(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st-century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: The BFG and Ready Player One.)
What do you think of when you think of a Steven Spielberg movie? There are a variety of answers, but “blockbuster” tends to be at the top of the list. After all, it was Spielberg’s Jaws that gave birth to the idea of the summer blockbuster, and ever since then, he’s been riding that high. Steven Spielberg is a man who makes big movies. Big spectacles. Big special effects. Big emotions. Everything is big, big, big. And yet, in the 21st century, Spielberg adapted. He entered the new century riding high off of finally scoring multiple Oscars for titles like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
After decades of being thought of as nothing more than a creator of harmless pop entertainment who made oodles of money, it could no longer be denied that Steven Spielberg was a real artist. And he parlayed that into the films he would make in the 2000s. He kicked things off with the special-effects heavy A.I. and Minority Report, but after that, he would begin turning out smaller things. Well, smaller for Spielberg, at least. He was crafting historical dramas and character-driven stories. He was showing us all that he had more on his mind than T-Rexes and killer sharks.
Now and again he would return to his roots, bringing back Indiana Jones for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and finally making the Tin Tin movie he had been dreaming about for years. But mostly, Spielberg seemed content to try new things. And then something happened. He got that old itch to entertain. To summon up a spectacle. To fire up as much digital effects trickery as he could manage and forge entire digital worlds where nothing is real. It was nothing he couldn’t handle, right? Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker who knows all about technological advances in movies just as he knows all about crafting big, loud, popcorn entertainment. In other words, he knows how to give the audience what they want. As Robert Kolker wrote in A Cinema of Loneliness, “The frequency, success, and influence of [Spielberg’s] films over three decades have made them a kind of encyclopedia of desire, a locus of representations into which audiences wished to be called.”
With effects-heavy titles The BFG and Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg was coming home. He was returning to his roots. He was giving the audience what they wanted. What could go wrong?
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(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st-century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: Bridge of Spies and The Post.)
The Spielbergian hero is someone who not only does the right thing, but goes above and beyond. Someone who risks it all – life, limb, and reputation – for the greater good. And not some wispy, intangible greater good, either – oh, no. It’s not the belief in a better world; it’s the belief that the world we already have is as good as it’s going to get, if only we allow it. Spielbergian America is a place where the power is in the hands of the people, and all the people need do to make the country live up to its lofty goals is to fight for what’s right, no matter how daunting the fight may be. Two of Steven Spielberg‘s 21st-century films personify this perfectly, and, coincidentally enough, both star Tom Hanks: Bridge of Spies and The Post.
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(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st-century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: War Horse and Lincoln.)
War is hell. Any sane individual knows this and knows that the old romanticized notions of glory on the battlefield are little more than fantasy. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from returning, again and again, to depicting big, loud, action-packed battles on the screen. Whenever reviewing a war movie, Roger Ebert was fond of pulling out a quote attributed to Francois Truffaut, that it was impossible to make an anti-war film because movies made war inherently entertaining. The real quote, as close as I can tell from my own research, comes from a 1973 interview Truffaut gave with Ebert’s colleague Gene Siskel, in which the legendary French filmmaker said: “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an anti-war film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.”
Steven Spielberg is no stranger to war movies. From Saving Private Ryan to the Band of Brothers miniseries, and beyond, Spielberg has portrayed war and all its horrors, but even when portraying the harrowing battles of Ryan, the truth of the Truffaut quote sneaks in: sure, war is hell, but it’s also pretty entertaining in the hands of a master filmmaker. The real way to hammer home the horrors of war isn’t so much to portray extended battle sequences. Instead, the secret is to move beyond the bullets and the blood and find the humanity lurking beneath; humanity in danger of being snuffed out like a candle in a cold wind. And with War Horse and Lincoln, two films focused on World War I and The American Civil War, respectively, Spielberg did just that.
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(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Adventures of Tintin.)
May, 1977: George Lucas had fled to Hawaii. Star Wars, Lucas’ new film, had just arrived in theaters and would eventually be on its way to becoming one of the first blockbusters – something no one, including Lucas, could’ve predicted. Worried about competing with Smokey and the Bandit, 20th Century Fox dropped Star Wars into fewer than 32 theaters just before Memorial Day. Uncertainty hung in the air. While visiting his close friend Steven Spielberg on the set of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lucas bemoaned that he was all-but-sure Close Encounters would be the bigger money maker. But his friend disagreed. Spielberg thought Star Wars would win at the box office, and Lucas turned this friendly support into a wager: the filmmakers would trade 2.5% of the profit on each other’s films.
Star Wars was the bigger hit. To this day, Steven Spielberg still receives 2.5% of the profits from the film. But in May of ’77, Lucas was still nervous. He wanted to get away from the stress of it all, and so off to Hawaii he went, inviting Spielberg along. And now the filmmaking friends were together on a beach – Lucas to hide from Star Wars, Spielberg to take a vacation from Close Encounters (the film would not arrive in theaters until November of that year). Ever the workaholic, Spielberg was already thinking ahead, hoping to make a dream project: a James Bond film. Spielberg had already approached Bond producer and rights holder Albert R. Broccoli about the idea once before – and been denied. Now, Spielberg told Lucas he was going to try again. Not missing a beat, Lucas replied: “I’ve got something better than that. It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
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(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: War of the Worlds and Munich.)
In 1993, Steven Spielberg reached the pinnacle of his career. The perfect encapsulation of his considerable talents. In June of that year, he released Jurassic Park, one of the biggest blockbusters to ever roar its way out of Hollywood. Blending Spielberg’s gift for visual storytelling with cutting-edge technology, Jurassic Park confirmed Spielberg as an unstoppable movie-making master – a man who could make the impossible possible. By December of that same year, the filmmaker would release something altogether different – Schindler’s List. A searing, wrenching drama rooted in the Holocaust, it would go on to win Spielberg his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. It was the biggest artistic triumph of his métier. The fact that one filmmaker delivered Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year is often remarked upon, and marveled over.
But perhaps more remarkable is the fact that in 2005, Steven Spielberg did it again.
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(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal.)
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” wrote Robert Frost. After the bleak future worlds of A.I. and Minority Report, Steven Spielberg made two seemingly light, breezy films that could very well be cinematic explorations of that Frost quote.
The main characters in Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal are both in search of home. Both in the literal sense, and the abstract sense. If home really is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the main characters of Catch Me and Terminal perhaps have no real home at all. And what a terrifying thought that is.
Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal were Spielberg’s pivots out of darkness. Gone were the oppressive, often hellish futurescapes of A.I. and Minority Report. In place of the darkness came a sunny, funny trip back to the 1960s, followed by a stop-over into present day. On the surface, these two films were light hearted, brisk affairs. Yet even here, beneath the brightly lit retro fashions of Catch Me and the slapstick humor of The Terminal, melancholy still lurks. It was perhaps a confirmation that even when Spielberg tried to go light in the 21st century, darkness still found its way in.
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(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. First up: A.I. and Minority Report.)
“What if Peter Pan grew up?” pondered the tagline of Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy Hook. It was an intriguing premise: what would happen if the perpetual child – the boy who refused to get older – embraced the cold, stark, finite nature of adulthood? Of course, the compelling concept of this tagline is all but forgotten in the runtime of Hook, where the adult Peter Pan quickly reverts to childhood in order to save the day. Still, what a notion!
Sometimes, life imitates art. In the 21st century, Steven Spielberg, the perpetual child – the pop culture impresario who found a way to turn childhood and nostalgia into a lucrative, highly entertaining art form – did something remarkable.
In the 21st century, Steven Spielberg grew up.