It’s the classic dilemma of the entertainer, perhaps best embodied in Preston Sturges‘ “Sullivan’s Travels.” After a decade or so of delighting audiences with thrills and wonder, Steven Spielberg decided he wanted to be taken seriously; for all the millions of dollars his films had made, making him one of the most successful directors of all time, he’d never won an Oscar, despite three nominations. So, starting with 1985’s “The Color Purple,” Spielberg has alternated his blockbusters with serious fare; dramatic pictures, often with literary or historical pedigree and acclaimed stars, based on historical events, seemingly designed for the Academy sweet-spot.
It didn’t work immediately; “The Color Purple” was nominated for 11 Oscars, but won none, something of a record, while poor reviews and disappointing box office followed his initial non-genre fare. But he was finally validated by 1993’s Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List,” a sober, powerful piece of cinema that proved he could deliver emotion without pandering, and that’s continued, with varying degrees of success, ever since, right up until “War Horse,” which opens in theaters today (read our review here).
So after our look at Spielberg’s escapist movies a few days ago, it’s now time to examine his more serious-minded pictures. Again, the division isn’t always easy; “Sugarland Express” is as entertaining as it is powerful, while one-time Stanley Kubrick project “A.I.” might look like a sci-fi spectacular on the surface, but it’s closer to a drama than an action film. These are the films where Spielberg seemed to be aiming to do more than simply entertain, and more often than not, it worked out. Read on for more, and we’ll see how “Lincoln,” his long-awaited biopic of the great president, fits in when it opens sometime late in 2012.
“The Sugarland Express” (1974)
Spielberg’s first proper theatrical feature, “The Sugarland Express” feels like a young man’s movie in the best of ways. There is a palpable eagerness to make every shot count that hasn’t necessarily persisted as his career has progressed; here, he allows the characters and actions to fill the frame in a way that complements the narrative and grabs your attention. Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) has just busted her husband, Clovis (William Atherton), out of prison and is now intent on retrieving their infant son from his foster parents. They take a rookie Texas state trooper hostage in the process, and away they go, with an ever-increasing police presence on their tail, even as they win hearts en route to Sugar Land (the proper spelling, adding a hint of print-the-legend recklessness to a story inspired by a real crime). Hawn and Atherton are equally winning and naive, making more believable the adoration that their impossibly slow chase earns from the locals as the Poplins pass from town to town. Spielberg tries to make the most of it all, with his most distinct touch being a car-bound round-about camera maneuver that the Beard would later recycle himself more than three decades later (to distractingly showy effect) in “War of the Worlds.” ‘Sugarland’ marks his first collaboration with John Williams and one of the few downbeat endings in his oeuvre, more bittersweet than anything, and inevitably tragic in spite of the charms which precede it. Though the man would come to take much shit for his sentimental streak and earn much love for his overwhelming sense of spectacle, this stands as perhaps his most humane balance of both. [A]
“The Color Purple” (1985)
The timing is perfect for another look at this film. In retrospect, Steven Spielberg’s first “serious” film, “The Color Purple” is sort of like a cross between the Spielberg-produced “The Help” and the Spielberg-directed “War Horse,” only not near as charming as the former and almost as overly-sentimental and saccharine as the latter. Based on Alice Walker‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning story, the film follows the life and trials of a young African American woman in the early 1900s facing every sort of oppression imaginable. While actors like Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey and a revelatory Whoopi Goldberg (in her debut film performance) put in respectable performances, most of their characters, save Whoopi’s, are one-note caricatures. So despite Goldberg’s endearing turn as the subjugated protagonist Celie, the overstuffed ‘Color Purple’ tests patience with an overwrought tone, a bloated 2 1/2 hour running time and Africa-set second act that desperately wants to convey a sense of Historical Importance. Ultimately, an expansive story of struggle, race and hardship, admittedly with a few strong notes, Spielberg’s first real foray into drama often feels like it’s been churned out by the affected Oscar-bait generator and it’s a shameless, lesser effort for it. Hollywood would only go on to enable his overblown, tearjerky tendencies by nominating it for 11 Academy Awards, the silver lining of the story being that it won none. [C-]
“Empire of the Sun” (1987)
Originally intended for David Lean to direct and Spielberg to produce, (the pair later fell out over Spielberg’s notes on Lean’s aborted last project “Nostromo“), the great helmer got cold feet and Spielberg took over the reins of this adaptation of J.G. Ballard‘s memoir of his time in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp as a child. And ultimately, the film was a disappointment, both commercially and critically, failing to pick up any major Oscar nominations. Which is a shame; it’s certainly the best of his 1980s run of dramas, and perhaps the closest thing to an underrated picture in his canon. While the director can’t resist adding a nostalgic sheen to the picture (it all seems like fun and games up against “Schindler’s List“), it’s for the most part his darkest, most complex film up to that point, and laudably unsentimental, particularly in the depiction of John Malkovich‘s Fagin-like mentor (one of the actor’s earliest, and very best, performances). There are set-pieces and images that can compete with anything in the director’s canon, and among countless great child performances coaxed out by the director, Christian Bale‘s central turn stands tall, carrying an entire film on his shoulders at the age of just 13, like he’s been doing it his whole life. Flawed, certainly, but the first true sign that Spielberg might be able to take on tougher source material with great success. [B+]“Always” (1989)
In a career liberally peppered with minor to mid-sized missteps (a hirsute Robin Williams as Peter Pan, the sex scene in “Munich,” “The Lost World,” “The Terminal,” nuking the fridge, the third act of many of his until-then-strong ‘00 films, etc.), Spielberg’s misguided 1989 romantic drama, “Always,” is perhaps his biggest blunder. Essentially, it’s a remake of the 1943 film “A Guy Named Joe,” a favorite of the director, starring Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, only in his version, Spielberg ditches the WWII setting in favour of a backdrop of aerial forest fire-fighters. Richard Dreyfuss plays one of those cocky and reckless pilots who dies in an accident, leaving behind friends and loved ones, only to return as a ghost to watch over everyone: it is as woefully tone deaf, unfunny and sappy as that synopsis makes it sound. Holly Hunter plays the bereaved gal he leaves behind and her one-note character reeks of being written by a total male narcissist (she’s there to cry; Dreyfuss’ ghost is there to go “gosh, she really did love me.”). John Goodman plays his buddy and, in her last onscreen appearance, Audrey Hepburn plays an angel-like figure who guides him towards coming to terms with his death and the loved ones he must learn to let go. (Cue retching.) For such an accomplished filmmaker, Spielberg can be deeply tin-eared to the human experience sometimes and nowhere is this better illustrated than here, where it is only during the one action set-piece of the film, a sequence that means little to the picture emotionally, that it feels particularly alive. Unfortunately, it only amounts to about three minutes of a 2-hour film, and it’s rather sad to judge it the highpoint of a picture that’s ostensibly about love, death, regret and moving on – anything but action or thrills. It leads one to wonder where Spielberg’s head was at during this period – was it really so high in the clouds? [D]
“Schindler’s List” (1993)
There’s little to say about Steven Spielberg’s landmark Holocaust drama that hasn’t been said already. While he had directed dramas before, the director didn’t feel he was ready for a film of this magnitude, and famously offered it to Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese before eventually taking it on himself. The result? Seven Oscars and over $320 million at the box office, remarkable numbers for a black-and-white, 3-hour-plus, harrowing World War II movie released in the middle of December. It’s a reminder of how much of a pop culture phenomenon the movie became, even becoming a subplot of the two-part “Seinfeld” episode “The Raincoats” (a show Spielberg watched on set to help keep his spirits up). But no one would have been talking about the movie if wasn’t one of the crowning accomplishments of his career. While there is that famous quote by Stanley Kubrick that states “The thing is, ‘Schindler’s List’ is about success, the Holocaust was about failure,” it’s a fairly simplistic reading of the movie. The “success” that Oskar Schindler finds comes amidst almost unrelenting mass murder and genocide, and Spielberg doesn’t shy away from showing this ugliness to any degree. Free from his usual thematic motifs and shorthand devices, the director proved wrong the doubters and most of all proved to himself that he could be as serious a filmmaker as the greats he so admires. It also showed that he could do heavy, sober work in a voice free from the usual narrative crutches he relies on (many of which, unfortunately, are evidenced in the remarkably rote “War Horse”). Powerful and moving, “Schindler’s List” is not just a document of a specific moment, nor is it, we would argue, about success amid failure. Instead it is simply a compellingly presented case in defence of the belief that humanity can survive the most horrific of circumstances. [A]
On the occasions when Spielberg has released two movies in a single year they usually take the pattern of one giant studio movie for the masses and another, artier affair for the Academy voters. In the summer of 1994 he dazzled audiences with “Jurassic Park” before unleashing “Schindler’s List” later that year; after a few years off from directing he returned in 1997 with darkly hued “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World” and later, for his new studio DreamWorks SKG, gave us “Amistad,” the visual equivalent of a really boring history lesson. Based on an uprising on the Amistad slave ship, you can tell that the movie’s heart is in the right place, and the actual uprising set piece, which takes place (of course) in the middle of a savage downpour in which the raindrops look like bowling balls, is one of Spielberg’s most overlooked moments of pure visual spectacle – violent and bracing and thrillingly beautiful. But the rest of the movie is dry and out of touch, and for every stroke of casting genius (Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, the introduction of Djimon Hounsou), there is one just as painfully inept (we’re looking at you, Matthew McConaughey). It’s also one of those movies about the black experience where all the heroic figures are white. Spielberg was making a serious movie about a serious subject, and that effort should be applauded, but the movie is slack and dull (and, at 154 minutes, painfully overlong). By the time the movie reaches its courtroom drama climax you just want to scream, “We get it – slavery was really bad!” [C]
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
1998, if you remember, was the year of the Elizabethan era vs. World War II at the Oscars. “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett in a tour-de-force performance, faced off against “Life is Beautiful,” starring a hammy and Best Actor-winning Roberto Benigni, while eventual Best Picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” triumphed over both Terrence Malick‘s long-awaited comeback “The Thin Red Line” and Steven Spielberg’s brutal “Saving Private Ryan.” At the time, most thought it ridiculous that something as slight, albeit well made, as “Shakespeare in Love” could win out over Spielberg’s WWII masterwork, though he did take home his second Best Director Oscar, deservedly. In hindsight, it still stands as a bit of an Oscar shocker, but the benefit of time passing means we can now simply look at ‘Ryan’ as the mostly fantastic film that it is, without all the silly awards baggage. For one thing, the famed D-Day opening sequence is still the best, most convincingly realistic war action scene ever committed to celluloid. The grainy, handheld and bleached-out look of the film, from brilliant DP and Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, is still copied today, not just in movies but through into television and video games. And the cast of grunts led by Tom Hanks, while given rather cliched arcs, is top notch, with Barry Pepper’s bible-quoting sniper stealing every scene he’s in. “Saving Private Ryan” is hampered by a few unfortunate Spielbergisms – those goddamn modern day bookend scenes are completely unnecessary and the film would be much better without them; the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer final shot of the American flag waving in the wind – but in the end, it’s a powerful, highly influential film that changed the way war movies were conceived and made. [A-]“A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001)
Easily the most misunderstood film of Spielberg’s career, it famously began life as a project for Stanley Kubrick, adapted from the short story “Super Toys Last All Summer Long.” But that Brian Aldiss short story makes up only the first act of “A.I.,” where David (a chilling Haley Joel Osment) deals with the crushing realization that he is not a real boy. The rest of “A.I.” is as meticulously detailed as it is nightmarish, twisting through a bombed-out futuristic wasteland where we’ve already turned against the machines we tried so hard to humanize. David must find himself amidst the ruins of a culture that created exact replicas of themselves, only to shun what the mirror revealed. It’s a noted departure from Spielberg’s other works, distinctly flavored with a sense of melancholia. While David’s mother is instantly self-flagellating as she leaves her terrified would-be son in the forest (presumably to die), David’s own faith remains unshaken as he learns the truth about his lineage. It’s human to be disillusioned, Spielberg argues, as he turns his back on his early career by honoring the moony-eyed hopefulness of his protagonist with an appropriately artificial happy ending. To this day, it remains the most controversial work in Spielberg’s filmography, representing the end of Spielberg’s sunny optimism towards sci-fi and moving towards a more cynical, pragmatic reading of what lies ahead. [A-]
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)
On first glance, the glitzy “Catch Me If You Can” seems like one of the more frivolous of Steven Spielberg’s supposedly “serious” movies. It is, after all, a jaunty, jazzy, rollicking ode to the former luxury of air travel and the perversely nimble life of Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a professional con man who posed as a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot while defrauding countless banks by forging millions of dollars in phony checks. And while Spielberg does gloss over, to an almost unfair degree, the human wreckage Abagnale (and his lies) left in his wake, the film still resonates like few of Spielberg’s most recent works have, maybe because its subtext is so firmly in the director’s wheelhouse: it is perhaps his second most powerful film about divorce after “E.T.” The filmmaker suggests, in the midst of all the poppy soundtrack cues, bright colors, spy movie theatrics (Spielberg, a noted 007 enthusiast, pays direct homage here) and hammy Tom Hanks acting, that Abagnale is less a criminal than a lost child, wanting nothing more than to forge the kind of success that will re-magnetize his parents’ failed marriage. It’s easy to miss, but at the center of all the whirligig fun (which featured, among other things, a terrific title sequence that plays like an animated Criterion cover and the first breakthrough performance by Amy Adams) is a little boy’s broken heart. [B+]
“The Terminal” (2004)
Considering that romance and comedy have always seemed to be Spielberg’s blind spots (the former has never really worked well for the director, particularly in “Always,” and while the latter’s been incorporated successfully into his event movies, he’s stayed away from out-and-out comedies since “1941“), it’s no surprise that his sole romantic comedy, “The Terminal,” is one of his least successful films. Starring Tom Hanks in patronizing, Borat-ish holy fool mode as an Eastern European forced to take up residence in an airport when his country collapses into civil war while he’s mid-flight, the film’s never especially funny, never especially romantic (bar a sweet sub-plot between Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana, arguably giving the best performances in the picture), and dripping in treacly, unearned sentiment; even the great Stanley Tucci struggles as a half-assed villain. And what’s most notable is that, while the content is firmly within the director’s wheelhouse, the style never is; it’s as anonymous and bland as, well, an airport terminal, the director seemingly more interested in his expansive set than in putting his stamp on the material. By the end of a terribly indulgent 128-minute running time, you feel like you’ve been stuck in the airport as long as Hanks’ character, and are just as keen to go home. [D+]
Spielberg has pulled off the rare one-two punch on several occasions, as we’ve seen, but his back-to-back projects only ever achieved a distinct thematic resonance in 2005, as “War of the Worlds” grappled with the immediate chaos and vulnerability inherent in a terrorist attack while “Munich” examined the endless nature of retaliation in terrorism’s wake. Early on, a roll call of Israeli athletes taken hostage and killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics is interspersed with a list of those responsible. There are 11 names on each list – an eye for an eye – and Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) is tasked with leading a group of men on a crusade across Europe to avenge their fallen brethren. The first half of the film consists of a series of gripping set pieces, as each mission unfolds on unfailingly rain-slicked streets and Spielberg gets to indulge in the sweeping pans and long zooms of the era while the tension builds between how things must go right and how they might go awry. (Janusz Kaminski shoots everything in a harsh glow while sparing us the requisite grain that has defined his late-period collaborations with Spielberg, conveying effectively the sweat-stained, heightened awareness of it all.) The weight of the killings and the paranoia of the hunters inevitably becoming the hunted weighs heavily on Avner and the others come the second half, when the building of bombs gives way to the dismantling of patriots. “We are tragic men – butcher’s hands, gentle souls,” says informant Michael Lonsdale in one of many scenes in which he underlines the film’s thesis. For most of “Munich,” that much is true, and Bana gives a well-modulated performance in which he becomes more defeated with each passing assassination (or attempt), until we arrive at That Sex Scene. Avner’s long-awaited reunion with his wife is consummated alongside flashbacks to the ultimate toll of the Olympic massacre: it’s an ungainly, overwrought union of passion and pain, and an attempt to offer catharsis in a film whose very message is that noble violence knows no end, a sentiment emphasized by nothing less than a shot of the still-standing Twin Towers. Touches like these, however well-intended, are what keep the otherwise thrilling “Munich” from ranking just a bit higher in the Spielberg pantheon. [B+]
— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, William Goss, Erik McClanahan, Kevin Jagernauth