Steven Spielberg

This article was originally published in the January-March 2006 issue of Senses of Cinema (here).

“You’re on to a much safer bet liking someone like Martin Scorsese, whose genius shows up in all the fully approved forms – plowing a lonely course outside the studio system, obsessively burrowing down into an identifiable subset of obsessions, tearing films from his breast like chunks of his own flesh – than you are liking someone like Spielberg: devoid of visible self-destructive impulses, alighting on film after film as if giving his imagination an aerobic workout, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another… if that guy also turns out to have been the most talented filmmaker of his generation, then what, frankly, was the point? What was the point of all those hours passed in the dark confines of the art house, boning up on Ukrainian cinema, watching the unwatchable? But there you go. What can you do. If you have to point to any one director of the last twenty-five years in whose work the medium of film was most fully itself – where we found out what it does best when left to its own devices, it has to be that guy.”

Tom Shone, Blockbuster1

A quick shot of anti-elitism is almost a necessary prelude to a serious critical appreciation of Steven Spielberg. He is, in box-office terms, the most successful director ever, and there are few things quite so damaging to the reputation of an artist than extreme popularity. The sheer success of Spielberg’s way of making movies, starting with his second theatrical feature Jaws in 1975, has led to a lasting critical wariness that has impeded the recognition of him as a truly great filmmaker. This has been complicated by the complex issue of what the influence of Spielberg (along with his occasional colloaborator George Lucas) has done to the state of the cinema. There can be no doubt that concern about the creative and business models Hollywood embraced following Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars has coloured the view of Spielberg’s work. In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind articulates the standard charge:

… Lucas and Spielberg returned the ‘70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-‘60s Golden Age of movies… They marched backwards through the looking glass, producing pictures that were the mirror opposites of the New Hollywood films of their peers. They were, as [Pauline] Kael first pointed out, infantilizing the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.2

It is a sweeping damnation, with an element of truth mingled in with the unfair generalising, and it requires a more detailed rebuttal that can be indulged in here.3 Yet it needs to be mentioned, as variations on this kind of argument have shaped views of both Spielberg’s place in film history, and his artistic merit, from early in his career. What such an approach forgets is that the typical pre-Jaws audience wasn’t sitting with a martini glass in hand soaking up McCabe and Mrs Miller (Altman, 1971) and Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). Instead, the list of the ten top grossing films of 1974 includes such examplars of irony and aesthetic self-consciousness as The Towering Inferno, Blazing Saddles, Earthquake, Benji, Young Frankenstein and Airport 1975.4Before Jaws there were, as always, good films and bad films, and a few of the good films made a lot of money, as did a lot of the bad or mediocre ones. (If any movement was snuffed out by Spielberg, it was Irwin Allen disaster movies.) Spielberg didn’t ruin the cinema, and as such his popularity should not be held against him.

Those who have praise for Spielberg tend to emphasise his technical virtuosity and natural directorial flair, but even this recognition has often been double-edged: implicitly or explicitly, the accompanying suggestion is that his films lack substance and maturity. As Pauline Kael put it in her prescient review of Spielberg’s first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974):

He could be that rarity among directors – a born entertainer – perhaps a new generation’s Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies. If there is such a thing as movie sense… Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else.5

It is the kind of backhanded compliment that has forever dogged Spielberg. Yet while Hawks was retrospectively endowed critical respectability by the magic wand of auteurism, Spielberg – a more interesting and skilful director – has been engaged in a three decade long struggle for artistic validation. In this quest, Spielberg has taken on more “adult” subject matter, and many of these films – most notably Schindler’s List (1993) – have been impressive. Yet he should never have needed to wage such a fight. The films from Spielberg’s first, most interesting period of creative activity (from Duel in 1971 to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984) alone represent a remarkable body of work, and he has followed that with another two decades of interesting and varied projects. His films have done what Hollywood cinema has always sought to do – thrill, uplift, scare, delight – more consistently than anyone’s. Unless we are willing to dispense with all our recognised masters who worked wholly or largely with genre material (the Hawks, Donens, Hitchcocks, and so on) this should be enough, and that he has also done so much else besides simply makes the point inarguable. It is well past time to give Spielberg his due.

Transcending the Mundane: Duel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind

As Pauline Kael’s 1974 comments attest, Spielberg seemed to emerge fully formed, although this is an illusion: he came to films after a brief but intense stint in television, and this work had already caused a stir when Kael reviewed The Sugarland Express. Spielberg was in more ways than one a product of television: born in December 1946,6 Spielberg was part of the first generation to be shaped by its influence in their formative years. After a youth spent making amateur movies, his short film Amblin’ (1968) impressed Sid Sheinberg, then the vice-president of production for Universals’ TV arm. Spielberg was signed to the studio in 1968 and directed a string of television episodes and telemovies. Except for one episode of Columbo (“Murder by the Book,” notable in a directorial sense mainly for its striking opening shot), the only of Spielberg’s works from this era revived with any regularity is Duel, from 1971. Yet it’s a telling exception: Duel is in many ways Spielberg’s true debut feature, a telemovie that was instantly recognised as a cut above the standard for the form, earning release theatrically outside the United States (and an ongoing afterlife, thanks to Spielberg’s name, on home formats).

Duel: hunting in the frame

Duel could hardly be calculated any more perfectly to show off the talents of an ambitious director on the rise, and Spielberg seized the opportunity. The scenario – reworked by Twilight Zone veteran Richard Matheson from his own short story – is a tightly constrained battle of wills between a salesman travelling by car through the countryside, and the apparently homicidal driver of a truck that he overtakes on the road. Simply as a logistical exercise, the film would have impressed studio bosses: despite its numerous complicated setups involving moving vehicles, the film was shot in a staggeringly fast sixteen days.7 Perhaps more importantly, though, it was much more cinematic than a typical telemovie. The minimalist plot means that the film is, apart from Dennis Weaver’s impressively frazzled lead performance, virtually all Spielberg’s, and the film works thanks to the tight grip of his shot selection and editing. His camera is as mobile as the vehicles it films: the first shot of the front of the killer truck, for example, comes at the end of a long, low overtaking pan from Mann’s car up past all the wheels of the truck. Spielberg’s compositions are very deep, with the truck often viewed through Mann’s car, so that the sparring vehicles are arranged before us in the frame, not in the editing. The camera searches for the truck in Mann’s rearview mirrors, encouraging the audience, when the truck is not around, to likewise hunt for it in the corners of the frame. The film is almost too efficent: spare and machine-like, it is easier to admire than to actually like, and its self-conscious attempt to establish its hero as a symbolic everyman is somewhat laboured. (Weaver’s performance establishes everything we need to know about him, without the voiceover or the needless phone argument with his wife to join the dots). Yet the fact that the subtext was there at all was evidence of an ambition greater than might normally be expected of a typical throwaway TV thriller. In his next two projects Spielberg would get the chance to flesh out the bare-bones thrills of Duel into films that were livelier, wider in scope, and less mechanical, proving that the airlessness of Duel was a product of format and project, not the temperament of the director.

Vehicular choreography in The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express (1974) echoed Duel in the staging of its drama in and around moving vehicles. Based on a true story, and developed as a script by Spielberg’s friends Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, it follows the fate of Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Clovis (William Atherton) after Lou Jean breaks Clovis out of jail just months before his release. Events spiral out of control after they kidnap a police officer (Michael Sacks) and hijack his car, driving cross country to try to retrieve their baby from its foster parents pursued by dozens of police. Spielberg juggles the big and small elements of the story (the multi-car pursuit on the one hand, and the events inside the car on the other) expertly. Given Spielberg’s reputation as a master of spectacle, it is easy to be distracted by the dizzy choreography of the many vehicles in the film, and overlook the assurance with which he handles the character drama. The film is anchored by strong performances from its three leads, with the relationship between Lou Jean and Clovis particularly well drawn. Lou Jean is impulsive and domineering, and the weak-willed Clovis lacks the strength to stand up to her, even as he senses where their journey will take them. Yet Spielberg never makes Lou Jean a monster, and brings great subtlety to the portrayal of the give and take of their relationship. His direction is also impressive in the way it uses the landscape as a backdrop to the events: the portrayal of small town and rural Texas is crucial to informing our understanding of the characters. Spielberg deserves credit, too, for the downbeat ending: while Clovis and Lou Jean are sympathetic throughout, there’s no attempt to hide the fact that they are not suitable parents for their child. It is a nuanced and richly textured film, and that it registers so low in the general awareness of his body of work (even Duel is more widely known) has distorted the perception of his early career in particular.

For his second feature, Spielberg chose another project with echoes of Duel: the suspense thriller Jaws (1975). In later years, Spielberg has played down the quality of his work on the film, dismissing it as being purely manipulative and a coldly mechanical exercise in working over an audience. This would be a fair observation with regards to Duel, but directed at Jaws it suggests an insensitivity to the qualities of his own work. Jaws remains the most perfectly realised of Spielberg’s movies, and its deft combination of different elements makes it satisfying at levels well beyond that of the mere suspense thriller. Which is not to dismiss its qualities on that score. It takes the Hitchcockian facility for audience manipulation that Spielberg had demonstrated in Duel to a higher level. It is like a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, never repetitive in its effects, and so never predictable. Each shark attack, for example, is structured for quite different impact: the first emphases brutality and a Psycho­like audience implication in voyeurism; the second follows a series of red herrings, emphasising the paranoia of Brody (Roy Scheider) on the beach; the lead up to the attack in the pond uses repetition of imagery to subtly cue the audience to the fact that all is not quite as it appears. Yet the film is not a miserable, brutalising experience as truly effective suspense films so often are: it thrills its audience rather than beating it into submission. Spielberg keeps a lightness of touch that defies the difficulty of the production, and makes the action-adventure sequences in the film’s last third truly exhilarating. His facility for shot composition and editing is at its most sure-footed, with the editing rhythms having an instinctive, musical quality.

One of Jaws' long takes

Its staggering success means Jaws is regularly singled out as a key stop on the journey to modern blockbuster filmmaking, one in a sequence of seventies films that took disreputable genre material and devoted A-film budgets and marketing to it, with sensational box-office results. In taking this route, it followed The Godfather and The Exorcist, and predated Star Wars and Alien. While Jaws‘ position in the blockbuster genealogy is unquestionable, the film itself bears little resemblance to the glossy confections that would follow. In aesthetic terms, the film uses a naturalistic, gritty style that is very much in keeping with the New Hollywood cinema of the seventies. The approach to character and setting emphasises verisimilitude: Spielberg shows here the same feel for location and local colour that he demonstrated in Duel and Sugarland Express, using real settings and filling supporting roles with genuine locals. Dialogue unfolds in long takes wherever possible: the confrontation between Brody, Hooper and the Mayor before the 4th of July, for example, is played out in one long, uninterrupted tracking shot. The richly layered sound mix uses the techniques pioneered for Robert Altman’s films to great narrative effect by overlapping snippets of background conversations to provide both atmosphere and exposition. The actors – with the notable exception of Robert Shaw – favour a naturalistic style, with many scenes benefiting from moments improvised during the long, drawn out shoot. As a result, Jaws has a dramatic integrity that is unusual for genre cinema before or since. In applying the aesthetics of the New Hollywood to his potboiler plot, Spielberg made a classic out of genre material. Jaws didn’t ruin Hollywood cinema by dumbing it down. Quite the opposite: it set a benchmark for blockbuster quality that, unfortunately, has rarely been matched since.

Domestic hell in Close Encounters

The success of Jaws gave Spielberg clout. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in 1977, was his first film as a hot director, and its sweep is testament to the fact that he wanted it to make an impact. The resulting film is an ambitious but uneven work, too scruffy to be the unqualified masterpiece Spielberg wanted it to be. Even Spielberg seemed to sense this, fiddling with it in the editing room for years afterwards, not being satisfied until 1998.8 Yet Close Encounters is a reminder that flawed films can be more rewarding than films that are perfectly executed but less ambitious. It is a curious blend: a domestic drama; a thriller about a government cover-up; a light horror film with a creepy science-fiction menace; and a globe-trotting, quasi-epic portrayal of the first contact between human and alien. It is also the quintessential special effects extravaganza. Rarely has a film been constructed so consciously as a sound and light show: Close Encounters resolves most of its plot threads before the climax, with the conflicts that drive the plot melting away so that characters and audience can gape at the special effects in unison. Unlike Star Wars (which opened just a few months earlier), the message of Close Encounters is one of intergalactic peace and love, and the feel-good conclusion cemented Spielberg’s reputation as an upbeat, sentimental filmmaker. Yet to see Close Encounters purely in these terms is to miss its ambivalent view of its hero’s suburban existence. Once again, Spielberg has a documentarian’s eye for the details of the lives of ordinary Americans, with the scenes of Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary in his home rich in domestic detail. Yet Spielberg’s view of middle America is far from rosy. Roy’s relationship with his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) is rocky, and disintegrates when she is unable to follow him on the spiritual quest on which his UFO sighting launches him. Ronnie is a creature of suburbia, dulled to greater possibilities by her consumerist existence: when Roy tries to describe a UFO to her by comparing it to an ice cream cone, she is more concerned with chronicling the various available ice creams than what he has to tell her.

While Roy Neary’s glorified flight from domestic responsibility is in some ways the fantasy of a young male – Spielberg has since admitted as much himself – it also shows the contradictions present in his views of middle class American life. Consistent with his populist reputation, Spielberg frequently valorises the “common man” in his films, and his determination that Earth’s representative in Close Encounters be “a man who wants to go and set up a McDonald’s franchise” was key to causing initial screenwriting collaborator Paul Schrader to leave the project.9 Yet just a year later, explaining the psyche of the David Mann character in Duel, Spielberg offered an extended attack on a sedated suburban existence that hints at the complex viewpoint underpinning Close Encounters:

It begins on Sunday; you take your car to be washed. You have to drive it but it’s only a block away.  And, as the car’s being washed, you go next door with the kids and buy them ice cream at the Dairy Queen and then you have lunch at the plastic McDonald’s with seven zillion hamburgers sold. And then you go off to the games room and you play the quarter games: Tank and the Pong and Flim-Flam. And by that time you go back and your car’s all dry and ready to go and you get into the car and drive to the Magic Mountain plastic amusement park and you spend the day there eating junk food.

Afterwards you drive home, stopping at all the red lights, and the wife is waiting with dinner on. And you have instant potatoes and eggs without cholesterol – because they’re artificial – and you sit down and turn on the television set, which has become the reality as opposed to the fantasy this man has lived with that entire day. And you watch the prime time, which is pabulum and nothing more than watching a night light. And you see the news at the end of that, which you don’t want to listen to because it doesn’t conform to the reality you’ve just been through prime time with. And at the end of all that you go to sleep and you dream about making enough money to support weekend America.10

John Baxter, one of Spielberg’s biographers, explains the apparent contradiction between Spielberg’s populism and the seeming contempt for the average suburban male in this passage by explaining it as Spielberg’s attack “not on suburban values but on fathers who fail to abide by them.”11 While Spielberg’s preoccupation with his parents’ divorce is undoubtedly part of the mental landscape informing Spielberg’s viewpoint, the sympathy for Neary’s father figure in Close Encounters shows that the pat explanation of fatherhood issues is not quite enough to explain it away. Spielberg’s concern with suburban existence is its anaesthetising effect, and the conflict between Roy Neary and his wife represents the gulf between those still alive to experiences that transcend the mundane, and those dulled to greater possibilities by everyday life. The escapist impulse in Spielberg’s work is perhaps obvious, but the escapism is given meaning by Spielberg’s attention to the scenes in Close Encounters showing what Roy Neary is escaping from.

It’s a thematic point that is crucial to illuminating not only Close Encounters, but also Spielberg’s work more generally. When Close Encounters becomes a special-effects extravaganza in its final act, Spielberg is, like Roy Neary, reaching for the sublime. It is what blockbuster filmmaking at its best is all about: lifting the audience out of their everyday worries and exposing them to extraordinary events. Close Encounters changes before your eyes into a different kind of movie, and its transformation is a neat metaphor for the shifting preoccupations of American cinema. The early scenes have an affinity with the gritty, working-class realities of the New Hollywood of the seventies, while the conclusion is pure eighties special effects blockbuster. This, more than the phenomenal success of Jaws, might be where the lingering resentment of Spielberg really started. To the extent that Hollywood blockbusters have been on an orgy of escapism in years since, they have tended to lose the taste for the low-key and everyday. The result is often distancing, as everything on screen is something the audience would never experience. The strength of Spielberg’s work from Duel to Close Encounters is the way it manages to avoid this trap and get the best of both worlds. The films are grounded in a very real world: unlike many Hollywood films, they don’t turn America into an idealised sitcom version of itself. Having established this strong foothold in reality, they then take their heroes into a heightened level of existence that is more exciting, more spectacular, more emotional than the dull lives they live out each day. Spielberg’s imitators have rarely matched his gift, in these early years, for matching the satisfactorily ordinary hero with the thrillingly extraordinary situation, which is why so many of the blockbusters that followed – including several of Spielberg’s own – have been so wretched. Yet seen for what they are, rather than what they spawned, the impulse in these early films to look up and yearn for greater things is something to be celebrated, not scorned. In the following years, the transformation from one kind of filmmaking to another that occurs in Close Encounters seemed to permanently transform Spielberg’s work, and his next few movies would play out in unabashedly artificial movie worlds. They would both gain and lose something from the transformation.

The quintessential Spielberg shot?

Wunderkind: 1941 to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

1941 and Raiders of the Lost Ark form an intriguing pair on Spielberg’s resume. The former is famous – to the extent it is remembered at all – as Spielberg’s first big budget flop. The latter is a classic of the action-adventure genre, still-much loved more than quarter of a century on. Yet the films are strikingly similar in many ways. Both are lavish period pieces, constructed around a series of elaborate set pieces. And both are relatively impersonal projects, stepping away from the real world setting that had been the jumping off point for his films before this time. There is no progression here from the mundane to the extraordinary: these films start big and finish big. This is the newly established wunderkind trying his hand at big, old-style Hollywood entertainment on a grand scale. That Raiders worked so well, and 1941 so conspicuously misfired, is revealing about the strange alchemy that separates good films from bad.

1941 is a comedy of mayhem and destruction, portraying the panic that spreads in wartime L.A. when it is feared that the Japanese are about to attack. In retrospect, it reflects the distinctive sensibility of its screenwriters, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Which is not to offload responsibility onto them, but rather to note that perhaps the meeting of Zemeckis / Gale and Spielberg was unfortunate: their talents soured when combined. Zemeckis and Gale specialised in fast-paced, intricate, incident-laden scripts, and the sheer freneticism of their screenwriting was perhaps too much for a director as kinetic as Spielberg, with the resulting overkill making the film tired and grating. Pauline Kael likened it to “having your head inside a pinball machine for two hours,” which summed up the general air of fatigue that the movie provoked.12 It concludes with a montage of people screaming, followed by the credits rolling over a sequence of explosions, and the tone of the rest is much the same. Spielberg’s ability with large scale set pieces is in evidence, but the film falls into the trap that had bedevilled previous grandiose comedies, such as Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963): bigger doesn’t mean funnier. Despite often being spectacular, the film simply isn’t very funny. Spielberg himself had a frank moment during its making, admitting that “comedy is not my forte.”13 Which is not entirely true. While 1941 remains his only outright comedy, and is not a success, Spielberg’s films are full of deft comedy. It is just that Spielberg approaches his humour obliquely: his films are most effortlessly funny when he is working towards another purpose.

Raiders of the Lost Ark provided ample demonstration of this. Chastened by the reception to 1941, he turned to the security of a collaboration with George Lucas, who was still at the height of his post Star Wars fame. Conceptually, Raiders of the Lost Ark is much more consistent with Lucas’ body of work than Spielberg’s, reworking the basic Star Wars conceit of rejuvenating old serials into a state-of-the-art entertainment. The film was further shaped by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who adeptly resuscitated the spirit of serials while avoiding their flaws. To a large degree, then, Raiders is a film designed by others, and Spielberg’s job was to put it together. It is, however, an expert assembly. The film could have foundered on any of the same points that derailed 1941, coming across as loud, infantile, or in poor taste. Instead, Raiders of the Lost Ark is pitch-perfect in tone, neither too heavy nor too light. Where 1941’s set pieces seemed stilted and grating, those in Raiders seem effortless and light. Where the comedy in 1941 fell flat, Raiders’ action sequences work because Spielberg choreographs them as elaborate comic routines. The style of action in Raiders is distinct from that of any other action director. Spielberg doesn’t emphasise speed, for example, with his action unfolding in a measured, highly rhythmic manner that instead stresses the clockwork-like progression of cause and effect that make up a sequence. The result is that Raiders’ action is easily read by the audience, and has a lightness of touch that is unusual in the genre, and reminiscent of the breezy, adventurous tone that Spielberg brought to the shark hunt in Jaws. So while it is an impersonal film in subject, it is a signature film in terms of execution.14 The film was justly a huge commercial success, reconfirming Spielberg’s box-office credentials after the hiccup of 1941. It has already become a classic of the genre, occupying much the same space in the imagination of those who grew up with it as the serials that inspired it did for Lucas and Spielberg. Its immediate effect was to re-establish his career equlibrium after the fiasco of 1941: having done so, Spielberg would turn his attention to a much more personal project.

Magical suburbia in E.T.

Accounts of the early development of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial are confused, and suggest that several projects that Spielberg was considering coalesced into one. One was a John Sayles scripted thriller about aliens called Night Skies, which included a subplot about an alien being left behind on Earth.15 More crucial, however, was a nebulous idea for an intimate, small-scale film based on the life of children. This idea seems to have gone through several incarnations, being referred to variously as Clearwater, After School, Growing Up, and A Boy’s Life.16 The greatness of E.T. can be linked to its origins in this premise: it works so well because its intimate portrayal of the world of its child protagonists would be an interesting film even without the alien. Spielberg’s fascination with childhood has been disparaged as a sign of immaturity, which is not only snide but also, when you think about it, rather sad. E.T. is a reminder that there are few more interesting subjects than childhood (a point usually obscured by the dearth of filmmakers who can tackle the subject well). Nobody has ever directed young actors as consistently well as Spielberg, and in E.T. he creates an uncannily real portrayal of the lives of pre-teens. Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore are totally natural as the three central characters, and the film is full of perceptive details about life at that age: Elliot’s animation of his toys; the older boys’ teasing of their sister; the gulf in understanding between children and adults; and the helplessness and frustration that this gulf provokes. The film is sometimes painted as cynical and manipulative, but with one exception (the overwrought scene when Elliot tells E.T. that he loves him) it is actually Spielberg’s most sincere and heartfelt film.

E.T., also marks a return to the suburbia of Close Encounters after two consecutive films set in comic-strip worlds, and it is instructive to see how the landscape has changed. E.T. once again has a strong sense of location – you feel you know the children’s neighbourhood by the end of the film – but it lacks the jaundiced, adults-eyed view of suburbia that Close Encounters provided. The shift is not a result of some over-romanticisation on Spielberg’s part, but rather from the change in perspective. E.T. is set in a superficially bleak suburban location: on the fringes of Los Angeles, with indistinguishable houses dotted along meandering streets, and the new development eating into the wilderness at city’s edge. This is all evident in E.T., but we see it from a child’s point of view. The building sites become BMX tracks, and the edge of the subdivision becomes an enchanted wood full of magical possibilities. It is this connection with the feel of childhood that gives E.T. its special charm, and watching the film is like immersing yourself in your most pleasurable childhood memories. To some extent it is Close Encounters with children, but the change makes all the difference, as the child’s perspective offers an alternative to the misanthropy of Close Encounters. When offered the choice to leave, the young hero Elliot reverses the decision of Roy Neary and chooses to stay with his family. Once again the bleakness of suburbia is evoked, but this time, the antidote is not abandonment. It is embrace of the possibilities for wonder that children remember but adults forget, and few films are as in touch with those possibilities as E.T..

A very different side of Spielberg’s temperament is on show in the first sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Lucas and Spielberg fashioned a sequel that was so dark in tone that it appalled many critics. David Denby of New York summarised the views of many when he complained:

This lurid and gloomy trash goes on and on, without a joke anywhere, and it’s not only sadistic and dumb, it’s oppressively ugly. That Spielberg should devote himself to anything so debased in imagination is unbearably depressing.17

While Spielberg initially professed exasperation at this kind of criticism – protesting that it “is not called The Temple of Roses: it’s called The Temple of Doom” – he would ultimately come to downplay the film and admit to being unhappy with it.18 It is true that Temple of Doom is hard to take at times: rarely has a movie been more frequently described as “headache inducing.” The foreboding mood of the film even extends to the hero, with Indiana Jones a much more mercenary character, who until film’s end is pursuing “fortune and glory” rather than the good of mankind. Yet despite the conspicuous absence of the spirit of adventurous good fun that characterised Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom remains a dazzling piece of work. Its audacity is announced by a wonderfully staged but totally incongruous opening musical number, a Cantonese adaptation of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” the title of which is essentially an expression of the approach of the movie. Instead of the action sequence / exposition alternation that structured Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film concentrates almost all of its exposition in one set-up a third of the way through the movie, leaving the rest of the film as a series of chases and comic set pieces, the conclusion of each leading into the start of the next. (The film comments slyly on its own structure in the minecar chase, which literalises the film’s rollercoaster construction). While exhausting, this structure is integral to the appeal of the film, which pushes the genre of action cinema to the limits. In Raiders, Spielberg had established a distinctive style of action sequence, built like a Rube Goldberg-style machine, with the action progressing through a complex chain reaction of cause and effect. In Temple of Doom, Spielberg takes this machine-like construction as far as anyone ever has, setting up the temple as a giant playground of tunnels, walkways, flying foxes, pulleys, conveyer belts, ladders, waterwheels, and minecarts. Even more than in Raiders, the sequences are inherently comic. The opening nightclub fight, for example, in which various characters scrabble on the floor for different objects, is essentially an action sequence doubling as farce. Or is it farce doubling as action sequence? Essentially, Temple of Doom is a realisation of the comic ambitions of 1941, and its boldness means that in some ways it has remained fresher than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Audaciously incongruous

Still, the negative reaction to the film reinforced the low ebb into which Spielberg was slipping. The furore over its suitability for children – along with that of the Joe Dante-directed, Spielberg-produced Gremlins (also 1984) – led to the introduction of the PG-13 rating in the United States, and was just one of the controversies in which he became embroiled around this time. Spielberg’s reputation was also sullied in these years by his association with the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie, which he co-produced. During the filming of John Landis’ segment of the anthology film, actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed in a helicopter crash. While Spielberg was never implicated in any wrongdoing as result of the incident, Landis was charged but then acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, and the divisive trial (which did not conclude until 1987) cast a dark cloud over Spielberg in this period.19 That the film that emerged was so poor only served to further underline the wastefulness of the tragedy. Spielberg’s segment, entitled “Kick the Can,” is a shmaltzy piece of work that strings together all the visual cliches that mark his work at its most half-hearted. Around this time, Spielberg was also engulfed in an authorship controversy over Poltergeist (1982), which Tobe Hooper directed but Spielberg wrote and co-produced. The ultimate film – a ghost story that, like Gremlins, is in some ways the scary riposte to E.T. – strongly resembles Spielberg’s work, and the subsequent suggestions that Spielberg had effectively directed it by proxy proved highly damaging to Hooper’s emerging directorial career.

Perhaps the largest factor, however, in degrading Spielberg’s reputation in these years were the flood of Spielberg-produced (or executive produced) films, which were inevitably promoted with heavy use of his name. While some of these have merit – notably Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Joe Dante’s Innerspace (1987) and Gremlins 2 (1990) – too many of the Spielberg-backed films in this period were derivative, bland, and saccharine. In addition to Gremlins, The Twilight Zone, and Poltergeist, there was The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1984), Young Sherlock Holmes (Barry Levinson, 1985), The Money Pit (Richard Benjamin, 1986), *batteries not included (Matthew Robbins, 1987), and Dad (Gary David Goldberg, 1989). In addition, there were numerous imitations of Spielberg’s best films, such as John Badham’s Short Circuit (1986) or Stewart Raffill’s Mac and Me (1988), both of which are variations on the basic template of E.T.. All these films only served to reinforce the perception that Spielberg’s influence had led to a drastic degradation of Hollywood cinema.

Insofar as he produced many of these films, Spielberg has to accept some responsibility for their quality. Yet it is doubtful that they led to any real worsening of the quality of American cinema. Hollywood has always produced derivative and bad films, and in the eighties many came in Spielberg flavour, just as in the seventies they would come in Irwin Allen flavour, and in the nineties, Simpson / Bruckheimer flavour. In retrospect, these faux-Spielberg films only serve to underline the quality of the genuine article, lacking as they do the genuine sense of wonder, and the supreme craft evident in Spielberg’s own work. The quality of Spielberg’s films of this period should require no apology. E.T. and the first two Indiana Jones films are undoubtedly escapist, and more removed from the respectable business of documenting real lives than his seventies work, but they are also more genuinely thrilling than just about anything Hollywood has produced before or since. Yet there were signs that Spielberg was taking the criticism to heart and following Temple of Doom he would turn to more self-consciously “important” material. It was the start of a shaky period in terms of both critical and audience reception.

Advance and Retreat: The Color Purple to Hook

Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple chronicles the difficult life of Celie, a young woman who struggles to escape from the physical and sexual abuse inflicted by first her father and then her husband in the early twentieth century rural South of the United States. It is an improbable novel to form the subject of a Hollywood film, whoever the director: the challenging content includes incest, physical abuse and lesbianism. While it is to Spielberg’s credit that he attempted it, The Color Purple (1985) simply doesn’t work. The watering-down of some of the content – toning down the sexual bond between Celie and the singer Shug Avery, for example – is one problem, but the more crucial failures are stylistic. Spielberg seems to have responded to the emotional drama at the heart of the story, but in trying to bring that out, he overcooks the film visually and turns it into melodrama. Walker’s novel is written in a rough, earthy, first-person style that is appropriate to the harshness of the material, but Spielberg adopts a lyrical, sweeping visual style that is not far removed from that of Gone With the Wind. The mismatch of material and approach is fatal to the film. The Color Purple, unlike his preceding few films, needed to be real, and in establishing such reality, Spielberg’s usual visual efficiency works against him. Spielberg is a master at conveying information visually, and in a genre film such as Jaws, this can allow him to pare down a story to its essentials in a way that enhances the end result. Yet this is a double-edged gift, and The Color Purple shows how such movie sense can make the film seem phony and overengineered. At one point, for example, Spielberg flashes forward from child to adult Celie, linking the two actresses playing the role through a shadow cast onto a wall: it’s a brilliantly efficient visual idea, but its neatness is a distracting – and therefore distancing – piece of film artifice. The Color Purple demonstrated that as Spielberg tried to move in new directions, he would have to establish a new stylistic voice.

Too beautiful for the material?

Empire of the Sun (1987) was an important step towards doing so. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, it tells of Jim Graham, a precocious British boy who becomes separated from his parents when the Japanese invade Shanghai in 1941. Spielberg had inherited the project from David Lean, who had started to develop it but then abandoned it when he couldn’t adapt the story to his satisfaction. While the story, with its epic sweep, is in some respects classic Lean material, its story of a boy’s premature introduction to a grown up world was also a natural progression for Spielberg from E.T.’s study of children in more conventional circumstances. Ultimately the film is prevented from being fully successful by story problems (probably the same ones that troubled Lean): once Jim reaches the prison camp, the story loses its forward momentum. Yet the film is much more successful than The Color Purple, and demands greater recognition than it has received. Where The Color Purple seemed betrayed by its visual style, in Empire of the Sun Spielberg successfully harnesses his visuals in aid of the material. “Ever since Duel,” Spielberg said at the time, “I’ve been looking for a visual narrative… that could be told exclusively through visual metaphors and nonpretentious symbolism. And nothing came along until Empire.”20 It is at this level that the film is most successful: in terms of its marriage of style and theme, Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s most ambitious films. The beautiful, almost dreamlike photography is used to suggest Jim’s imaginatively heightened view of the world. When he pretends to pilot a crashed plane, his toy glider soars around impossibly like an enemy aircraft. It is, as Andrew Gordon has written, “a fantasy, a child’s dream of war.”21 Yet Spielberg manages a tricky balance: we are not totally immersed in Jim’s perception, and harsh reality continually intrudes. For example, unlike Jim, we see the one-sidedness of his relationship with Basie (John Malkovich), who exploits Jim’s devotion for his own ends. (Basie is an anticipation of the hero of Schindler’s List, but without the conscience, exploiting those in the prison camp without ever having his moment of redemption). It is, despite its child’s-eye view, one of the most knowing and adult of Spielberg’s films.

Yet Empire of the Sun never found its audience, failing to achieve even the level of connection with a certain sector of the audience that The Color Purple had found. After two consecutive attempts to broaden his range, Spielberg had still failed to receive widespread recognition as an important – rather than just phenomenally popular – filmmaker. Indeed, his critical reception only cooled as he tried to pursue these projects. Against this background, it is difficult to see his next three films – the most insignificant of his career – as anything other than a regression. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was far less inventive or challenging than Temple of Doom, and if it weren’t for the welcome addition of Sean Connery as Indiana’s father, it would almost count as remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. While it must be said that the film plays fantastically well in front of an audience, it lacks the shelf-life of Spielberg’s earlier adventure epics. Indeed, if it weren’t for one very well realised set piece (the chase involving the tank), it would almost feel like another director’s work. The same year’s Always (1989) saw Spielberg make his first romance, ill-advisedly reworking Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe (1943). The inherently sentimental genre brought out the worst in Spielberg, and the film is mawkish and old-fashioned. Even worse was Hook (1991), his weakest film to date. Spielberg had been thinking about a version of Peter Pan for several years, but by the time he did so, he seemed to have outgrown his interest in the material. Hook tries for the elaborate, stage-bound look of previous Hollywood fantasy epics like The Wizard of Oz, but ultimately its extravagant sets become claustrophobic and its nagging attempts to pull heartstrings become grating. Hook could hardly be further from the genuine warmth and exhilaration of E.T.: of all his films, it is the one that most lives up to the criticism that has been directed at him.

Spielberg A and Spielberg B: Jurassic Park to Saving Private Ryan

If Always and Hook had suggested that Spielberg’s Midas touch was deserting him, then he provided the best possible response in 1993. Spielberg had had a turnaround like this before, when he had followed the disaster of 1941 with Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, where that film had been embraced by critics and the public alike, in 1993 Spielberg provided commercial and artistic breakthroughs in two separate packages. Jurassic Park marked his commercial resuscitation, becoming the highest grossing film ever up until that time, and within months he followed it with Schindler’s List (1993), which would win him the Oscar for Best Director that he had so long sought.

A sequence in search of a movie

Jurassic Park was inherently commercial material. Michael Crichton’s novel had been the subject to a bidding war, with Twentieth Century Fox pursuing it for Joe Dante to direct, Warner Brothers for Tim Burton, and Guber-Peters Entertainment and Tristar for Richard Donner.22 It seems likely that any of these directors would have made a hit movie from the novel, but with Steven Spielberg as their candidate, Universal must have sensed that the box-office stratosphere beckoned. For Spielberg, the film was something of a return to his roots: a suspense film for Universal with strong overtones of Jaws. Its box-office success was assured when the special effects house, Industrial Light and Magic, made dramatic advances in computer generated special effects that allowed unprecedentedly photorealistic dinosaurs (of all the special effects movies that Spielberg has made, it is Jurassic Park that most revolutionised effects technology).23 Spielberg fashioned some impressive suspense sequences in which to show the animals off, with the central Tyrannosaurus Rex attack particularly well staged. Yet Jurassic Park never manages to feel like anything more than a succession of bravura sequences with a film awkwardly formed around them, and indeed, the big action sequences were being storyboarded well before there was a script.24 Despite the strong links in genre terms with his early work, in many ways the film is much more of a piece with Always and Hook, sharing their disconnection from reality. The clunkiness of the script, the self-consciousness of the camera moves, and even the highly saturated cinematography conspire to create an artificial atmosphere that is far removed from the verisimilitude of Jaws. While this synthetic air is perhaps thematically apt, given the film’s setting in an amusement park, it prevents the film from being very engaging. Filmed with Schindler’s List looming as his next project, and completed during that film’s principal photography, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Spielberg had other things on his mind.

Schindler’s List (1993) is the story of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who used his munitions factory as a front to save more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust. The film was the climax not only of Spielberg’s long quest to be taken seriously, but more importantly, to come to terms with his own Jewish heritage. Spielberg had played down his Jewishness as a child, and judging by his films, the habit stuck: in the Indiana Jones films, for example, all religions get equal time, with Christian and Jewish relics (the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant, respectively) given equal billing, while Nazis figured as comic villains as recently as 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Yet Spielberg had been gently developing the Schindler project, based on Thomas Keneally’s fact-based novel Schindler’s Ark, for a decade. At various times, wondering if he would be able to bring it off, he considered offloading it, with Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Billy Wilder amongst the possible alternate directors.25 When he finally did proceed with the film, there was some incredulity and alarm. Former Keneally collaborator Fred Schepisi famously berated Spielberg at a party, telling him he was “the worst person to direct this film… You’ll fuck it up, because you’re too good with the camera.”26 Schepisi was right in that Schindler’s List could not have been made as Spielberg had made Empire of the Sun, with fluid camera moves and soaring score. Instead, Spielberg’s direction is restrained and tasteful. Shot in austere but beautiful black and white by Janusz Kaminski, the film frequently has the feel of documentary footage. While Spielberg’s visual and storytelling instincts are always in evidence – the film is impeccably shot and never dull – his greatest contribution was his belatedly discovered but very real sense of rage about the subject matter. This underlying passion drives Spielberg’s approach, which is to show the horrors in a simple style and with an unflinching eye.

Which is not, it must be said, how everybody saw it. One strain of criticism of Schindler’s List is that by focussing on the story of Jews who survived, the film obscures the real horrors of the Holocaust. The film was attacked by Claude Lanszmann, director of the documentary Shoah 1985), and Jay Hoberman in The Village Voice described it as “a feel-good entertainment about the ultimate feel-bad experience of the twentieth century.”27 While such criticisms flow understandably from the depth of feeling provoked by the subject matter, they remain unfair. The film is rendered bearable by the fact that it focuses on survivor’s stories, but it never glosses over the horror of what is occurring around them. In one of the most criticised scenes, a group of Schindler’s workers are misdirected to Auschwitz, and herded into what they fear is a gas chamber, only to be spared when water flows from the shower heads. While these women happen to escape, the dread of what they faced, and the brutality of the Nazi’s methods, is still chillingly presented. The film alternates moments of horror with moments of escape in a manner that highlights the callous randomness that governed who survived and who lived: one worker miraculously survives an attempt at execution when the gun misfires, but another is killed moments after being “pardoned” by the psychotic camp commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). The audience, like the workers, cannot predict where death will fall, and this prevents any sense of complacency about the characters’ fates. The criticism of the focus on survivors makes it ironic that the moment most frequently attacked as overly sentimental is the sequence that stresses Schindler’s regret at those he left behind: Schindler breaks down as he leaves his factory, crying “I could have got more.” While it is the one scene in the film that seems deliberately tear-jerking (the scenes of murder earlier in the film are horrific and enraging, but are not exploited for tears), it is a moment of catharsis that probably would not have been remarked upon if the film had been made by someone else. Spielberg can’t escape his reputation.

Schindler’s List has an importance, and a quality, that means it transcends its place as a Spielberg film, standing apart from his other work. Indeed, the paradox that it presented for Spielberg as a filmmaker is that his most honoured film was so unlike anything else he had made. He was, effectively, being saluted for rejecting the approach of his earlier work, and it is perhaps not surprising that he felt the need to pause. He took, by his standards, a comparatively long break between films after Schindler’s List, waiting until 1997 to release The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. This only increased the anticipation about how we would follow his breakthrough film. The answer was a repeat of the 1993 template: a Jurassic Park sequel for the north American summer, and a serious “issue” picture, the anti-slavery drama Amistad, late in the year. It was as if Spielberg had internalised the constant belittling of his genre films, but, not wanting to give them up, had decided to alternate. Spielberg A would produce “important” films, with serious messages and an adult tone, while Spielberg B would make disposable fluff. While the variation of subject matter is commendable in theory, in practice Spielberg’s output in these years shows the pitfalls of a rigid “one for art / one for the masses” approach. It means that the commercial movies can roll off the production line reeking, as Jurassic Park did, of a filmmaker who is not taking the project seriously, while the important movies can seem stuffy and self-important, as with Amistad. Which is not to say that his two 1997 films can be dismissed outright. The Lost World has been treated with enough contempt by enough critics that, despite not being a great film, it can now rightfully be called underrated. On his second trip to dinosaur country, Spielberg had a better script, better characters, and better cinematography, and The Lost World is a much more solid picture than the original Jurassic Park. Yet even its enjoyable moments hint at the disposability of the whole exercise. Late in the production Spielberg impulsively reworked the conclusion to include a sequence in which the T-Rex runs amok in San Diego: while the film gets away with it through sheer exuberance, it’s the kind of ad-libbing that would have been impossible if the film had been more carefully constructed. Still, The Lost World is at least alive on the screen, which is more than can be said for Amistad, a curiously lifeless enterprise. While it includes some harrowing and effective sequences – the flashbacks to the mistreatment and murder of the slaves on the boat – it ultimately falls back on verbalising its argument, turning on a speech to the Supreme Court. Because it makes its central point so much less strongly than in Schindler’s List, it is much more validly accused of a variation of the complaint levelled at the earlier film: by focussing on a case in which slaves were freed, it suggests a much more benevolent approach by the US Courts to the issue of slave’s rights than was actually the case.

Harrowing combat

Spielberg’s subsequent film, Saving Private Ryan (1999), is much more successful. It focuses on a squad of soldiers sent to retrieve a fellow soldier from the battlefield after his brothers are killed, with their mission forcing an examination of the way in which different lives are weighed against each other. Unlike Amistad or even Schindler’s List, this was a subject matter that required Spielberg too employ his filmmaking gifts to their fullest extent. Where those films relied for their impact largely on the unflinching, unadorned exposure of horrific events, Saving Private Ryan works because of its visceral immersion in the horrifying realities of combat. The early sequence, depicting the amphibious assault on Omaha Beach, is as gut-wrenching and deglorifying a depiction of combat as has ever been filmed, and it is realised through careful employment of a wide range of visual and aural techniques. The sequence is revealing for the way in which Spielberg doesn’t rely on one single approach. Shaky hand-held camera work, for example, yields a disorientating effect, and a lesser director might have chosen this and stuck to it. For Spielberg, however, it is just one technique, applied judiciously and selectively at various moments throughout the sequence (and the wider film). In quieter moments, too, Spielberg’s touch is evident, as in what can only described as an aural dissolve, when the sound of water on leaves gives way to the distant sound of gunfire. Generally, Spielberg’s story decisions are equally astute, with the film not shirking some of the difficult moments, such as the mistreatment of a captured enemy soldier. The film does become more conventional as it progresses, finally boiling down to a very traditional battle to save a bridge. Nevertheless, the realism of its combat sequences is itself an extremely effective anti-war message, and this is not diluted by the film’s occasional lapses, or the redundant framing device.

The film’s fine balance between an essentially patriotic view of World War II, and a determination to avoid glamorising the combat, is captured by its opening image: a close-up of the American flag, but backlit by the sun so that it appears washed out and faded. It was a balancing act that was highly successful with critics and the Hollywood establishment. While it missed out on and Academy Award for Best Picture (which was snagged by Shakespeare in Love, one of Oscar’s more left-field winners), it earned Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar. The recognition seemed to have a positive effect on Spielberg’s films: perhaps it satisfied him that Schindler’s List had been neither a fluke nor an unearned victory. Whatever the reason, Spielberg’s output has settled in the years since, for the most part avoiding the wild swings in quality and approach that marked his work in the nineties. Only a confident filmmaker, for example, could have taken on his next film: an uncompleted project of Stanley Kubrick’s.

Maturity:  A.I. to War of the Worlds

The Kubrick influence

Stanley Kubrick had delayed the production of his science film about artificial intelligence, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, throughout the nineties, citing the inability of available special effects to realise his vision. Throughout its development, he had discussed the project with Spielberg, and when Kubrick died in 1999, Spielberg took the project on as his first film as writer-director since Close Encounters. It is at once a dazzling and very puzzling work, and it divided both critics and audiences, although the general weight of opinion leant towards the negative. This is perhaps not surprising: its structure, with a grim and intellectual centre wrapped up in a fairy-tale presentation (the film both reworks and references Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio), almost seems calculated to confound audiences. While some have attributed the sentimental, fairy-tale aspects to Spielberg and the more intellectual aspects of the film to Kubrick, this is both insulting to Spielberg and missing the complexity of the blend of sensibilities present in the film. The early portions of the film, for example, are at times almost creepily Kubrickian, with the austere visuals matching the tone of the emotionally frozen family into which the robot David (Haley Joel Osmont) is introduced. Despite that, it is difficult to imagine a director as dispassionate as Kubrick having pulled off the exquisite emotional balance of those sequences, which centre on the bond that develops between David and his adoptive “mother” (Frances O’Connor). Spielberg manages to display the warmth that gradually develops between the pair, while never losing sight of the fact that the relationship is fundamentally dysfunctional. As in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film abruptly shifts direction late in the piece, when it jumps forward 2000 years into the future, and these final sequences are largely responsible for the film’s alienation of audiences. Cinematic science fiction tends to concentrate on sketching a vision of a future society, and in its Blade Runner-esque central section A.I. seems to be playing ball: when it then abruptly changes approach in its final stretch, it is disorienting. Such a narrative strategy is much more consistent with the traditions of literary science fiction, which centres on the exploration of ideas, rather than environments, and is therefore much more inclined towards such sharp narrative left turns. A.I. is in this sense a very literary science fiction film. It is a film of ideas, and while it does not have a neat form as Blade Runner does, it is correspondingly more ambitious. It is also much more ambiguous in its resolution than it first appears: the apparently sentimental ending, for example, occurs in a reality that is explicitly shown to have been faked, with David bonding with a version of his “mother” that is considerably more loving than the real one. A.I. is a flawed film, but still a rewarding one, and it deserves reconsideration both as a near-miss masterpiece, and as Spielberg’s second major contribution to the science fiction genre.

Pragmatist vs idealist

A similarly double-edged tone is apparent in Minority Report (2002), a film that is not as bold as A.I. but which is much more satisfyingly realised. Based on a Philip K. Dick short story, the film echoes other Dick inspired films (such as Blade Runner and Total Recall) in its utilisation of a science fiction conceit to explore a philosophical concept. Minority Report shows us a near-future Washington D.C. in which three psychic individuals, “precogs,” can predict the future. They have been harnessed by the government for a program called “precrime,” whereby they see future events and the police arrest perpetrators before the crime occurs. For the protagonist, police officer John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the apparent benefits render the metaphysical and moral considerations (how can you arrest someone for a crime they haven’t yet committed?) meaningless. Spielberg allows us to sympathise with his views by opening with a persuasive demonstration of how the process could save lives: aided by the precog’s premonition, Anderton guides police to a house where they thwart a murder that is about to occur. The film is ingeniously worked out so that as its mystery plot unfolds, it gradually questions that opening viewpoint, stripping away Anderton’s faith in the precrime program. The message of the film is essentially a reversal of traditional Hollywood rogue cop narratives, such as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), where the hero is thwarted from saving lives by short-sighted bureaucrats. Here, the nagging liberal voice of conscience (Colin Farrell’s Danny Witwer) turns out to be correct. In the wake of September 11, the film’s message – that the overzealous protection of the legitimate public interest can quickly degenerate into abuse of civil rights – was a timely one. Considered simply as a narrative, it was the strongest material Spielberg had worked with for several years, and he seized on it with relish. The film features a number of typically well executed action sequences, but Spielberg also has fun with its occasionally ghoulish humour. The whole tone of the film is yet another challenge to the perception of Spielberg as relentlessly cheery. Its future world is grim, its hero misguided, and its message downbeat: it rejects the notion that there are easy solutions to society’s problems.

A change of tone

After the generally grey tone of his previous few films, his next two films – Catch Me if You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004) – saw something of a return to good spirits for Spielberg, with differing degrees of success. Based on a true story, Catch Me if You Can tells of Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo di Caprio), a teenager who conned his way into a series of highly qualified jobs in the 1960s, and the federal agent who pursued him, Carl Handratty (Tom Hanks). The material has a jaunty bounce, turning on the audience’s enjoyment of Abagnale’s chutzpah in pulling off his cons, and the film breezes along, supported by John Williams’ Henry Mancini-esque score. Yet there is always the sneaking sense that everything is about to slide out of control: not only is Abagnale’s life as a fugitive inherently unstable, but his father (Christopher Walken) is on a downward spiral from which the younger Abagnale seems to be trying to escape. It therefore strongly recalls The Sugarland Express in both plot and tone, and Spielberg is equally successful in bringing the material off. The scenes between Walken and di Caprio, as father and son, are particularly well handled and deeply touching. While a slight film, and a relatively minor work, it is also one of Spielberg’s most finely judged. The Terminal, by contrast, is a mess, an aberration in an otherwise strong period in the director’s career. It is a feel-good fable about Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a resident of the fictional country of Krakozia who becomes stateless while in transit and thus becomes stranded in an airport lounge. The concept of the film is a foolish one: the plight of stateless refugees is too serious and topical to be given such a flippant treatment. As in another Hanks vehicle, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994), the film glosses over the likely prospects for its central figure. The film’s scenario closely recalls the plight of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who has spent sixteen years at Charles De Gaulle airport, but the real case is telling in its differences from the fiction. Nasseri has been able to leave since 1999, but has refused to sign the required papers, probably due to failing mental health.28 Against such a background, the fictional account is one example where the escapist side of Spielberg’s sensibility is misplaced: it’s almost sickening as Navorski prompts a marriage in the terminal and woos a glamorous stewardess. It is Spielberg’s weakest film since Hook, and like that film it lives up to many of the criticisms of his style.

After the saccharine overload of The Terminal, the sheer bleakness of War of the Worlds (2005) was almost refreshing. Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel about an alien invasion is something of a companion piece to Close Encounters: where that tells of visitation by friendly aliens, War of the Worlds is the grim and bitter counterpoint. While it unwinds somewhat in its last third (letting the tension slacken, and lacking the courage to follow through on a key plot development), the film is until that point a shining example of Spielberg at the top of his game. Despite a few grandiose effects moments, generally the special effects are subservient to the story. For example, there is one astonishing, unbroken mobile tracking shot as characters flee down a freeway in a stolen car. It’s the kind of bravura technical flourish that Robert Zemeckis is famous for, but where Zemeckis would draw attention to it, Spielberg’s focus is firmly on the people in the car. This personal focus is the key to the success of the film. In contrast to Roland Emmerich’s globe-trotting, comic-book style Independence Day (1996), Spielberg’s approach is to treat the premise seriously and follow how regular citizens respond as the crisis unfolds. One of its most frightening sequences doesn’t involve the aliens, but instead shows the hero, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), having to defend his children from a marauding mob, and in moments such as these the film is extremely convincing in its depiction of society’s breakdown. Its apocalyptic vision draws not only on Spielberg’s previous films about World War II and the Holocaust, but also on the atmosphere of foreboding that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It recognises that the kind of scenes featured in pre-September 11 movies (The Empire State Building exploding in Independence Day, the Chrysler Building falling into the street in Armageddon) now feel obscene; its sombre mood recognises that this kind of destruction now demands to be treated seriously. Where Independence Day took the approach that the alien threat could be defeated by sheer bloody-minded jingoism, Spielberg’s film is suspicious of such impulses. Militarism isn’t the solution in War of the Worlds: it’s the threat. Indeed, in the film’s relentless dramatic logic there is no solution, and the characters (and Earth) escape because of a lucky break. Just as real wars or natural disasters can’t be averted by those who suffer them, the tripods can’t be stopped by the actions of the film’s hero. It isn’t satisfying – and this is a weakness of the film – but it is consistent with the approach of the film.

A sombre disaster movie

Conclusion: Munich

Spielberg’s films of the new millennium show him in his period of maturity. While they lack the precocious brilliance of his early films, they are also more able to successfully combine the serious and audience pleasing sides of his art. That none of them is as thrilling and adventurous as Raiders of the Lost Ark, or as emotionally devastating as Schindler’s List, is partly because they are not as single-minded as those films. Gone is the need to rigidly separate the important from the frivolous: there is a welcome complexity of tone and approach in these later films that defies the lazy stereotypes often bandied about his films. They also show him comfortable with shades of grey (stylistically, morally, and thematically), and this bodes well for his handling of Munich (2005). As I write, this tale of a squad of assassins sent by the Israeli government to avenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics has not yet opened in Australia. The advance word, however, is promising, and in public statements Spielberg seems aware that this is material that demands some nuance and moral ambiguity. It is a sign of how Spielberg continues to take risks, with his body of work continuing to grow more impressive and ambitious. Even after Schindler’s List, there has only been a limited, begrudging recognition by critics of just how interesting Spielberg has become. It is to be hoped that Munich fulfils this promise and further establishes Spielberg as a figure deserving of great respect.

Select Bibliography

Books on Spielberg and His Films

  • John Baxter, Steven Spielberg, HarperColins, London, 1996
  • Douglas Brode, The Films of Steven Spielberg, Citadel, New York, 1995
  • Tony Crawley, The Steven Spielberg Story, Zomba Books, London, 1983
  • Ian Freer, The Complete Spielberg, Virgin, London, 2001
  • Lester D. Friedman & Brent Notbohm (eds.), Steven Spielberg: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2000
  • Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Faber & Faber, London, 1997
  • Charles P. Silet (ed), The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2002

Wider History and Criticism that Includes Significant Material on Spielberg

  • Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Bloomsbury, London, 1999
  • Ryan Gilbey, It Don’t Worry Me: Nashville, Jaws, Star Wars, and Beyond, Faber & Faber, London, 2003
  • Tom Shone, Blockbuster, Simon & Shuster, London, 2004

Notes

[1] Tom Shone, Blockbuster, Simon & Shuster, London, 2004, 80.

[2] Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Bloomsbury, London, 1999, 343-344.

[3] Tom Shone’s Blockbuster is, in large part, an extended rebuttal of Biskind’s book.

[4] The top ten, in order: The Towering Inferno, Blazing Saddles, Earthquake, The Trial of Billy Jack, Benji, The Godfather: Part II, Young Frankenstein, Airport 1975 , The Longest Yard, That’s Entertainment! Figures from Shone, 42.

[5] This review originally appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1974 – it is quoted here from Pauline Kael, For Keeps, Penguin, New York, 1994, 559.

[6] Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Faber & Faber, London, 1997, 35. In the early years of his career, Spielberg habitually under-reported his age, and some sources still quote 1947 as his year of birth.

[7] McBride, 201.

[8] Close Encounters exists in three main cuts, the first two of which are now out of circulation: the 1977 version; a “Special Edition” released in 1980; and a new cut prepared for Laserdisc in 1998 that was later used for the DVD release. The 1998 version is the best edit of the film, retaining the virtues of the earlier versions, but jettisoning the detrimental alterations made in 1980, such as the redundant extended climax.

[9] McBride, 266.

[10] John Baxter, Steven Spielberg, HarperColins, London, 1996, 77. Baxter cites as his source Time Out, 10 November 1978.

[11] Baxter, 78.

[12] Originally the New Yorker, November 10, 1980. Quoted from Pauline Kael, Taking it All In, Arena, London, 1986, 98. For the wider critical reception, see Ian Freer, The Complete Spielberg, Virgin, London, 2001, 89-90 and McBride, 308-309.

[13] McBride, 307.

[14] Of course, a film such as Raiders of the Lost Ark is a prime example of the folly of measuring greatness by the extent of a director’s personal stamp on the project. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with its father-son reconciliation subplot, is much more personal to Spielberg’s ongoing concerns, but not half as good.

[15] McBride, 324.

[16] Accounts of these conceptions are muddled, and there seem to have been at least two separate projects along similar lines. Clearwater was based on a treatment by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, while After School was a Robert Zemeckis / Bob Gale script. The other titles seem to have been alternate titles for one or other version. Baxter cites Growing Up as an alternate title for Clearwater, but McBride (generally more authoritative) cites it as another title for the Zemeckis / Gale project. McBride, op. cit., 211, 299-300; Baxter, 120, 148, 173, 216.

[17] Quoted in Douglas Brode, The Films of Steven Spielberg, Citadel, New York, 1995, 144.

[18] “Temple of Roses” quote from Freer, op. cit., p. 143. For Spielberg’s later unhappiness with it, see McBride, 355.

[19] McBride, 343-352. The case was the subject for Stephen Farber and Mark Green’s book Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the “Twilight Zone” Case, Arbor House / Morrow, New York, 1988.

[20] Freer, 161.

[21] Andrew Gordon, “Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun: A Boy’s Dream of War,” in Charles P. Silet (ed), The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2002.

[22] Don Shay & Jody Duncan, The Making of Jurassic Park, Boxtree, London, 1993, 7.

[23] The years subsequent have shown that such computer effects are highly variable, and Jurassic Park does include some weak shots. However, the best of its CG shots – such as the full body shots in the T-Rex sequence – remain startlingly real, and stand up to scrutiny over a decade later.

[24] Shay & Duncan, 12-14, 149.

[25] McBride, 426-427.

[26] Baxter, 362.

[27] Baxter, 392.

[28] See http://www.snopes.com/travel/airline/airport.asp

This entry was posted in Film and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Steven Spielberg

  1. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added”
    checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?
    Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>