One of the exciting things about seeing movies over an extended period of time is seeing the growth of a genuine artist. Despite reservations about his early output, it was obvious from the outset that Steven Allen Spielberg was a dynamic story-teller and a wizard in communicating with a camera. His training manuals were the classics of the film-makers of spectacle—the David Lean's and Alfred Hitchcock's and Cecil B. DeMille's, the guys who made expansive roadshows that appealed to a mass audience. They made movies of exotic places and large personalities that could fill a Cinemascope expanse with adventure and color and grandeur. They could also manipulate an audience with their technique to fill them with awe and wonder, or propel them out of their seats in an explosion of popcorn. Movies were a thrill-ride, but with better scenery. From the beginning, Spielberg had that impresario spirit to look at an audience as a territory to be conquered: give them bread and circuses and chases. Tell them a story and give them a thrill. Very quickly, he became his own brand: "A Spielberg Film" was something to see.
Now, with the achievement of his personal goal of winning dual Oscars for Director and Picture (for Schindler's List), Spielberg could pursue projects following his interests with one eye on making money for his new production conglomerate Dreamworks SKG, and telling stories important to him...for whatever reason.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) After years of resisting efforts by studios to follow up one his blockbusters, Spielberg finally made a sequel to one of his movies. The Lost World would be the first. Partially, this was in gratitude to Universal Studios for allowing him to make Schindler's List. But there was another more selfish reason Spielberg wanted to do the follow-up—he wanted to be the first one to have a CGI T-Rex rampaging through an American city. The Lost World is a weird hybrid of sources, starting with the original book's opening. Then, it follows Crichton's follow-up book, then Spielberg went on his own tangent bringing the dinosaurs to the U.S. He's aided by a great cast: Jeff Goldblum returns, and is joined by Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite (his first of two movies for Spielberg), Arliss Howard and a pre-"West Wing" Richard Schiff. Only Vince Vaughn fails to register as a viable character. And...there's an annoying kid. Ultimately for all the technical advances, its a bit too much and unfocused, except for a Rube Goldberg set-piece—taken directly from Crichton's book--involving three people in an articulated double RV, a precipitous cliff and two predatory T-Rex's stomping around outside. It's a giddy nail-biter. And if Spielberg had stuck to that tone, instead of playing around with the satiric possibilities of Rex's in America, it would have been a far better movie.
Amistad (1997) The story of the uprising aboard the slave-ship La Amistad had never been told before, but given Spielberg's clout post-Schindler's List, what was once considered box-office poison now had green-light potential. (And one should remember that the subject of slavery was very rarely addressed in films—and, incredibly, when it was presented, it was dealt with tolerance for the idea of "owned" human beings, however familial the colors it was cast in) As with The Color Purple, Spielberg's earnestness gets in the way of the story, which, if one merely gets the facts right, would make for compelling drama. Again, the cast assembled is amazing * Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Feeman, and as the "white knight" of the story, new star Mathew McConaughey—who despite tamping down his snarky Southern man exuberance still feels anachronistic for the period. And as the focus of the story, male-model Djimon Houssou acquits himself well--an impressive start for greater things to come. Now, if only they'd left John Quincey Adams' exemplary summation unscored by John Williams it wouldn't feel so much like a lecture, which, unfortunately extends to the entire film. After Amistad, Spielberg would take a year off before taking on his next subject..
Saving Private Ryan (1999) Spielberg's first film for his newly-created entertainment studio, Dreamworks SKG. Spielberg begins with a bravura set-piece--the landing at Normandy on D-Day presented quite unlike any way its been portrayed. Spielberg takes the subjective viewpoint to convey what it feels like to be a sitting duck in a go-for-broke battle, as well as the arbitrariness of death in war. Folks quibble about the rest of the movie, but you can't deny the power of that sequence, visually and sonically.** A uniformly fine cast with Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon, as well as cameos by Ted Danson, Dennis Farina and up-and-comers Nathan Fillion and Paul Giamatti.*** Hanks' portrayal of a "Joe" who just wants to go home and does whatever he has to towards that end is well-reasoned—you have to believe that Hanks could deliver the devastating last line that slams home the coda of the film. It's one of the few war films to deal with the trauma of survivor's guilt and the brick wall that lies between life in war and life in peace. Saving Private Ryan raised awareness of the soldier's lot in the "good" war, and dispelled the notion that any war could be "good" for those on the line. For that alone, it should be regarded as one of the greatest of war films. After Ryan, Spielberg would take another year-break from directing.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) The Kubrick-Spielberg love-child that nobody loved. Kubrick called it his "Pinocchio" movie, and quite rightly decided after years of development to hand it to Spielberg, which, after Kubrick's death, he was only too eager to complete. But in the transition from Kubrick outline to Spielberg screenplay there's a lot of gear-grinding going from cold fantasy to sentimentality. And unfortunately it suffers a fate that too many sci-fi movies suffer—it asks us to absorb too many concepts too fast, and the casual movie-goer has a hard time accepting global warming, robot love, and an ice-aged Earth inhabited by your PC's descendants. Throw in a Blue Fairy and a dying robot's last wish and the audience is in stitches. But...it dares to ask that question rarely asked (except by Hitchcock in Vertigo) "What is love, really?" And the answer is..."Love is what audiences didn't feel about this movie." Still, there's some definite mind-stretching going on here. And it gave Jude Law a star-making turn, at last. Plus, the kid, Haley Joel Osment, is simply amazing. Spielberg would take another year off, and come back in 2003 with two new films.
Minority Report (2003) Spielberg teams up with Tom Cruise on one of Philip K. Dick's high-concept sci-fi novels and manages to make a far more plausible future, but a less moody one, than that imagined in Ridley Scott's Dick adaptation, Blade Runner. Spielberg went the Kubrick route and hired future conceptualists (rather than art directors) to imagine the Washington D.C. of the future, full of mag-lev cars, targeted advertising via retinal scan, policemen with jet-packs and pre-cognitives who direct the police to the scene of the crime before it occurs. Spielberg casts a noir pall over the whole scenario which succeeds in nullifying some of his star's more intense moments. Colin Farrell impresses in an edgy performance that bests Cruise in their one scene together. The story is not much. But the trappings of it make it worth seeing. Spielberg evens pulls off a sequence that Hitchcock wanted to do: a fugitive makes his get-away by rushing into an auto assembly line and has the car built around him to escape.
One other thing we should mention—it put an idea into the head of computer engineers that produced the first series of computer touch-screens, showing what can happen when you build a better mouse.
Catch Me if You Can (2003) Spielberg, with a considerably lighter touch, tells the story of Frank Abignale Jr., who, shattered and adrift from his parents' divorce, gravitates to the edge of society and becomes an expert forger and jack of all professions. Leonardo DeCaprio is a hoot as a kid who just wants to belong somewhere, and Tom Hanks squashes any ego to play the flat-foot FBI guy who dogs his tail. Divorce is a subject close to Spielberg, and he must have been drawn to the story of a kid dealing with it...by doing anything he wants, and DeCaprio's Frank could be Empire of the Sun's "Jim," another loose cannon on deck, all semi-grown-up. There's some particularly good work by Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Jennifer Garner along the way, and a snazzy, jazzy score that lets John Williams go back in time to when he was a jazz session-man named Johnny Williams. Look for Amy Adams in an early role, along with Elizabeth Banks and Amy Acker. Spielberg was always able to spot talent and use it early.
The Terminal (2004) What Spielberg accomplished with Catch Me If You Can was needed on The Terminal, as, for some reason, its a return to heavy-handed direction. Maybe its because the film is so set-bound (A nearly-scale jet terminal and concourse was constructed to exacting detail on a sound-stage and the majority of filming took place there), or maybe the director thought there was a bigger message (a comment on the situation of illegal immigrants, perhaps? If so, it's buried under too much Spielberg-business) but the story of a Slavic visitor whose homeland goes to war and leaves him without a country and with invalid papers--thus making him incapable of leaving the terminal without being arrested and deported--overstays its visa. There is some great work with the minimum-wage employees of the port who form a greek chorus and cheering section for Hanks' character (and Zoe Saldana is featured—in an act of serendipity, she gives the Vulcan salute). But the film goes astray with Catherine Zeta-Jones as a cute/clutzy stew. You just don't buy her as being so pathetic. Ultimately when all is revealed one gets the impression of a balloon encased in concrete. All the potential charm is squeezed out of it by Spielberg's leaden direction. Spielberg would again take a year break and then quickly produce another two films in a year.
The War of the Worlds (2006) Spielberg and Cruise again. This time Spielberg was paying homage to the original Paramount film, as well as Welles' (Orson's) radio version, and the original Wells (H.G.) novel, while also drilling down on something that had been fascinating Spielberg since September 11th--the idea of American refugees. War of the Worlds delivers that image in spades. There were all sorts of gripes about the tripod walkers (its from the book!) and the way the story just sort of ends (IT'S FROM THE BOOK! ALRIGHT??!), but at least no one complained about not making the invaders "Martians" anymore. I found Spielberg's devotion to the predecessors admirable, and only once does he succumb to "Tom Cruise-Super Hero" mode, (Cruise is blessedly at his most restrained). Dakota Fanning is extraordinary, and to see the stars of the Paramount version at the end of the trail warmed my heart. The only section of the film that disappoints is the extended scenes in Tim Robbins' basement. Robbins' performance is over-the-top, and the sequence kills any momentum for the film. But all in all, its a great attempt to modernize the classic while staying true to its red roots.
But, there’s more: One can see War of the Worlds as the final part of a trilogy of films, just as Oliver Stone had a Viet Nam troika—all taking on different perspectives of that conflict. Close Encounters is The Searchers with E.T.’s instead of Commanche’s—little Barry is abducted and it’s his mother's quest to get him back. In E.T. one of the aliens is the one left stranded and he must find his own way home, just as Elliott must turn aside his selfishness and aid his alien-friend in doing so. In War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise is the “Ethan Edwards” character—a deadbeat dad, self-centered, another in a long-line of men with “Peter Pan” syndrome in Spielberg films. In his “search” he must get his family home and reunited with their mother. And his hanging-back from going inside that home is a direct reflection of the ending of The Searchers (In fact, I was half-way expecting Cruise to grip his arm at the end, but he didn’t). It's not enough to say "we are not alone." We never really were.
Munich (2006) The same year as War of the Worlds, Spielberg came out with this. It's the fictionalized story of a specific Mossad unit's hunting down of the perpetrators of the Munich Massacre at the '72 Olympics. It had been filmed once before as "Sword of Gideon" for the Showtime cable channel, but Spielberg and his scripters ("Angels in America" author Tony Kushner and veteran scribe Eric Roth) pull out all the stops and consider the cost of revenge on the team-members and the future outcome of that mission. Brutal and completely cynical, Munich is a very mature telling of a spy story, with all the possibilities for compromise, double-dealings and betrayals—as well as the identification with the "other side" that a story of this type can lend itself to. Plus, there are all the set-pieces of assassinations that Spielberg winds up like lethal Swiss watches. It's a bit like "Mission: Impossible" with guilt, and there are images from this movie that you will never, ever get out of your head. Eric Bana leads the cast with a couple of the assassins played by future Bond Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds. Plus, look for Mathieu Amalric and Marie-Josée Croze of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. After two films in the shadow of the dust-cloud of 9/11, Spielberg decided to lighten up for his next film. But that shadow still remained.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) Comfort food. That's what you could call the fourth "Indiana Jones" film, after the harrowing one-two punch of his previous films. It was a chance to team with old pals, and do something lighter and more fanciful. But getting a story was the tough part. Spielberg, Lucas and star Harrison Ford tossed ideas around for years, leading to a decade of anticipation and false-expectations. When the movie was actually released, the fan-boys turned on it for stretching credulity too far ("Nuking the fridge" became a variation of "jumping the shark"), as if the first three films were somehow rooted in reality. Please.
Crystal Skull represents the true sequel to the original Raiders in terms of quality and verve. Where the other films were "variations on a theme" to the first, Crystal Skull embraces the filmic-culture of the time it is set. Instead, of the raucous serials of the 40's, this one is set in the 50's with such B-movie drive-in staples as Red-scare villains, hot-rodders, biker-boys, nuclear consequences and Invaders from Another World—I was only slightly disappointed that a nuclear explosion didn't create a giant creature-critter off in the distance. The film is buttressed by two "Indy-in-thrall" shots—one of a nuclear explosion and the other of an inter-dimensional ship tearing up the landscape in lift-off, that represent a choice between the destructive and the transportive, and serves as a cautionary presentation of choice for the McGuffin of the story—knowledge and its uses. There's more to "Crystal Skull" than its detractors have the patience to see. An article in the works will explore that, and speculate about what would be fun in the future...IF a rumored fifth "Indiana Jones" film comes to fruition. Part of me hopes it doesn't, because Spielberg could be better used on other projects.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) Spielberg teamed up with Peter Jackson to make this motion-capture animation version of the internationally popular Tintin books by Hergé. Fun idea, especially for the ever-growing international audiences that seem to be a bit more predictable than jaded American ones. But Tintin gave those who had been following Spielberg a special treat—an answer to a question no one had dared consider—what would Spielberg do with a film if he had no limitations whatsoever? The results are almost hallucinatory. The film starts out with a fairly standard pattern of Spielberg wizardry, pin-wheeling shots and edits. But before long, it turns into one long tracking shot, moving in and out of flashback, wheeling through chases that move from perspective to perspective without so much as a cut, stunts that couldn't be filmed, let alone approved for insurance purposes, and enough dog endangerment to produce life-threatening seizures in an entire kennel of ASPCA inspectors. It's 1941 without the "restraint" and with a bit more class. The learning curve of Spielberg with this film came quickly, conquering the "uncanny valley" and allowing the characters to squint to overcome it. And given its nautical theme, there's enough swaying from flash-back to flash-forward to evoke a certain wooziness. Still, it makes you wonder what other tricks Spielberg might have up his sleeve, given no restraint. The thought is almost scary.
Spielberg is approaching the best of both worlds--he's working with some of the finest dramatists and authors available, while keeping his visual eye peeled for the striking image. If he has one weakness entering into his Senior Year, it is that constant desire to make Play-Mountains out of Mole-Hills.**** He can do anything he wants, with as much money as people can throw at him. But, Spielberg tends to work best with constraint...whether with time or budget, and that has a tendency to make him come up with better story-telling solutions than if he could do everything he wanted--a lesson learned from Jaws and Raiders... At least, he seems to know that--with his extended pre-production periods and his break-neck pace making movies these days As for subject matter, his "light" films now carry darker nuances, while his more heavy subjects are benefiting from his more streamlined directorial style. Spielberg seems to have left his naivete behind, while keeping his sense of wonder...and outrage. Of all his contemporaries (Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, DePalma), he has managed to broaden and deepen his technique and subject matter in a cinematic environment that goes for the quick buck, and least common denominator. Of all of them, Spielberg seems to be the one getting better and wiser, in an age of the dumbed down movie despite all the money and clout he has earned throughout his career. It will be fascinating to see what he does with it in the future.
Freshman Year (1971-1981)
* One particular cast-member is a funny one: Darren Burrows who played "Ed," Cicely's aspiring film-maker and an obsessive student of Spielberg in "Northern Exposure."
** I have a vivid memory of watching Ryan for the first time. Ten minutes in, I realized I was in pain, so I pulled my head out of the movie, and realized I was ducking down in my seat. To avoid the bullets. I straightened up to watch the rest of the movie, but I did it with respect.
*** I've heard this rumor that its Kevin Costner as the German soldier shot through his rifle sight. Sure looks like him.
**** He did this literally—though in reverse—in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.