Spielberg camp mum but works to rein in hot-button buzz

Prying information loose about any Steven Spielberg project isn’t easy — just ask the Paramount execs who struggled to get a peek at “War of the Worlds” dailies.

But that’s nothing compared to the shoot Spielberg began this month in Malta about Israel’s covert campaign to assassinate the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The Tony Kushner script is under such a lockdown that a Mossad agent would be hard-pressed to infiltrate its cover page.

But Variety can at least reveal what that cover page starts with: “Munich.” That’s the official title of the film.

Though not very descriptive, Spielberg’s inner circle can only hope the title might defuse the notion that the movie is based on “Vengeance,” a book based on input from a purported member of the hit team. Its veracity has been widely questioned.

Once it became known that book was among the resources used by screenwriters Eric Roth and Kushner, a chorus of detractors surfaced in press stories. Before he shot a frame, Spielberg had a controversy that rivaled the one surrounding “The Passion of the Christ.”

Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer and author of “The Mossad and its Myth,” echoed the sentiments of several Israeli intelligence experts contacted by Variety correspondent Marc Daugherty.

“I know the ‘Vengeance’ book. It’s nonsense, totally baseless,” Shimron says. “This sexy plot of an epic squad composed of a German, a Frenchman, an American, a Brit sounds like a bunch of clowns playing partisans behind enemy lines. It never happened that way.”

The Spielberg camp maintains “Vengeance” was just one of the resources that went into telling a story they feel sticks close to the truth while taking enough dramatic license to make a compelling film.

“While people think this is based on ‘Vengeance,’ I’m telling you that there were also memoirs from involved parties from both sides,” says Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy. “They did tremendous research on this.”

Levy says much of the brickbats fired at “Vengeance” came from an early disinformation campaign waged by Israelis to discredit the book because the country never fully admitted that Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the assassination squad.

Dennis Ross, a former ambassador who was a point man in Middle East relations for the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, is a consultant on the project and has read the script.

“It’s a responsible telling of the story that takes dramatic license because it isn’t trying to be a documentary,” Ross says.

“What’s most interesting in the script is the doubts and questions that the people responsible raised among themselves. They remained committed to their mission and this didn’t make them less heroic.”

The incendiary subject matter has led to tightened set security in Malta, Hungary and New York, where the film will wrap before a Dec. 23 release.

No actor call sheets are circulated and actorsin secondary rolesget script pages with only their lines; just a handful of cast members have read the completed script.

While pre-release controversy certainly didn’t hurt the grosses of Mel Gibson’s movie, Levy says this is not attention that his boss is courting.

“We don’t want to get into one of those situations,” he says. “Steven really wants to have judgments made about the film when people have the chance to see it.”

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