Steven Spielberg’s Triumph, and His Mistake

Spielberg at the premiere of the documentary Spielberg in Los Angeles, Calif., September 26, 2017. (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
He spent far too long chasing film critics’ approval.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “The movie that really put me in touch with the extraordinary power of cinema was Gandhi”? How many film lovers have even watched it more than once? Gandhi, cinematically speaking, is homework. And yet it trounced E.T. at the 1982 Oscars. Had things gone the other way, as they should have, Steven Spielberg’s career might have taken a very different path.

Longtime film critic Janet Maslin notes in Spielberg, the new documentary that has just premiered at the New York Film Festival ahead of its October 7 debut on HBO, “There were people that hated him. There were people that blamed him for ruining the movies.” Spielberg felt the sting: “I was looking for a different perception of myself and if I didn’t want to consciously prove something not just to myself but everyone else I might not have chosen [The] Color Purple.” With that plodding 1985 film, Spielberg joined the virtue-signalers who had given Gandhi all those Oscars in 1982. He made the mistake of rerouting his career to seek approval, when what he had been doing was far worthier than what the Academy was rewarding.

Spielberg, who was and is not only a great entertainer but simply a great filmmaker, spent a large part of his career making dull-but-worthy statement films — Empire of the Sun, Amistad, Lincoln — whose principal statement was that Spielberg wanted to be taken seriously. Yet by the time he engineered the greatest scene in film history, for Saving Private Ryan, the distinction between important films and fun ones was breaking down and Spielberg found himself in the woeful situation of watching his collaborator Harrison Ford, who had clearly been selected for the task on the assumption that he would be handing the 1998 Best Picture to a friend, instead give the award to the makers of Shakespeare in Love. A meretricious, shallow rom-com that counted on the audience to mistake jejune references to the Bard for high culture had beaten Spielberg’s visceral documentary-style breakthrough in war cinema.

Spielberg’s greatness came from his understanding that the best movies aren’t history lessons or extended op-eds. Anyone can make a point or build an argument, even an impassioned argument, and film is just one of several media through which that can be accomplished. It’s only the really gifted filmmakers, though, who can provoke an overwhelming emotional response in the audience, and Spielberg did that time and again. With its immersive qualities, its union of sound and image on a screen that rules our field of vision, film has an ability unmatched by any painting or novel or piece of music to reach deep within our core. It is the ruler of all art forms. The cliché is to refer to film as “magic,” because we recognize how helpless it makes us, how ensorcelled we become.

So many viewers, especially critics, cultivate a disdain for emotion: “Oh, that was just a stupid, manipulative love story,” we tell each other as we walk out the door just ahead of the mop squad that is moving in to soak up the gallons of tears we’ve just shed. Spielberg is a thief who steals control of our feelings, and we feel ill-used by that. And so we tell each other that a cool reserve makes for a superior style, that the films of, say, Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson — the cinema of the raised eyebrow — are true art. None of their efforts have the impact of Spielberg’s best. And Spielberg reminds us that, for instance, Schindler’s List was both thematically weighty and also a masterpiece of provoking an emotional response. I’d argue that so was A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film that discovered the common grounding of our attraction to fairy tales and our fear of humanity’s extinction.

Directed by Susan Lacy, Spielberg is unabashed celebration, not a warts-and-all study. (For that, consult Joseph McBride’s excellent 1997 biography, which revealed, among other things, that the story Spielberg used to tell about sneaking onto the Universal lot as a young man and simply setting himself up in an office for months is fiction.) It doesn’t have the verve or the frankness of an even better cinema documentary, De Palma, which consisted entirely of film clips and interviews with Scarface director Brian De Palma. But Spielberg, unlike De Palma, is one of the defining cultural figures of the last 40 years, and like a president he carries the burden of knowing that his legacy may not be quite what he would like it to be. The new documentary makes a strong case that at the peak of his powers, Spielberg may have had many colleagues, but he had no peer.


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— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

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