“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” -Oscar Wilde
If technical invention were the paradigm of cinematic genius, there would be no greater living filmmaker than Steven Spielberg. On the level of pure kinematics, he’s got an eye for graceful two-dimensional motion that, at its best, rivals anything by Kubrick, Scorsese, Bertolucci, Ophuls, or Hitchcock – and he’s usually slicker than any of them. His films are extravagantly resourceful, employing the most effortless of technicians at (apparently) any cost, and he puts them to use showcasing a singular, identifiable gift for screen craft stunning first for its consistency, if not also for its visceral effect. The strange irony of his evident widespread influence across the industry, from guys like Michael Bay and Danny Boyle to Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott, is that his craft is unfailingly disciplined, devoid of the find-it-in-the-editing slapdashery typical of these others. You can always feel Spielberg thinking his way through his films, piecing the shots together as he shoots, wasting no time with empty transitions, imprecise frames, or a half-assed visual conceit that never quite manifests in the final film. His is rigorous, conscientious precision from start to finish.
And from such a technical wizard, his work with actors is frequently fresh and expansive. They will always be bound to Spielberg’s laborious scripts, which usually suffer from browbeaten plot development to the point of overwrought, uni-dimensional characterization. But – and this may be a function, now, after 40 years, of the comparative reverence attached to being in a Spielberg picture – he often gets more expressive performances out of his actors than they’ve shown before. Who knew Liam Neeson had an Oskar Schindler in him, or Tom Hanks a Captain Miller, or Leonardo DiCaprio a Frank Abagnale? These are not particularly subtle or uncanny performances, nor are they great dramatic leaps for these actors – Spielberg’s achievements tend to fall further along the preexisting trajectories of his collaborators, not on brand new arcs unforeseen but by a master artist. He sees potential, and owns it as a sports team manager or a political operative. Or a magician, in the realist sense.
His deficiencies as an artist are precisely those of a magician: the illusion works fine until outgrown by ambition. Lately, that’s been a problem for him. David Copperfield used to put on a great show flying across a stage, but then he’d add unbearably operatic music, and move to it, and catch a falcon on his gloved hand…and the illusion bloated with self-conscious pomp and dissolved in its own showmanship. Rather than simply manipulating us, he couldn’t help but remind us that we were being manipulated, and how much in awe of him we ought to feel for it. To his credit, Spielberg rarely turns the spotlight back on himself, content these last years to let it settle on Tom Cruise or Janusz Kaminski’s electrifying cinematography (no cameraman in Hollywood gets better lighting packages, or greater freedom to grease the frame with glint and sheen). He’s visibly spellbound by the act of yarn-spinning, pushing his camera through space with the manic vim of a film school student, drunk on exposing film to his imagery – it’s intoxicating to watch, as beautiful shot cuts to beautiful shot with effortless vertigo. But then he’ll start to take himself seriously, and the whole thing sours under the pressure of becoming a finer wine than the maker has the grapes for. It’s an excruciating effect. Munich has ambition to spare from its opening sequence, juggling dramatic tension with sociopolitical pathos as a group of Palestinian terrorists bursts in on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 games, after having first been helped over the locked gate by the cocky, innocent American team. Muscular and relentless, the film demands quickly to be taken as a serious entertainment – but the two don’t gel, and Spielberg can’t decide which he’s making. His juggle becomes a series of trades: the fun ball in the air one second, and the serious, complex ball the next. Munich is just too slick to convey the sober dilemma of governments sending its citizens after each other for causes too deeply ingrained in history and cultural identity to ever resolve themselves through the blunt means at hand. Would the film be more abominable if Spielberg had settled on making an entertainment, gutting it of resonance on purpose? Or is his inability to hold his style at arm’s length in the service of tougher subject matter a permanent liability for him as an artist?
He didn’t used to have this problem. Spielberg cut his teeth on giddily fun films of marginal substance. Jaws is a featherweight drama made with mesmerizing skill, digging into specific fears with a chainsaw and letting up only at the last possible moment, to our great relief. Close Encounters of the Third Kind exchanges fear for awe, allowing itself the mysterious childlike simplicity of believing in a benevolent intelligence beyond our own. Yes, the belief itself is mysterious and childlike – it sidesteps the adult anxiety that we’re probably isolated, and that if not, we couldn’t possible fathom our celestial neighbors. Raiders of the Lost Ark gives up fear and awe and wallows in sheer infantile sound and fury, in a gloriously dizzying film of visceral-comic energy. There’s so much room in these films for the unadulterated joy of well-executed screen craft. They were such buoyant entertainments to have grown up watching – I remain terrified of deep water and enthralled by outer space, and not so far below the surface, I am still Indiana Jones. Because I was a child when I began to love these childlike movies.
His ’80s films are a bit confusing. They betray, simultaneously, a more complex sense of Spielberg’s own identity as a storyteller and less self-assurance about how to handle it. I think E.T. takes the adult world too seriously to give in to the illusions of youth, even if Spielberg’s still smitten with them. He believes in the pain of adult circumstances, in divorce and responsibility, but also that an adorable alien can make children’s bikes fly across the moon; between these irreconcilable worlds is a sickly-sweet ocean of syrup that Spielberg doesn’t know how to traverse, or acknowledge. His craft is by now sugary without parallel, but it’s becoming more and more in the service of stories of emotional or historical weight too meaty for him: The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always. He counters with a treacly portrayal of human emotion in these films that kills the fun his filmmaking desperately wants to have.
But then he tried a new tack, and he’s been building on it since. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sort of a masterpiece: a gutsy, balls-out series of action sequences hung on masculine tension, in the form of the core father-son relationship (between themselves, and with the same woman) as well as with its treatment of Nazism. Less able to snub Nazis as ineffectual, as he did in Raiders, Spielberg presents them here as cock-waving opportunists, as eager for glory as Jones & Jones and just as blitheringly male. He makes the one female figure a ravishing, conniving temptress, lets most of the men fuck her, and watches their downfall as she fucks them all right back. It’s perhaps Spielberg’s first foray into adult relationships – complete with the wisdom to chuckle over them. Last Crusade is one of his funniest, brawniest films, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking he let the title become a joke twenty years later when he released the fourth Indiana Jones film.
The ’90s picked up here, with the darkness of Hook and Jurassic Park, but somewhere in here – ostensibly at the suggestion of Billy Wilder – Spielberg decided to make Schindler’s List. In many ways it’s a complete, and very adult, departure from anything he’d ever done; it’s fair to believe he’d grown up enough to know he could leave much of two decades of solid craftsmanship behind, and take mature advantage of the rest. Steven Zaillian’s script, read alone, is a weird thing, full of awkward, pointed dialogue and obvious transitions, but Spielberg transcends its sillier contrivances with a bold and unshowy visual style, a suggestion of historical scale, and a treatment of 1940s Poland that’s creepily enigmatic – Kaminski’s black-and-white photography aside, Spielberg uses sound – street noise, music, spoken dialects – with an unaffected naturalism he’d used but never shown a lot of trust in in the past. Schindler’s List immediately feels haunted, as Polish Jews arrive in Krakow on trains that will eventually take them back out to their deaths. Spielberg meanders through these sequences with supreme confidence; the world he creates seems to expand in every direction, his camera free to look where it wants – there will be something to see. He adopts a handheld approach and warms to it instantly; his style takes on an articulate ease it’s never had before, in sequences such as the ghetto liquidation, which he intercuts with a speech by the demonic commandant Goeth – every cut, every beat, every frame seems fully, willfully intended, and flows with consummate cinematic intelligence. This is stuff to learn filmmaking by. Where he falters is in his treatment of the Jews themselves, and this may be less his fault than, again, in his searing ambition. How to treat a mass of people, historically? Conventional narrative wisdom provides the masses with cases-in-point, characters whose experiences are less unique to them as individuals than to all. But it has the effect of making all the Jews – and Schindler’s Jews in particular – come across as subservient innocents, decent ciphers every one. It’s clumsy, especially in a film of such formal intelligence whose lead characters are allowed such behavioral ambiguity. It also feels didactic – not the worst trait, for sure, in a Holocaust film; Shoah, for its whole 9 1/2 hours, is far more so – but it didn’t need to be to make its point, which we’re bound not to miss. Ten years later, Roman Polanski found an elegant way out in The Pianist by focusing religiously on a single character: the man is neither innocent nor helpless, and Polanski doesn’t shower him with undue affection; he’s just a guy stuck in the maniacal, single-minded mechanism. Maybe the scale of Schindler’s List, as an undertaking of obvious personal and professional ambition, prevented Spielberg from trusting in something simpler.
The film won a slew of accolades – two Oscars for Spielberg himself – and from here on, his films have alternated between brassy prestige projects (Amistad, A.I.) and conscientiously frivolous throwaways (The Lost World, The Terminal), with the occasional crossover (Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can are two of his better films, beholden to entertainment but speedy and concise). What lingered in the first decade after Schindler’s List, that curious strained seriousness, as Andrew Sarris might have put it, grew legs of its own after he won his second directing Oscar, for Saving Private Ryan. It’s a good film, opening on the best work he’s ever done: Omaha Beach moves past the rigor captured in Schindler’s List into a new realm of cinematic control, one signified by pure, meaningless chaos. It’s one thing to make a chaotic film; it’s quite another to direct chaos. For twenty-six minutes the screen rages from all directions, shot at first from the bewildered perspective of a good documentary cameraman and easing into narrative subjectivity, the barest of strategy captured between blistering snatches of unpredictable violence. That a director as dramatically precise as Spielberg can make a sequence like this feel so unpredictable is probably its greatest achievement – it’s certainly the film’s best chunk. Laud Private Ryan for riffing on a clutterless plot, and for allowing character to play out in extended battle scenes of terrifying veracity (nothing hits harder than the soldier begging not to be stabbed in the chest). Applaud John Williams for his gratifying restraint (absolutely a new achievement in a Spielberg film, one never to be repeated). But Spielberg can’t bring himself to let us discover human emotion on our own, and draw our own conclusions; the film opens and closes on the most contrived screenwriting, performances, blocking, and scoring of his career, as the elderly private begs to be told he’s “led a good life,” that he’s “a good man”. The film would have been stronger, and Spielberg would have spared us the embarrassment of watching a profoundly capable director undercut his own achievements with unforgivable sap. A film that immersive in war cannot conclude itself with such numbing pap.
The truth is that filmmakers reveal themselves in scenes like these. He got away with potential schmaltz in Close Encounters by leaving room for silliness in human behavior; he could have done the same at the end of Schindler’s List, but chose to take the austere route (wayward films don’t win a lot of Oscars). He does the same in Private Ryan, denying a main character (and us) the ability to reflect on the film’s premise – sending eight guys to rescue one – as absurd human melodrama. It’s no less emotionally captivating to consider it this way, although it might dilute the film’s worshipful overtones. What Spielberg announces with this stuff is that it’s really not human experience he’s exploring in his films, but something closer to pop mythology. It’s easier to see in the projects he’s produced: the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific; the Clint Eastwood films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. They’re broadly didactic projects, evoking patriarchal reverence in lieu of the actual experience of being at war; the themes override the humanity. They are deeply uncomfortable with moral ambiguity – these films will show it, but then make damn sure you know to feel humble on your way out.
So when Spielberg turns his attention to Munich – or, even more egregiously, War of the Worlds – I just don’t trust his commitment, apart from his compulsion to Get Serious with a Camera. He’s at a stage in his career where he is directing the hell out of his films, trusting few shots and fighting no impulses he may have to let action play entirely within one. Having produced them, has he digested some of Michael Bay’s Transformers attention deficit disorder, or has his craft become so precise over the years that he no longer sees action on screen as life or behavior, but as movement in a frame? Worse, he’s crossing lines of taste he should have never had to worry about after (the bulk of) Schindler’s List, letting action scenes play as cheap stimuli in Munich, or investing War of the Worlds with a downright offensive 9/11 analog that cheapens the film (it might have been great fun) and 9/11 (suggesting the terrorists were aliens from another world, not human beings). More than once, I have quit this film in disgust the moment little Dakota Fanning crumples in tears in the backseat, as intergalactic war carries on outside, and cries out with affecting dread, “Is it the terrorists?” This cannot be read as insightful cultural cross-referencing, or whatever; Spielberg’s shown over and over that his primary concern is entertaining you with polished, well-funded sleight of hand, not speaking to you as a fellow person puzzling his way through the universe. I’m afraid now he feels he’s earned the right to be an Important Filmmaker.
And so what if he has? It’d be too harsh to imply he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, and I think Spielberg is as sincere as they come. But sincerity on its own is not enough. Convincing an audience that they’re watching a world of your creation is a skill not to be undermined with abstract analysis; what he does well, he does inimitably. But I think as an intellect, as an artist, insofar as he is one, Spielberg sincerely believes in his own hokum. I think he’s so wound up in good intentions – as a creator of myth, a teller of tales; the job used to belong to the village elder, the head of the tribe – that he loses sight of whether his films respect our instinct to discern legitimate human behavior. We know from childhood whether we’re being lied to; it’s not voodoo, it’s recognizing truth in expression and tone. As we grow older, we lose some of this understanding behind the masks we wear to obfuscate our own emotions – it gets tougher to see through everyone else’s masks.
The dilemma in film craft is that we’re all aware it’s a facade, but we agree to let it fool us. The illusion leads to insights via narration, with stories or audiovisual experiences – those can be distinct – that carve us a canyon into things we know to be true but which don’t necessarily add up to something greater on their own. Film craft can give shape and dimension to innate truths. It cuts through the simpler stuff, what we work through as children, and it can do so in one of two ways: by putting up a facade we aren’t meant to see through (there’s no penetrating the Omaha Beach sequence), or by letting us, indeed asking us, to see through it (Godard never asked you to believe in anything he gave you). Filmmakers run into trouble when they’re not sure which facade they’re presenting – or when they want to have it both ways. It’s the worst problem for a filmmaker with emotions – that would be almost all of them – because he badly wants you to feel what he feels, but killing the illusion for the sake of deeply-felt candor asks you to look all the way through the facade and see the man behind the mask. When Spielberg opens himself up to that analysis, we can see the man-child playing with his toys. The stunted intellect playing at adult earnestness.
It’s hard to articulate why this matters to me. Steven Spielberg has been the central cinematic figure of my lifetime. His is the one name anyone can toss out on the fly, an apparent paragon of popular moviemaking. I am making a film now, and have others in the works, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked whether I want to be “the next Spielberg”. It’s not his fault; the man’s tastes fall neatly into those of pop culture, and have made him a billionaire, an icon, a national figure. He’s used it for good social cause, and he’s helped other filmmakers get on their feet. And let’s be honest, he’s made some wonderful films. But if he’s an artist, he’s an incomplete one: he’s not able or willing, for reasons of his own, to push at his own boundaries, to acknowledge real, complex mystery, or to let us out of his films without bald confirmation of human goodness. It’s not an indecent impulse, he just doesn’t ask us to plumb any deeper. I’m sure there’s more to us than virtue.
Spielberg used to believe, as a comparative child, that there was awe in the unknown, even if it was terrifying. I wish he could still believe that as an adult – he could be making the most glorious films.