JERUSALEM – Steven Spielberg's controversial new movie, "Munich," about the 1972 Olympic massacre and its aftermath, got an unlikely endorsement — the widows of two of the 11 slain Israeli athletes said the film neither dishonored their husbands' memories nor tarnished their country's image.
"The movie respects the athletes," said Ilana Romano, widow of weightlifter Yosef Romano. She and Ankie Spitzer, who was married to the fencing coach Andre Spitzer, are the only Israelis to see the movie here before its official release late next month. The film opens in the U.S. Friday.
"Munich" has already drawn fire from Jews and Israelis concerned that it distorts history or glorifies the Palestinian terrorists who carried out the massacre — though some of the critics have not seen the film, which has been closely guarded.
But Romano and Spitzer, both personally touched by the tragedy, gave what amounts to an endorsement on Wednesday.
"We didn't feel it was an affront or a negative thing, or an equation between the terrorists and the people who were trying to eliminate them — not innocent people, but people who would try to make another Munich," Spitzer said, alluding to Israel's determined pursuit of vengeance.
On Sept. 5, 1972, in a pre-dawn raid on the Olympic village in Munich, members of the Palestinian "Black September" group attacked the Israeli living quarters, killing an athlete and a coach and taking nine others hostage.
The Israeli hostages died later amidst a botched German rescue attempt at a military airfield outside Munich. Altogether, 11 Israelis were killed in the brazen operation, which shocked the world and ushered in a new era of global terrorism.
In response, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir set up a special unit from Israel's top-secret Mossad agency. Its task: to hunt down and eliminate all those involved in the terror attack. The movie is a representation of the Munich attack and the Israeli reprisals.
Spielberg's co-producer, Kathleen Kennedy, and the movie's screenwriter, Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") arrived in Israel earlier this month to hold a private screening for the two widows. That was followed by an emotional discussion that lasted several hours, the women said.
"Kathleen Kennedy said to us that Steven Spielberg's worst nightmare would be that after we saw the movie, we would say that our husbands were turning in their graves," recalled Spitzer. "So I said 'well, you can tell Spielberg that he can sleep quietly, because this is absolutely not the case."'
Spielberg's film, co-financed by DreamWorks and Universal, stars Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Craig. It opens in Israel and the rest of the world on Jan. 26.
Based largely on "Vengeance," George Jonas' 1984 book that was widely discredited by both Israelis and Palestinians, "Munich" has already come under fire from some Jews for not only what they see as sympathetic treatment of Arab extremist but also for its blurring of historical accuracy. The film has been categorized as fantasy by some former Israeli intelligence agents. Its Israeli promoter, Eyal Arad, describes it as "fiction, inspired by real events."
The two widows, however, downplayed the criticism.
"It is a Hollywood movie. What is true, what isn't true, I cannot say. I think it doesn't harm Israel," said Romano, who along with Spitzer has dedicated her life to preserving the memory of the slain athletes.
Spitzer said she was initially concerned, since Spielberg, who has been hesitant to speak out about the film and did not respond to an AP request for comment Thursday, had not contacted any of the families.
"For him, it is a movie. For us, it is our life's tragedy," she said.
After seeing the film, she said her one concern was that those exposed to the story for the first time would not be able to separate fact from fiction. "I know that part of it is based on historical events and part is based on fiction, and I don't think that the regular viewer is going to understand."
Nonetheless, both said the film had the potential to gain international recognition and help in their efforts to have the International Olympic Committee finally officially commemorate the Israeli athletes with a moment of silence at the Games.
"I hope the movie will help us reach billions of people we haven't reached in the past 33 years," Romano said.
"We don't have a problem with it; the opposite, we are glad that people are being reminded of what happened in Munich so it will never happen again," she said.