoed these sentiments.

As you can see, Spielberg took some liberties with Munich. Some are minor and others are more noticeable. But the movie is very clear that this is not a documentary and it should be treated as what it is; a Hollywood movie. Some of the omissions are clearly just done for time’s sake. If he included everything, the movie - which already lasts more than two and a half hours - would be way too long. I’m guessing that is the reason why he didn’t include the air raids on the Palestinian refugee camps that took place after the Munich Olympics. This could also explain why all of the agents who were involved for surveillance during the missions weren’t included. That would just give the movie more stuff that it would have to explain and more characters to introduce.

Another explanation for these changes could be just that not all of the facts are available. Because of this, Spielberg and his writers had to come up with their own way to portray these scenarios.

It should be clear to most people that the events in Munich are very complicated. There has been tension and fighting between the Palestinians and the Israelis long before the Olympics. Because of this Spielberg didn’t want to reduce the story to “the Palestinians are bad and Israel is just getting revenge.” That would be a black and white representation of the situation. Because of this Spielberg tried to give a representation of the Palestinian side too. He did this through the fictional PLO team leader and through the fiery speech he gives to Avner in the Athens safe house scene.

But like I said before, the thing that people have taken the most issue with is the fact that the Israeli team had doubts about their missions. Some people think this paints Israel in too much of a favorable light, saying that it allows them to kill people but in the end they feel bad about it. Others feel the opposite. They take issue with the team having doubts because they think this blurs the line between the Palestinians’ actions and Israel’s response when there should be no confusion about the difference between the two. But the simple fact that people can have the exact opposite reaction to the same movie might imply that too many people are bringing their own biases and political agendas when viewing the film.

Jonas, who referred to Munich as “moral posturing” stated that “one doesn't reach the moral high ground by being neutral between good and evil.” But I think that stance misses the point of the movie. Is it Spielberg’s place to tell us who is right or wrong? Should anyone really expect him to solve the problems of the world? I think Spielberg was trying to raise questions and make people talk about this situation. Because talking about it is the first step to finding a solution.

And the movie does just that. It brings up the question of what killing can do to a man’s soul. Is it okay for someone to do bad things for a good cause? Does a response to a response really solve anything? Or does it just create - as Spielberg put it - “a perpetual-motion machine”? These are very bold questions and judging by the film’s closing shot of the then still standing twin towers, they are questions that still need to be asked.

Next Time: 127 Hours