Director Retrospective: Steven Spielberg
With the recent release of some set-pictures from his upcoming film Ready Player One, I decided to try and tackle one of the most prolific and acclaimed (critically and commercially) directors of all time. This week, I’m writing about one of the “titans” of American cinema: Steven Spielberg. Of course, almost immediately after making this choice of retrospective topics, I realized that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Nevertheless, here we go…
The Big List
By my count, Spielberg has made 30 (!!!) feature-length films that have garnered theatrical releases. [FYI: You can watch a few minutes of Spielberg’s feature-length amateur film — Firelight (1964) — online; unfortunately, like many other directors (e.g. Quentin Tarantino), this early film was lost or destroyed so I’ve left it off the list here. Also, I included Duel, which was originally a television movie but one that Spielberg later expanded for theatrical release.] Thus far, I’ve seen 29 (of 30) Spielberg films. The only film that I haven’t seen The Sugarland Express (1974), which I wasn’t able to locate in time for this retrospective.
Anyway…without further ado, here’s the list: Duel (1971); Jaws (1975); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); 1941 (1979); Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); The Color Purple (1985); Empire of the Sun (1987); Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); Always (1989); Hook (1991); Jurassic Park (1993); Schindler’s List (1993); The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); Amistad (1997); Saving Private Ryan (1998); A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001); Minority Report (2002); Catch Me If You Can (2002); The Terminal (2004); War of the Worlds (2005); Munich (2005); Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); The Adventures of Tintin (2011); War Horse (2011); Lincoln (2012); Bridge of Spies (2015); The BFG (2016).
The Top Five–No, Wait!–The Top TEN (That’s Better)
Below are my picks for Spielberg’s “Top Ten” films (from #1-#10 with some brief comments on each one — very brief in this case because I’m including twice the number of picks as usual…)
Jaws (1975) – There’s not much that I can say about Jaws that’s not already been said by a million other fans and critics of the film. The story is laughably simple, the “monster” is almost entirely absent, and the entire production was infamously, almost laughably, terrible in terms of its recurring problems. Seriously…everyone ought to know about this already because it’s legendary at this point. But if you’ve never read about the making-of Jaws, it was so totally, over-the-top disastrous on every level. Absolutely NOTHING worked right — most notably, the mechanical sharks (each named “Bruce”). The film’s stars despised each other and were (allegedly) constantly drinking and/or fighting and/or gambling. They accidentally sank their boat — which, by the way, had the filmstock and equipment on it. Etc. etc. In fact, if I’m remembering correctly, at a point during the production (which went waaaaay over on time because Spielberg was absolutely CRAZY with wanting to capture the sense of isolation, sometimes waiting for hours for boats on the horizon to completely disappear, etc.), Spielberg forbade people from leaving the set-location because he didn’t think they’d return. And yet…the result was one of the greatest films of all time and the film that created the concept of the “summer blockbuster” (and maybe / probably saved American cinema). Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, and Lorraine Gary are all superb here; and John Williams’s iconic work is probably the most instantly recognizable scores in all of film history. So let’s just cancel the fireworks and watch Jaws every 4th of July.
Schindler’s List (1993) – While not as immediately re-watchable as Spielberg’s other great films, Schindler’s List is an absolute cinematic masterpiece, recounting the true story of Oskar Schindler — an opportunistic and politically savvy Nazi businessman who eventually uses his wealth, influence, and manipulation skills to save the lives of about 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. If you’re only familiar with Liam Neeson’s work from his more-recent action films, you should do yourself a favor and watch this film to get a better sense of his abilities as an actor. (His final scene at the factory, where he laments that he didn’t save more people, is absolutely gut-wrenching.) Both Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz provide solid performances, while Ralph Feinnes (who’s made a career from playing uber-villains like Lord Voldemort, Harry from In Bruges, and Francis Dolarhyde) gives arguably his most villainous portrayal as the despicable Amon Goeth. A deeply disturbing and incredibly haunting film that also happens to be Spielberg’s most visually beautiful work, Schindler’s List ought to be required viewing for every young person in America.
Jurassic Park (1993) – For the #3 spot on my Spielberg “Top-Ten” list, I wrestled with a couple possibilities. But in the end, my own nostalgia factor won out and I went with Jurassic Park here. More than virtually any other film that I can think of, Jurassic Park — which I first saw at a drive-in theater upon its initial release — was THE movie (specifically) that made young Michael fall in love with movies (generally). It’s really a master class in mixing tonal registers, as it perfectly balances awe, humor, terror, horror, relief, etc. — truly an emotional “rollercoaster” upon a first watch and one that can be similarly enjoyed on multiple re-viewings. This doesn’t even consider the technical prowess of the film — the practical effects by Stan Winston, the revolutionary computer work of Industrial Light & Magic, the amaaaaaazing score by John Williams (again). Moreover, we get great performances from the likes of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough, as well as some fun supporting roles from Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight. Really…this is one of the best examples of Spielberg’s prowess as a director — as he’s able to make a glass of water in a plastic cup sitting on a dashboard into something utterly terrifying and memorable. OK…we know now that the dinos in Jurassic Park aren’t really all that accurate; still, this film was an inspiration to a whole generation of young people and greatly advanced the academic pursuit and interest in scientific fields, where hopefully those viewers learned what dinosaurs actually looked like and how they actually behaved. (Ha ha!)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1989) – A film that, for some viewers, would be higher on the list (and understandably so), Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is arguably the greatest action-adventure film ever made and launched the franchise that’s still going today. Based on characters and a script developed by George Lucas of all people — who I don’t usually associate with humor but who, nonetheless, did a superb writing job here — Raiders of the Lost Ark is, at its core, a B-movie full of mystical artifacts, crazed Nazis, jungles and deserts, Middle-Eastern bazaars, car chases, etc. etc. It is dripping with all (ALL!) of the fun times. There’s no telling how many viewers have based their entire perception of academics / teachers off of Harrison Ford’s (hilariously) misleading and utterly amazing performance as Indiana Jones; and the film also features a career-best performance from the perennially underrated Karen Allen. It wouldn’t be a Spielberg film if it didn’t contain (yet again!) another sensational score from John Williams — not to mention an overwhelming abundance of iconic visuals (e.g. the boulder chase, the bazaar shooting, the face-melt, etc. etc. — Really…there’s an absurd number of memorable, influential action scenes in this movie). While it’s not exactly my “favorite” Spielberg movie and while I don’t think it quite achieves the unparalleled mastery of Spielberg’s Jaws or Schindler’s List, Raiders of the Lost Ark is his most engaging, most thoroughly “fun” movie. I dare someone not to like this movie — it simply can’t be done!
Saving Private Ryan (1998) – In my opinion, this is the fifth “masterpiece” that Spielberg has created thus far in his directing career — the other four being the movies that I’ve already discussed. (By “masterpiece,” I simply mean that these are, in my opinion, films that are of such a quality and of such value that they ought to be forever preserved and enjoyed by viewers.) While the plot of Saving Private Ryan isn’t based on a true story, it is based on an real-life dilemma that arose during World War II involving the (presumed) deaths of several brothers at various battles across the globe. The entire ensemble cast does great work here — particularly Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon (in a very limited but crucial role), and Jeremy Davies. Apparently made to honor his father’s service during World War II, it’s obvious that this is a project and a subject that Spielberg cared about greatly, as Saving Private Ryan contains some of the director’s most impressive set-pieces (e.g. the incredibly tense D-Day invasion at Normandy that begins the film) and some of his most gutwrenching scenes as well (e.g. Upham’s fear and failure to act at Ramelle). From here, Spielberg would go on to produce several other projects related to World War II — including the recent Netflix documentary entitled Five Came Back, Clint Eastwood’s excellent Letters from Iwo Jima, and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (i.e. the greatest television mini-series of all time and one that you really ought to go watch if you’ve never seen it before).
Catch Me If You Can (2002) – Earlier, I mentioned that Raiders of the Lost Ark is Spielberg’s most thoroughly “fun” film; and while I still think that’s true, I also think that Catch Me If You Can — at its best — isn’t that far behind on the enjoyability scale. For those who don’t know, this film is loosely based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who began a career as a con-artist at age 15(ish) and continued said career for the better part of the next decade. For real, if you read about this guy’s earlier life (he’s a “security consultant” now), it’s pretty amazing. Aside from being a self-taught expert in forgery, he allegedly masqueraded as a pilot, a teacher, a doctor, an attorney, a secret-service agent, etc. (He even reportedly escaped from prison once by fooling the guards into thinking he was an undercover prison inspector.) Unlike Raiders, however, this film also has a darker undercurrent — particularly once Abagnale (played charmingly by Leonardo DiCaprio) and the FBI agent in charge of capturing him, Agent Carl Hanratty (also played very well by Tom Hanks) begin to wrestle with how their cat-and-mouse game has affected other aspects of their lives and the lives of those around them. To me, it’s a great film and the very best of “second-tier” Spielberg.
Minority Report (2002) – By my count, there are 6-7 overt “science-fiction” films in Spielberg’s career thus far. And while his E.T. and Close Encounters are the most loved and most iconic (probably in that order), I’d argue that his slightly underrated Minority Report — an adaptation of a story by Philip K. Dick — is the best and most enjoyable of these sci-fi efforts. Buoyed by excellent performances from Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow, Peter Stormare, and others, the film seems somewhat prescient today because of its use of automated cars, touchscreens, retina scanning, pervasive advertising, predictive modeling, etc. etc. But aside from being a science-fiction film, it’s also an interesting mystery in which the crime, perpetrator, victim, weapon, etc. are all known from the very beginning but not the motivation — i.e. Why is a decorated officer (Cruise) destined to murder a man in 48 hours that he’s never seen or met before? A highly re-watchable film and one, with its blue/gray washout filtering, that’s somewhat visually anomalous within Spielberg’s filmography.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – Today, for whatever reason, it seems that a lot of people (notably those of the younger generation) are familiar with aspects of Close Encounters — e.g. the five-note melodic greeting, the mashed-potato Devils Tower sculpture, etc. — but haven’t actually seen the film. Really, in some ways, it seems that the film’s visual / aural iconography has now surpassed the film itself, which is a bit of a shame because Close Encounters is a superb science-fiction film. For my money, this is Richard Dreyfuss’s best performance, as a father who becomes obsessed with visions that he can’t quite explain following an encounter. Likewise, Melinda Dillon and Terri Garr are really great in their respective (and very complicated) roles, and we even get to see Francois Truffaut in front of the camera for a change, which is fun. Close Encounters is another one of those movies that I find to be enjoyable because it sets the stage for smart people to collaborate in order to “solve” a question — although this one also focuses on “ordinary” citizens and how such a revelation (of life…out there) might affect everyday life. In terms of tone, you can see the influence of this movie in ones that would follow like Robert Zemeckis’s Contact and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival — i.e. science-fiction films that presume a friendly intelligence rather than monstrous aliens.
The Color Purple (1985) – Based on Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel, The Color Purple mostly recounts the story of Celie Johnson (played by Whoopi Goldberg in her acting debut), an African-American woman in the early 1900s who survives recurrent physical, sexual, and emotional violence within her relationships with men. I’ve not read Walker’s novel, so I can’t comment on the film as an adaptation. (Apparently, Walker was initially hesitant about this filmic version but has since come to view it in a positive light, arguing that the medium necessitated certain changes from the source-text.) The story is an extremely difficult one to stomach because of its cruelty (especially toward children) but it’s also an important message to hear. The film features complex performances from Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Dana Ivey, Willard E. Pugh, and Oprah Winfrey. (Winfrey, in particular, is a force here.) But Goldberg, who I’ve already mentioned, carries this film. As someone who is primarily familiar with Goldberg from comedic roles, she’s absolutely phenomenal in this movie and provides one of the best debut performances of all time, as far as I’m concerned. This is a bit of an odd film in the context of Spielberg’s oeuvre, but he provides steady direction here.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – Perhaps you thought that I was going to include E.T. here? After all, it’s an undeniable influential film that is greatly loved by lots and lots of viewers. Well…I actually think that E.T. — while a fine movie — is a tad overrated. Instead, I’m going with a different Spielberg science-fiction effort here, A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Based off a short story by Brian Aldiss, this film initially began as a passion project of Stanley Kubrick — one that he worked towards (on-and-off) for about 20 years. (Unfortunately, while Kubrick handpicked Spielberg to direct this film, he died before ever getting to see the film come to fruition.) The neon-colored visuals, paired with a dark tone and some strong allusions to Pinocchio, result in a surprisingly affecting film about the nature of humanity and whether love is solely human or, rather, something that can be learned. Another great dramatic performance from the young Haley Joel Osment (best known for his work in The Sixth Sense), as well as very strong supporting roles from the likes of Jude Law, Frances O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, and Jack Angel (doing voice-work). All this results in an emotionally complex update of a classic fairy-tale.
The Underrated One
There are a few Spielberg movies that could be mentioned here. I’ve already discussed how I think A.I. is underrated above. Duel has a ridiculously simple premise (and some low-budget production values) but remains as tense as hell today. Empire of the Sun — while critically acclaimed and featuring a great performance from a young Christian Bale in the lead role — is one that a lot of casual viewers overlook. (The same could likely be said about The Color Purple, a critically appreciated film with great performances that was also commercially successful upon its release but has since been lost in the wash a bit with viewers, unfortunately.) But for my pick, I’m going with the rare animated film from Spielberg’s career, The Adventures of Tintin (2011). As part of my research interests, I’ve read most / all of Herge’s Tintin comic series, and Spielberg’s Tintin film perfectly captures the “boy book” aesthetic of those comics — with all their emphasis on adventure and mystery, their tonal emphasis on slapstick frenzy. It’s obvious that this was a passion project for a lot of people, as Peter Jackson served as the 2nd Unit Director and the script was composed by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, and Stephen Moffat. (The screenwriters deserve special recognition here, merging a few separate Tintin comics into a cohesive narrative that doesn’t feel like patchwork and also doesn’t require extensive familiarity of the character in order for audiences to enjoy.) The acting here is superb: Jamie Bell does a great job as the boyish protagonist, Daniel Craig voices a threatening villain, and Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are inspired casting choices as the bumbling detective duo of Thomson & Thompson. But the creme-de-la-creme here is Andy Serkis and his portrayal as Tintin’s loyal friend and fellow adventurer, Captain Haddock. Simply put, Serkis — the greatest mo-cap performer in the history of cinema — IS Captain Haddock; his performance is so pitch-perfect that I cannot even imagine anyone else in that role. If you avoided this because you’re not familiar with Herge’s work or because you’re not typically a fan of motion-capture animation, then I’d encourage you to remedy that decision sometime soon.
The One to Avoid
For a director with 30 films to his credit, Spielberg has remarkably few duds. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one that fanboys will point to as being terrible; and while it’s certainly dumb and the weakest in that esteemed franchise, it’s not without its pulpy charms and has somewhat grown on me over the years. Aside from a few action scenes, War of the Worlds is mostly forgettable, while Hook is too often drippingly sentimental. Always is a strong contender for the “honor” here — e.g. the script (written by Dalton Trumbo) feels antiquated, the humor falls flat, the actors (Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman) have very little chemistry with one each other, and Dreyfuss is terribly miscast as the lead here. But the undisputed champion in this category is, without a doubt, Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). If I told you that this was a film about the fear / paranoia that American citizens felt along the West Coast (particularly in Los Angeles) in the weeks immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, you might justifiably think that this sounds like a potentially interesting premise for a drama that explores political anxieties, wartime culture, the effects of racism / xenophobia, etc. Well…that’s not what we get here. Instead, 1941 is written and filmed as a slapstick comedy. *sigh* Let that sink in for a second. Not only is this an incredible tonal misstep, the story (written by Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius) is so overwhelmingly, immensely unfunny that it works like a type of laughter kryptonite. The ensemble cast includes Toshiro Mifune, John Belushi, Ned Beatty, Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Lee, Warren Oates, John Candy, Robert Stack, and others — pretty much all of them putting forth some of the worst performances of their careers here. Basically, this film is proof that, sometimes, when you put a lot of talented people together on a project, it just doesn’t work. (And, oh boy, does it ever not work here!)
The Place to Start
It’s absurd to think that anyone reading this hasn’t already seen at least one Steven Spielberg film (and, really, more like 5-6 of his films at the very least). He’s just been so prolific in his output; and his work has garnered such critical praise and commercial success. Therefore, picking a place to start with this particular director feels like a theoretical exercise more than anything else. But if you’re ever in the mood to (re)watch his oeuvre, then I think I would suggest starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Aside from being an iconic film with an iconic character and being one of the best (maybe THE best) action-adventure texts of all time, it’s an “easier” watch than films like Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, or Saving Private Ryan; and it’s genre-elements aren’t necessarily as pronounced as some of his other films (e.g. E.T., Minority Report, A.I., etc.). Lastly, for those viewers who are easily squeamish, it’s more “tame” than Jaws or even Jurassic Park in terms of the visual frights (well…except for one scene near the end of the film). Raiders of the Lost Ark is just a wonderful, very enjoyable, highly re-watchable movie! But you don’t need me to tell you that…
The Final Word
Sheesh…how much do you want? Steven Spielberg is a great, GREAT filmmaker — easily one of the best and most influential American directors of all time. His impact on cinema and on other directors — especially in the last 30 years or so — simply cannot be overstated. While he may not have as overt an “auteur style” as some other, flashier directors, he’s successfully found a way to masterfully blend cinematic craftsmanship with impeccable narrative with great characterization with mass entertainment — not exactly the easiest thing to do. In addition to a dozen (or so) great films, I would argue that he’s directed five (!!!) legitimate masterpieces; and, depending on your perspective, I could easily entertain the belief that the number is actually closer to 7-8 masterpieces. Just to provide perspective here, Paul Thomas Anderson — who I, and many other people, think is the best director working today — has only directed seven films…total. So basically, Steven Spielberg might have as many “masterpieces” as other supremely talented directors have films. (That’s just mindbogglingly stupid to think about.) My fear is that, because he’s such an institution at this point, folks will take his work for granted and will forget just how excellent a filmmaker he really is. But you’re not going to do that, right? No…no, you aren’t.