[Editor's Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 5 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg. This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.
Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 3: Communication, click here. To watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg, Chapter 4: Evil & Authority, click here.]
Steven Spielberg is the product of The Greatest Generation — a Baby Boomer raised on idealized images of the nuclear family, progress, and American might. He is also a child of divorce — a dreamer from a broken home. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile these two biographical facts—the mythic ideal of the family, and the reality of its dismantling—has been at the heart of many of his films. Spielberg’s movies often focus on a real or makeshift family unit, banding together to fight an outside force that threatens to tear it apart. At the head of this makeshift family, there is often a father figure imparting wisdom to his charges, or being forced to confront his shortcomings as a protector. Often both.
In Jaws Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody is the father figure to a tightly-knit summer community being terrorized by a Great White Shark. The scene where his son mimics his gestures tells us he’s a loving, good father who will do anything to keep his family – and his community – safe.
The film’s second half shows Brody becoming part of a makeshift family of shark hunters, with World War II veteran Quint taking over as protector of the landlubber police chief and the rich-kid, know-it-all oceanographer, Hooper.
The trio of Quint, Brody and Hooper feels like a makeshift family unit: an impetuous, sarcastic younger brother, a tougher, wiser older brother, and their boozing, cantankerous, tinpot dictator dad.
At first, Brody and Hooper question Quint’s methods as well as his manner. The old sea captain is a gruff taskmaster. He’s slobblish, domineering and rude. He is also quite mad.
But when the men sit around drinking and talking we learn the source of Quint’s insanity. He tells them of how he survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the naval vessel that an atomic bomb that helped the United States defeat Japan in World War II. They were ultimately successful — but the mission is famous mainly for having its crew picked off by ravenous sharks.
Quint’s ordeal trumps anything Brody or Hooper will ever experience. And it seems to make a deep impression on them. Although they never stop resenting Quint’s sourness or fearing his craziness, they appreciate his toughness, and learn to work with him. They are members of the younger generation learning to respect a seasoned elder because they are, so to speak, all on the same boat.
And when the father dies horribly — leaving the boat adrift at sea, and the mission figuratively adrift – it is up to the sons to complete the mission.
In Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is an unofficial father figure to a mostly young group of Army Rangers. He’s given the public relations-burnishing task of finding and extracting the last surviving member of a group of brothers who were all killed fighting the Germans. Miller wonders if this mission is worth the price. For every man he’s lost in his command, Miller figures he’s saved maybe 10, 20. Now he’s been asked to put his entire platoon—his family—in harm’s way to save just one.
Miller hopes that Ryan is worth it – that he goes home and invents a longer-lasting light bulb or cures cancer. But he puts the thought aside for the same reason that parents try not to think about whether the incredible effort they’ve invested in their own, flesh-and-blood children will yield a saint, a felon, or something in between. One cannot know such things — and the end result of parenting isn’t the point of the exercise. You do it out of love. And duty. And you hope for the best.
When the men finally find Private Ryan he doesn’t want to go home. Why? Not out of some abstract sense of patriotism, but for immediate, personal reasons. Ryan doesn’t want to leave HIS surrogate family – his fellow soldiers.
Miller and the rest of the rescue team decide to stay and help Ryan secure a tower. It’s practically a suicide mission. And it ends with Miller making the ultimate sacrifice.
The Spielberg who made Saving Private Ryan in the late 1990s was a family man in his 50s. Detractors questioned Miller’s final admonition — asking, in effect, “Well, what if Private Ryan went home and DIDN’T accomplish anything special?” But that’s really not the point of that moment. It is a purely personal, human moment between Miller and Ryan that transcends war or even politics. In Spielberg’s films, every life is worth saving, provided that the saved person goes on to continue to be – or to BECOME — a decent person, and do the best he can with the gift he’s been given.
It’s probably worth pointing out that the Spielberg who directed “Saving Private Ryan” was a different person from the wunderkind of the 1970s. He was no longer the ambitious, single, childless twentysomething who directed Jaws, and who placed his sympathies with the brother figures that were caught between a bad father and a hungry shark.
The late’90s Spielberg is convinced that a son must earn his place in the world — and that it is the father’s responsibility to teach him that lesson. The weight of that conviction gives Saving Private Ryan a momentous quality, as well as a certain dour heaviness. It imparts a sense that a grave lesson was learned in World War II, and that this movie exists to teach it again — for the benefit of people who weren’t around to hear it the first time.
Whether in his serious movies or his pop fantasies, Spielberg often pivots the story on the father figure, be it real or surrogate. It’s not something as trite as Spielberg having Daddy Issues. More likely he is still uncovering something new about the nature of being a father.
For Spielberg, the presence and goodness of the mother is, with very few exceptions, a given. She will always protect and nurture. Fathers do that too. But they can also abandon the child, or be inexpressive when trying to impart knowledge. In Spielberg’s world, mothers are usually instinctive caregivers, healers, and teachers. They know what to do. Fathers are eternal students. They must learn, and keep learning.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg shows a father driven to near madness in the pursuit of his dream. Roy Neary exhibits the behavior of a young artist who’ll stop at nothing to make the vision in his head a reality.
The movie contrasts Roy Neary’s destructive obsession against the plight of Jillian Guiler, a single mom. Like Roy, she has been implanted with a vision of extraterrestrial contact. But her motive in going to Devil’s Tower is quite different. Where Roy wants to make his dreams come true – expressing the selfish drive of an artist — Jillian wants only to rescue her kidnapped son.
The contrast between the two storylines is striking. We watch a mother desperately try to hold her family together. Meanwhile, a father abandons his own family to answer a higher calling. Close Encounters is clearly the work of a young artist. Spielberg has said on several occasions that he made the movie today, he would not have had Roy Neary abandon his family to pursue his vision. Whether that’s indicative of deeper wisdom or a sort of creeping personal and artistic softness is impossible to say. But it’s definitely a change that came with age, and that is reflected in Spielberg’s attitude toward parents and their children – and grandchildren.
In any event, the film’s narrative momentum and sense of craft are so overwhelming that we do not judge Roy for what he does. Instead, we root for him – or at the very least, live vicariously through him, as he does something that most of us would not be brave enough – or obsessed enough – to do.
The image of Roy walking into the mothership to be a part of a new family could stand in for Spielberg in the mid-seventies: A young man leaving home to become a part of a filmmaking family, ascending from relative obscurity to become the most popular storyteller of his time.
But it’s a bittersweet moment, thanks to our awareness of what Roy has given up, and what his children have lost. He has chosen visionary fulfillment over personal responsibility.
Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster E.T. feels like a continuation of Close Encounters – and not just because the story originated in Spielberg’s daydreaming about what might have happened if one of the aliens from Close Encounters got left behind. The film’s hero, Elliott, is the middle child in a bustling suburban home guided by a single mother. The absence of the father is conspicuous, and important. At time it feels as if we’re seeing what happened to the Neary family in Close Encounters after Roy lost his mind and ran off to Devil’s Tower.
In E.T. Spielberg uses the fanciful story of a boy and his friendship with an alien creature as his way of dealing directly with the trauma of divorce. The absence of Elliott’s father, the fact that his family will never be whole, permeates every scene of E.T. Elliott learns the hard lesson early that nothing can last forever.
When Eliott befriends E.T., it’s as if he’s found an equal – a pet that reveals himself as a playmate. But really their friendship is compacted account of how all children will eventually be asked one day to look after those who nurtured and protected them. The relationship between the boy and his alien illustrates the phrase “the child is father to the man.” And as the tale unfolds, both E.T. and Elliott learn it. E.T., like Elliott, feels abandoned by his family. But E.T. quickly assumes the role of friend of protector – and in some strange way, a mentor — of Elliott.
By the end of the story, the roles have switched. Elliott takes on the responsibility of reuniting E.T. with his family at the landing site. But at the same time, though, E.T. also reveals a depth of maturity and wisdom that we might not have suspected earlier. The crowd-pleasing shot of the rescued alien appearing in the back of the hijacked government van suggests an almost mythic power and wisdom. E.T.’s pose is vaguely Christlike. But the wrinkled visage and tattered robe suggest confident, loving grandfather who’s seen it all.
The final scene shows Elliott re-experiencing the heartbreak that comes when a family must separate. But he seems better able to handle it. It’s an intensely sad moment, but also resigned and mature. Elliott seems tougher now. And wiser.
Throughout his films you can track Spielberg’s evolving feelings about the terrors, pleasures and responsibilities of fatherhood. In Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, the preteen hero Jim is wrenched from his family as violently as any Spielberg hero, and must learn to survive on his own. He finds an unexpected ally – a sort of Humphrey Bogart-like, scoundrel-mentor – in Basie, an American steward stranded in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.
The film’s title is a bit of a pun: Son, S-U-N, is a reference to the sun on the flag of Imperial Japan. But it also describes the suddenly parentless hero’s empire – an immense, splendid, and very dangerous backyard for him to play in, and grow in. Empire of the son … S-O-N.
Even in Hook we are treated to the sight of the eternal child Peter Pan coming to grips with being a father, and learning to nurture the child within the man, but without neglecting his adult responsibilities.
Later films show Spielberg to be impatient, even resentful, at the sight of fathers neglecting their duties. You can sense his anger in wanting deadbeat dads to get a clue — a comeuppance.
In War of the Worlds divorced dad Ray Ferrier can hardly be bothered to look after his kids for a weekend.
When an alien invasion occurs, he is confronted for the first time in his life with the prospect of caring for others. Ray has never been reliable. Now, he must reunite his children with their mother. If he can do that then maybe he will earn the right to be a father.
In Minority Report Chief Anderton is a far cry from Chief Brody. This gifted cop watches over the people of D.C. not out of concern, but suspicion.
But there is a reason for his wanting to know the whereabouts of everyone under his authority. It stems from his failing as a protective father, which led to the kidnapping and murder of his only son.
Anderton was a good husband and dad, but a moment of distraction led to the loss of his family, and deep depression, and then to drug addiction.
In Jurassic Park, the childless hero’s discomfort with children is a running joke throughout the film’s first half. In an early scene of paleontologist Alan Grant lecturing about how dinosaurs evolved from birds, he even seems to take pleasure in terrifying the youngest members of his audience.
Alan is awkward and hesitant – fearful, even — when he suddenly finds himself the protector of two kids.
But by the end of the film, his parental instincts are in full bloom and he seems at peace with his responsibilities.
The film’s screenplay has an extremely conservative point-of-view on the matter. Parenting is depicted not just as an important job that perpetuates the species, but a symbol of evolution.
This is driven home in the film’s final shot, which shows the hero, his girlfriend and the two children being airlifted away from an island of primordial terror. The movie cuts from shots of this makeshift nuclear family, safe at last and relaxing, to shots of pelicans soaring through the sky. The meaning is clear: the willingness to take responsibility for a child, even one who’s not your own, is a marker of true maturity. Alan Grant began the film as a dinosaur. By the end he has evolved into a bird.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play, the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish new portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert's Far-Flung Correspondents. San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. He has cut docu-series for MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet. His work can be found at http://www.stevenedits.com. He also writes about films at his blog, The Fine Cut.