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Spielberg: An Illustrated Essay

Steven Spielberg is my favorite director.  It’s not a particularly original choice to have as a favorite director, considering how many of his movies have been so goddamned successful, but that’s just how it goes.  It’s like loving Disney, Coca-Cola or Starbucks.  It’s super basic.  I just feel like, though, in terms of storytelling, in terms of themes and fears, we’re on a very similar level.  And for as mainstream as his movies’ appeal usually is, he’s rarely afraid to plumb the depths of his psyche.  The movies he makes, he freely admits, are like a form of therapy for him.

This essay is by no means a comprehensive analysis of his entire filmography.  Countless books, and a pretty good documentary made for HBO, exist for that reason.  This is an essay on his films, his motifs and his overall career, and how they affected me personally.

Early Spielberg immediately showed promise.  His short film, Amblin’, which can be found online, was made by him in 1968 to sort of showcase his strengths as a filmmaker.  It’s a meet-cute film, between a boy and a girl, with some pot-smoking, a little sex and is actually sort of risqué for such a slight little story.  Since it was the little movie that started it all, he used the name for the production company he formed: Amblin Entertainment.

He began directing for television at a very young age.  He did two episodes for Rod Serling’s more horror-focused follow-up to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery.  His first episode “Eyes”, starring Joan Crawford, is a blast.  Apparently, she and Spielberg didn’t exactly get along well at first, but quickly became good friends.

He continued making well-directed, incredibly well-shot episodes of TV—including an episode of Columbo that I saw and it looked great—but it wasn’t until Duel that he would really put his stamp onto something.

Duel, a made-for-TV movie of the week written by Richard Matheson is a brilliant little slice of fear.  The plot is kept simple:  A traveling salesman played by Dennis Weaver accidentally pisses off a truck driver, who decides to begin torturing the salesman, ramping up his antics until it becomes a full-blown battle for his life.  We never see the driver, either, just glimpses of his hands, feet and maybe a silhouette.  He becomes an almost demonic entity.

The best scene is when Weaver’s traveling salesman visits a rest stop after a near-fatal confrontation, and panics, wondering if one of the men in the diner is the man trying to kill him.

Duel was sort of a template for what would follow and set up a lot of his directorial trademarks. Hell, one of the reasons he agreed to do Jaws was because it was a four-letter title, like Duel and figured it was a good sign.  Both movies feature a largely-unseen threat and Spielberg even recycles a roaring dinosaur sound effect at the end of both movies when the antagonist is finally defeated.

Spielberg directed another made-for-TV horror movie, Something Evil, which is… it’s not great.  It’s not bad, either!  It has some effective moments, some artsy little flourishes here and there, where he plays with two different conversations happening at once (something Robert Altman does a lot; Spielberg even re-used this in Jurassic Park), but mostly it’s just sort of a rip-off of The Exorcist that beat The Exorcist in airing before its release by almost an entire year.  It feels like someone read the book, liked it, knew it was only a matter of time and made what the Asylum Films version would be today.

Dabbling pretty consistently in horror and suspense, Spielberg finally made Jaws, the movie that cemented his career as a director.  It’s widely considered “the first blockbuster”, with audiences lined around the block to see it.  The $7 million movie ended up making $470 worldwide.  It was a fucking sensation.  In many ways, Jaws is Spielberg’s best, a no-nonsense movie about a small beach town on an island being terrorized by a shark that appears to enjoy the taste of humans.  And like the truck in Duel, the shark seems to have some supernatural menace to it.  Spielberg in master form here, manipulating the audience with glee.  My favorite moment—when the severed head pops out of the sunken ship—is not just a cheap moment for a scare; it also logically doesn’t make sense in the context of the movie’s plot.  It was a last-minute addition, shot in a swimming pool for cheap, and the soundtrack literally screams the way a sit-coms laugh track would indicate a joke.  But it’s so damned effective.  If you ever get the chance, see Jaws on the big screen and watch the audience jump at that moment.

Jaws wasn’t an easy production.  Spielberg was on the verge of being fired the entire time, but had a lucky friend in the producers who went up to bat for him to the studio.  There were entire days early in the production when not a single usable shot could be gleaned because of various weather influences in shooting it on location on the water.  And the decision to barely show the shark works, but it was mostly because the mechanical effect was in a near-permanent state of being broken down.

If you ever get a chance, watch some of the outtakes on the DVD.  They’re not funny the way bloopers usually are.  They show you a glimpse into a set that’s tense with anxiety.  Roy Scheider, who’s clearly at his wit’s end, screams at curses whenever a blooper happens, because he’s so done with the whole thing.

Spielberg has never really officially returned to horror after this early portion of his career, but he’s done some very scary scenes in a lot of his subsequent work.  He lays a lot of groundwork before an action sequence that mimics the tension you’d find in a horror movie.  The T-Rex paddock scene in Jurassic Park is terrifying.  Many scenes in War of the Worlds are scarier than they are thrilling or fun.  The Indiana Jones movies are chock full of scares.  And, of course, many people think he was the real director of Poltergeist and that Tobe Hooper was coked out of his mind.  Spielberg denies this.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind eschewed audience expectations on two fronts:  It was a movie about aliens who abducted people, by the guy who directed Jaws, but it wasn’t scary.  Sure, there were very scary parts, but Close Encounters was about hope.  It was rare, then and now, to see a movie about alien visitors and not have them be interested in conquering our planet.  Instead, they wanted to say hello, in all their misguided curiosity.  This was one of the rare movies that Spielberg actually wrote the screeplay for.  It comes from a very personal place and touches upon some of his obsessions, namely his “daddy issues” theme that runs through many of his films, due to a strained (but since resolved) relationship with his own father.  Richard Dreyfuss abandons his family at the end of the film, to see the stars, a scene Spielberg says he would have done differently upon becoming a father himself.

The movie exists in three versions:  The original theatrical release, a special edition, and a director’s cut.  The special edition exists because there were scenes Spielberg wanted to film, but didn’t have money or time to do, as Columbia was rushing production to get it out.  They agreed to let him film these scenes, and re-release the film in theaters, with the caveat he would show the inside of the alien’s spaceship at the end.  He did.  The director’s cut is basically the special edition, minus the mothership bullshit, and is the best version of all three.

What I love about a movie like Close Encounters is that it contains these groundbreaking special effects—new technology was created specifically to tell the story that Spielberg had in mind—and it’s not some mindless movie about death and destruction above.  It’s about communication.

1941 is not a good movie.  But at least two good things came from it:

Spielberg freely admits that the movie is a shitshow on the DVD’s special features.  It might be the only time I’ve seen a DVD be apologetic about the movie’s existence.  1941 is a messy, ambitious, god-awful “comedy” that features virtually no laughs.  Spielberg says his direction was at odds with the script by Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale, which was a darker comedy.  He felt bad for fucking up their script, so he produced the next few features of theirs, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  All amazing movies.

The other good thing that came from it is the “coat hanger/weapon” gag that we see in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Originally, it was a gag in 1941, but no one laughed during test screenings.  Spielberg decided, you know what?  The gag is solid!  And I’m gonna keep using it until it works!  He put it in his next movie, which was Raiders, and everyone loved it, so his mission to keep using the gag was a short one.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is, to me, a near-perfect movie.  We go to the movies for so many reasons.  We go to comedies to laugh.  Dramas to cry.  Horror to scream.  Action movies for adrenaline.  We see movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark to feel the wide spectrum of human emotion.  It’s an absolute thrill-ride.

Dr. Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, is a college professor by day, and a Nazi-fighting plunderer of tombs and antiquities by night.  In his original outing, he wasn’t an altruistic defender of all things right.  He was a thief.  Raiders of the Lost Ark represents this bare-knuckled brutality that none of the other movies in the series ever really had.  Faces melt, heads pop and brawny Nazis get chopped up into hamburger by airplane propellers.

Is any director better at killing Nazis than Steven Spielberg?

One of my favorite things I ever read was the script sessions between Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan that eventually shaped what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In it, as they break down story beats and ideas for action set pieces, they talk about the little monkey who winds up working for the Nazis.  Spielberg suggests, hey, maybe we can even teach the money how to do a little seig heil salute.  George Lucas, uncomfortable with the idea, says something like, “If you’re able to find an animal trainer willing to do that, go right ahead.”  Spielberg is just like, “I’ll find someone.”  And he did.

For as much talk as there is about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being so dark, being the Empire Strikes Back of the Indiana Jones movies, some of the rougher edges are sanded off Indiana Jones as a character, who now has a little orphan kid as a sidekick.  Temple of Doom is about half a great movie, and half a terrible one.  In a lot of ways, it reminds me of The Lost World: Jurassic Park.  With both sequels, Spielberg isn’t half-assing it.  He’s using his whole ass.  The setting is different.  The mood is different. The violence is more grisly.  It just… doesn’t work.  The love interest, played by Cate Capshaw, is the worst.  It’s not her fault as an actress, it’s that the movie doesn’t give her anything else to do other than scream.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade isn’t my favorite in the series, but it’s my second-favorite, easily.  I have some complaints about the trajectory of Indiana Jones as a character:  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was an amoral, classic antihero.  He shacked up with a young, underage woman (who was apparently much younger in the original script sessions), and broke her heart.  That he saved the world from the Nazis was simply a byproduct of his quest for fame and fortune.  When Belloq tells him, “Men like you and me,” comparing the two, he’s not wrong.  They’re very similar, they’re just on separate sides of history.  Indy is an asshole, a thief, and steals from indigenous tribes, but he’s willing to draw a line at Nazism.

By the time The Last Crusade came around, his image had been cleaned up a good deal.  In Temple of Doom, he was saving children.  In this one, he’s stealing things back from raiders who bear more than a passing resemblance to him in the name of archeology.  He’s officially a Good Guy.  Good Guy Indy is a lot less interesting as a person, but Spielberg does okay by this by giving him a genuinely interesting father-son dynamic.  In classic Spielberg form, he has some daddy issues to confront.  His father was absent most of his life.  Even when he was around, he wasn’t there emotionally.  He was more interested in the idea of having son and passing his wisdom down to someone.  My favorite line of the movie is when Indy is talking about running away as a kid, his father, Dr. Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, laments, “You left just when you were getting interesting.”  This is a great line.  It says so much about both men.  It shows how little of a fuck Henry ever gave about his own kid.

I think the most remarkable thing about E.T. is that it was such a huge hit when it came out.  Adjusted for inflation, it’s still the 4th biggest U.S. box office hit of all time.  And this is a movie that features no villains to speak of, except for some nameless government goons.  Everyone, children to adult, just want what’s best for the alien visitor, even if their motivations are misguided at times.

E.T. is a movie about empathy.  Most of the film emulates a perspective shot of someone in the movie.  From the perspective of the children, the world is a big, scary place, with grownups towering like monsters.  From the alien’s perspective, the suburbs looks like a strange, indecipherable land full of mystery.  And the film is so painstakingly crafted that, by the end, when everyone says their tearful goodbyes, and the John Williams score blasts into full force, it’s such an earned moment.

Both of Spielberg’s forays into more serious drama in the 80s, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, have some wild ups-and-downs.  The Color Purple contains some beautiful filmmaking and excellent performances, but I think Spielberg was the wrong director for this.  He wasn’t comfortable with some of the queer elements of Alice Walker’s novel and excised them from the film, aside from some hints here and there.  It’s still a good movie, but it could have been great if he hadn’t pulled his punches.  Whoopi Goldberg is fantastic.  The entire cast is.  None of the movie is bad, it just… at the end of the day, it feels a little disconnected.  It falls just short of being something really special.

Empire of the Sun, though, got a lot of airtime on TV when I was younger and I always loved seeing it.  It’s a bit too long, a bit too unfocused, but when it hits, it hits hard.  Christian Bale plays a young boy in a Japanese POW camp during WWII.  It’s based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard and is one of the least Spielbergian of his directed features, for better and for worse.  It ends on a melancholic note, lingering on a shot of a boy who’s been emotionally broken.

This was a really wildly inconsistent chapter in Spielberg’s career.  You didn’t know if you were gonna get something good like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a complete misfire like Always or a bizarre experiment in whimsy like Hook, so what came next was wholly unexpected.

When Schindler’s List came out, Spielberg was no stranger to films that were considered heavier and darker than the fun, lighthearted fare he was known for, but Schindler’s List was something else entirely.  It contained a level of violence he reserves only for his most serious pictures, giving the viewer a never-before-seen look into the Holocaust, in all its horror.  It was his first R-rated movie, and it’s very R-rated.  When you’re watching a movie like Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, you see some striking images with some graphic violence—violence that is clearly meant for enjoyment.  When you watch something like Schindler’s List, what you’re seeing is a reminder of the evil things that men are capable of.

There’s a moment in Schindler’s List that always stayed with me, ever since the first time I saw it years and years ago.  The ghetto that the Jews are living in is being liquidated, and its inhabitants are being rounded up for a work camp.  On a patrol, a young Nazi soldier sees a man carrying his wife, who’s been injured.  The Nazi suggests the man leave her, that she’s as good as dead.  When he explains he can’t leave his wife, the German soldier shoots her in the head.  What always disturbed me, on such a profound level, about this scene, was that the German soldier wasn’t acting out of malice.  He thought he was doing the man a favor by freeing him of his burden.  He robbed a woman of her life and robbed a man of the woman that he loved, all in one fell swoop, with a simple squeeze of a trigger, convinced that what he was doing was right, in some twisted way.

What anchors Schindler’s List is that the main character, Oskar Schindler, the man who would save so many lives, was such an imperfect person.  He was a womanizer, he was a greedy war-profiteer, but he did something so noble.  Oskar didn’t save those lives for the glory of it, either, or even to do “the right thing”, he did it for more selfish, personal reasons:  He considered those Jews to be his Jews.  And he loved them.

Spielberg had initially offered Schindler’s List to Martin Scorsese, who was uncomfortable with the idea of making it, as a person not of Jewish faith or heritage.  He declined.  Instead, he and Spielberg did kind of a switcheroo, in which Spielberg would now direct Schindler’s List and Martin Scorsese would now direct the Spielberg-produced (through Amblin Entertainment) Cape Fear remake.

1993 was a hell of a year for Spielberg.  The year he directed one of the most gut-wrenching, emotional films, he also directed one of his most fun:  Jurassic Park.  That year, he swept the fuck out of the Oscars, with technical awards going to Jurassic Park and Best Director and Best Picture going to Schindler’s List.  It was the first time he would win an Academy Award, having been nominated previously.

Jurassic Park isn’t just some counterbalance to the darkness of Schindler’s List.  It’s great in its own right.  It contains some of Spielberg’s best set pieces, and groundbreaking CGI that still looks incredible today, and a pitch-black sense of humor.

Based on the novel by the same name by Michael Crichton, it tells the story of a theme park, before opening its doors to the public, promising the impossible:  Real, live dinosaurs, cloned from prehistoric DNA found preserved in a mosquito encased in amber.  Things, of course, go wrong, and the dinosaurs escape their pens and attack the small group of visitors.  The key to making the effects work as well as they did, and age as well as they have, was to make the dinosaurs look like dinosaurs.  They breathe, they blink, their pupils dilate.  They don’t look like creatures from a workshop.  They look like they exist in the same world as you or I.

The movie is full of great scenes, but my favorite is the scene where the T-rex escapes from its enclosure.  It builds and builds and builds to a terrific crescendo, with about 90% of it filmed from the inside of the vehicles being attacked, to put us in the middle of the action.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the first film Spielberg had made in four years, taking a needed break after Schindler’s List, is… okay, the way I look at The Lost World is like this:  Spielberg is a chef, and The Lost World is a meal.  The Lost World had all these unique, amazing ingredients to set it apart from its predecessor—a tropical, island adventure setting, not unlike the original King Kong, with good guys and bad guys alike being dispatched, nastily and violently, by dinosaurs; a larger scale, taking us to a Godzilla-meets-Gorgo climax in San Diego as Mama T-Rex looks for her baby; and, like Temple of Doom, an uglier form of mayhem.  But maybe Spielberg left the oven too high, or didn’t pre-heat, or maybe he didn’t clarify the butter, because the goddamned thing just doesn’t work.  None of the characters are particularly likable, and the best scene is a deleted scene, which gives the corrupt InGen Corporation very good reason for wanting those dinosaurs, to save a lot of people from losing their jobs.  Ever since Schindler’s List, Janusz Kaminski has done the cinematography for every one of Spielberg’s movies.  I think he’s a phenomenal cinematographer, but his distinctive look doesn’t work for The Lost World, nor did it work for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

Spielberg would then dip his toes into R-rated territory again with mixed results.  Amistad is a well-meaning movie about the absurdity of slave-ownership, but gets bogged down with a boring courtroom drama, led by a miscast Matthew McConaughey who just looks like he was born in the 20th century.  There are some harrowing scenes, and Spielberg once again showcases difficult, hard-to-watch, realistic violence that has a point.

But Saving Private Ryan, his return to his recurring WWII (and to date the last time he’s visited it), is a masterpiece of carnage and mayhem that also works as a thoughtful consideration of the nonsense of war.  In it, Tom Hanks, as an Army captain, must take his platoon through the battlefield of post-D-Day Normandy all to find one soldier, the titular Private Ryan, and send him home.  Private Ryan’s brothers—all of them—were killed in combat.  To save his mother the misery of having all of her children KIA, the powers that be decide to send him home.

The move by the U.S. government is pure propaganda.  It costs countless lives to save one man.  The soldiers openly wonder if it’s all worth it.  Whether it is or it isn’t is irrelevant.  The fact is, it boosts morale at home.  It’s a story that’ll warm the hearts of theater patrons watching the newsreel.  The mission itself is dumb, everyone knows it, but they’ve got orders, and they have to follow them.

The battle scenes are gruesome and iconic, and are some of the most influential action scenes committed to film in the past however many decades.  To this day, movies have learned to disguise a lower budget by adopting some of the techniques utilized by Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski:  Shoot in a quasi-documentary style using a 90-degree shutter with a high, staccato speed; edit frequently.

Spielberg and Tom Hanks then produced the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which feels a lot like a companion piece to Saving Private Ryan, using a similar washed-out look and realistic battle sequences.  Band of Brothers is a work of art, an epic-in-scale miniseries, one of the best ever made, that somehow works as a powerful antiwar statement and a tribute to the brave men who fought it.

His next two projects, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report both returned him to science fiction, with amazing results.

A.I. is a bit of an underrated gem.  A lot of people disliked that Spielberg took over for a project for Kubrick, who died, and added sentimental Spielberg schmaltz to something so cynical.  I just consider that to be a misunderstanding of the film.  I think the sentimentality has a bitter ring to it.  In it, David, an android played by Haley Joel Osment, is programmed to love his “mother” with all his heart.  When her real son awakens from a coma and David is no longer necessary, and he’s abandoned in the middle of nowhere.  He spends the rest of the movie trying to get back to her.

Centuries pass and a race of hyper-intelligent robots discover him.  Wanting to understand what it means to be human, they grant him his wish, by allowing him to be human, reunited with his mother, just for a day, and he dies.  He becomes human by doing the most human thing possible:  He dies.  And the nature of his love is nothing more than the product of his programming.  What makes him so different from us?  Aren’t we essentially a vessel for vestigial programming and impulses?

Both A.I. and Close Encounters are the only movies of Spielberg’s career that he has a sole writing credit on (though Paul Schrader did contribute, uncredited), and both movies share a remarkably similar theme to the story of Pinocchio, a story that has a lot of meaning and importance to him.

Minority Report, based on a story by Philip K. Dick, is about a form of law enforcement in the future that uses psychics, hooked up to a giant machine, to predict violent crimes before they happen.  When one of the “precogs” (precognizant soothsayers) disagrees with the outcome of the future, that generates a “minority report”.  Tom Cruise, who heads the department, and has been foretold to commit murder, believes one must have been generated for him.  Or that he was framed.

Some movies float by on style.  Minority Report is one of those movies.  Alex McDowell, the production designer for movies like The Crow, really lends a big hand to making Minority Report look as beautiful and unique as it does.  Everything coalesces perfectly—the blue filtered cinematography, the based-in-reality technology, and the seamless single takes— to make it memorable.

My favorite story behind the making of the movie is that during a really great sequence where these mechanical spiders are hunting for Tom Cruise’s character (all done in one take, the camera hovering above a series of apartments) and he hides in a bathtub full of ice to disguise his body heat.  Just as the spiders leave, a single bubble comes out of Cruise’s nose, hits the surface of the water, and they come back inside.  Originally, the idea was to digitally animate the bubble, but Tom Cruise was like, “I think I can make just one perfect bubble.”  And he did!  Take that, CGI!

Catch Me If You Can is just great fun.  It’s hard to describe what it is, but it just works.  Spielberg had originally only planned on producing it, with a lot of other directors lined up before him.  Scheduling conflicts prevented basically everyone from Gore Verbinski to David Fincher from taking the helm.  Spielberg stepped in at that last minute, as basically the last option, shot it in just 52 days, and wound up with a very pleasant, fun little movie about a young con man who pretends to be a doctor, an airplane pilot and a lawyer and scams millions of dollars in the process.  There’s something about how fun it is that’s infectious.  It’s hard to dislike it.  The opening credit sequence is hard to top, though.

War of the Worlds, Spielberg’s underwhelming cynical spin on a sci-fi classic, hints at moments of greatness, but falls short with some truly unlikable characters and a denouement so out of left field that I’m convinced that the last thirty seconds are all a dream occurring as the main characters lay dying in a field somewhere.  After all the nastiness the preceded it, it feels like Spielberg felt like he had to tack on a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of a happy family, without any spin or twist of irony like he’d done similarly with Empire of the Sun and Saving Private Ryan.  It does have some effective sequences, though, that belong in a much better movie, specifically the scene where the alien tripod first emerges and begins vaporizing people, and the scene where dozens of dead bodies float by on a river.

That same year, though, showed Spielberg in rare form, helming Munich, based on the book Vengeance, about Israel’s retaliation against terrorists who murdered Jewish athletes during the 1979 Olympics.  It is a cold, harsh look at the life of an assassin and considering the price of revenge in a way that few movies have.  The mission is viewed through an unromantic lens.  Whether some of the people murdered in cold blood really were involved in the attack, or are innocent in a case of mistaken identity, is never revealed.  We’re left to guess, to hope that they are acting as righteously as they believe that they are.

Roger Ebert, by way of Howard Hawks, taught me that a great film is a film with three great scenes, and no bad ones.  If that’s true, Munich’s three great scenes are:

The scene where Avner (Eric Bana) and his team make their first kill—an old man whose blood mingles on the floor with a shattered bottle of milk and spilled wine.

The scene where Avner plants a bomb in a phone but must rush to call it off before a little girl answers the call.  It’s reminiscent of a similar scene in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (oddly enough, a remake of a Howard Hawks film), and I wonder if that’s intentional because Spielberg aided with the filming of that movie’s bloody climax.

The scene where Avner and a terrorist wax philosophical on the cyclical nature of revenge and violence and find they share more in common than they realized.

In a lot of ways, I think of Munich as the anti-James-Bond movie, showing us an unromantic view of the life of an assassin.  There are no tuxedos and martinis, just a whole lot of moral ambiguity.

Throughout his career, Spielberg has enjoyed opening two movies in the same year.  1989 had both Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always.  1993 had Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List1997 had The Lost World and Amistad.  2002 had Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report.  2005 had War of the Worlds and Munich.  2011, though had War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin opening the same weekend.

I know I saw Tintin, and I was a big fan of the cartoons when I was a kid, but the movie never really stuck with me.  Spielberg produced a lot of great animation in his day, like Animaniacs, but I don’t know that he’s naturally suited to directing it.

With War Horse, I feel like I enjoyed it despite myself.  It’s a horse movie in the most classical sense.  It’s unabashedly corny.  When you see a movie about someone who loves their horse, and there are a ton of these movies, you want it to be really over-the-top.  You want the music to swell.  You want it to be emotionally manipulative.  You want those heartstrings tugged at.  Lisa Hanawalt drew an illustrated review of War Horse that pretty much closes the book on all discussions for that movie.  It’s perfect.

War Horse is a bit divisive.  Some people love it.  Some people hate it.  I think it’s fun.  I think it counterbalances some real treacle with some genuinely upsetting visions of war and successfully strikes a delicate balance.  It’s not my favorite of Spielberg’s filmography, but it’s a sincere effort.

With Lincoln, Spielberg subverts many of the issues with biopics by not having it be some long, sprawling, ultimately predictable biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Biopics follow a familiar formula, and Spielberg tosses them aside by having Lincoln focus on a very specific part of the man’s history:  Passing the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  It isn’t an easy task, and Lincoln is shown pulling every political trick he has up his sleeve.  He doesn’t win the day simply by making the case that slavery is wrong, he’s shown as a desperate, sometimes-shifty man who’s willing to do what it takes to end a war.  It’s a gorgeously shot, surprisingly funny little movie about a monumental piece of American history.

Working with a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies is one of my favorite spy movies.  It doesn’t glorify the lifestyle and it doesn’t overly dramatize the plot.  Tom Hanks, as James B. Donovan, a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy, has a difficult time, but realistically so.  In East Berlin, he’s suffering from a cold, his nice coat is stolen, and he has a difficult time getting a decent meal.  These things would all suck, but they’re not some ridiculous plotting where he has to be crushed and defeated and then re-emerge from the flames like some sort of proverbial phoenix.  Instead, shit just kinda sucks for him, but he deals with it in stride, and everything reaches a nice little conclusion.  It’s both a small story and a large one.  It’s a human story that shows the larger political ramifications of such decisions.  In that way, it reminds me of the HBO series The Wire, which shows how bureaucracy affects actual human beings.

Bridge of Spies would make a good double feature with Munich for nontraditional, hyper-realistic portrayals of behind-the-scenes espionage.  Bridge of Spies would be the lighter counterpart to the cynical darkness of Munich, in which Spielberg admits he has no idea how the conflict between Palestine and Israel can ever be resolved.

I can understand why Spielberg wanted to direct Ready Player One, but I think he was the wrong director for it.  He’s got a knack for adapting novels, both good and bad, into very good movies, but Ernest Cline’s fantasy world of an immersive video game virtual reality is just so empty, it’s hard to get anything meaningful out of it.  The only part of the movie I thought had any real joy to it was the bits that recreated the hotel from The Shining.  Spielberg was a friend to and fan of Kubrick’s, so his excitement really shines through.  When he’s paying tribute to his own work, or works that occurred at around the same time, it feels much more by-the-numbers.  And for someone who pioneered CGI, it really looks ugly as shit here.  It’s an ugly, boring movie with a lame villain and a main character I couldn’t stand.

His upcoming works include a remake of West Side Story, which I hope is good.  He’s been wanting to make a full-fledged musical ever since 1941.  Based on the musical opening number of Temple of Doom, he would have been a natural during the studio days.  I could see Spielberg helming something fit for someone like Vincente Minelli.  I feel like he could have wrung something brilliant out of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.

Spielberg has talked about Lawrence of Arabia being the film the made him want to make movies.  He cites, specifically, the scene where T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole, believes that he is alone, and does things a vain young man may do while alone.  He admired his own shadow and glances at his reflection in the blade of a dagger.  It’s a magnificent scene, telling us so much about the character without saying a word.  Spielberg’s career has been full of these visual moments:  Telling us so much without having to spell it out.

His filmography is so full of iconic imagery, it’s really his work that inspired me to love film, whether it’s the silhouette of Elliot and E.T. against the moon on a flying bicycle, the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List or Indiana Jones swapping a bag of sand for a golden headpiece.  Film is magic, and Spielberg knows how to appeal to the child in all of us.

 

Stray Thoughts:

  • I like The Suglarland Express but I’ve only seen it once, and didn’t have enough of an opinion to write about it in depth here.
  • That’s actually my only stray thought, I think.
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