Do long movies count twice?
Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
During the spring of 1994, I interviewed for admission to NYU’s graduate film school. The interview was conducted in a small windowless room where I sat across a long table from three professors. They asked questions about filmmaking, my experiences, my ideas and then they asked me to name my favorite director.
“Joel Coen,” I answered truthfully.
One woman rolled her eyes. The man in the middle gave a snarky half-smile and said, “How about someone who isn’t an NYU graduate?”
I had no idea that Coen went to NYU; he just happened to be my favorite director. Still, they assumed I was trying to flatter them.
The three awaited my answer, and I heard myself saying something to the effect of, “Uhhh…..duhhhhh…..ummm…” while my mind promptly emptied itself of the names of every director who’d ever exposed film. Flailing, I finally said, “Steven Spielberg.”
Which is of course the wrong name to give to a group of film school professors. I assume they thought either I was cuaght up in the Shindler’s List hype or that I was just some doofus who liked Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both of which I do) but either way, I seemed pretty clear that they didn’t think I was NYU material.
The fact is, though, I really do like Spielberg’s films. There are many movies that in the hands of a less accomplished director would not be enjoyable, but Spielberg is a master of his craft, he knows how to lead an audience and sometimes, he really does make films that rise above summer blockbuster entertainment.
Munich is one such film. The film claims to be inspired by true events and so I take it for what it claims to be: historical fiction. It tells the tale of the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Massacre is which several Israeli athletes and coaches were kidnapped and murdered by a group of Palestinian terrorists. After this, a number of PLO agents throughout Europe started showing up dead, murdered by Israeli secret agents.
The film focuses on Avner, a low-level Mossad agent who is tasked with leading a team that will hunt down and kill the people responsible. The film works on two levels. It is first and most interestingly a meditation on the effects of violence on those who commit violent acts. Avner and his team begin their work filled with a spirit of vengeance and a desire for justice. Eventually, the humanity seems to drain away from them as they get deeper and deeper into a world of chaos, paranoia, and death in which they themselves become the terrorists they abhor.
Because this is a Spielberg film, it also works as a cold-war era cloak-and-dagger picture full of the kind of shadowy intrigue and sneaking around in Europe’s great cities that made cold-war era spy novels so thrilling. In Spielberg’s capable hands, Munich is both an action-adventure tale of international intrigue and an unsettling tale of what happens to those whose business is killing.
The film was criticized for excessively humanizing the Palestinian targets that Avner and his team dispatch, but Spielberg’s film carries little sympathy for the Palestinian cause or methods. It simply tells the story of what happens to individuals caught up in events bigger than themselves. Individuals who on both sides must sacrifice the ideals they claim to fight for in order to protect those ideals.
I wonder if Munich had come out when I was interviewing at NYU if I’d have gotten the brush-off the way I did. Still, I must have done better than I thought because I was accepted. Then I came to my senses and decided that paying student loans for the rest of my life wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, I paid in-state tuition to UT’s graduate film school and though Joel Coen never went there, I can say that I don’t owe them a dime.
And though Spielberg isn’t my favorite director, films such as Munich certainly move him up the list.