While the presidential campaign has entered its final, desperate round, Oscar season pandering has just begun. Steven Spielberg's bid for "Lincoln," which DreamWorks releases on November 9, kicked into high gear last night with a tender segment on "60 Minutes" about the personal inspiration behind the director's work. Spielberg may not be running for office, but there was a lot of patriotism fueling this adulatory tribute to a treasured figure of American cinema -- but, like most campaign fodder, it contains a grain of truth that obscures the bigger picture. (Watch the video at the bottom of this article.)
Over the course of a fourteen minute segment, Spielberg and his adorable parents--both in their mid-nineties--reflected on the director's alienated suburban upbringing in sixties-era Arizona, a harsh world of anti-semitism and divorce from which the aspiring filmmaker escaped through the movies. Host Lesley Stahl did more listening than talking, and with good reason: Spielberg spins a good yarn.
The personal dimension to Spielberg's movies, particularly the absent or conflicted father figure, provides an angle for viewing his movies that the director loves to tell. That paternal negligence mirrors Spielberg's initial impression of his father when his parents split up in his teen years -- even though, as this segment revealed with palpable surprise, it was Spielberg's mother who fell in love with another man and precipitated their divorce.
As a result, you can track Spielberg's relationship to the shifting narrative of his life through his films: The father figure loses touch with his family in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and even the third "Indiana Jones" movie, but at a certain point he started to redeem himself: Once Spielberg learned a more complex truth about his parents' relationship and made amends with his aging dad in the early nineties, the father figure cultivated more redeemable qualities: Tom Cruise saves the day in "War of the Worlds," and ever since then Spielbergian dads have been fairly positive characters in the director's movies, if they're noteworthy at all. Lincoln is a great dad whose motives for passing the 13th Amendment to end slavery are partly attributed to keeping his older son from fighting in the Civil War. The new movie, then, definitively closes the chapter on a Spielberg trope.
By virtue of the way that "60 Minutes" reveals this tale, one gets the sense of a definitive treatment. However, the decision by this mainstream program to spent the majority of its running time playing up Spielberg's tearful yarn of familial reconciliation is in fact another Spielbergian coup. Spielberg doesn't co-opt popular culture; he defines it even when he's not behind the camera. The director's true accomplishment relates to the impact on the way we perceive movies as mass entertainments today, even though it remained largely absent from last night's broadcast.
From his teen years, Spielberg was ready to tell awe-inspiring stories about otherworldly events. The "60 Minutes" broadcast contained a fleeting clip of "Firelight," the eerie alien invasion movie Spielberg made with a couple of high school peers when he was 17 (and later used to craft the plot of "Close Encounters"). There were undoubtedly many other disgruntled young baby boomers inspired by the escapist power of movies--surely a lot of boomers felt uninspired by Americana in the early '60s even if they weren't movie geeks--but Spielberg's rapid career advancement meant that he was able to formulate his enthusiasm at a very early age. He showed chops for suspenseful filmmaking with the first-rate television movie "Duel" in 1971, but "Jaws" solidified the new standards for the American blockbuster that remain fairly intact to this day. Spielberg was 27 when he made the movie, which proved to be the ultimate paean to thrill-inducing cinema.
"Jaws" arrived at a bizarre moment in Hollywood history when Hollywood studios, faced with a series of flops, had fallen into an experimental stage. Movies like "Easy Riders" and "Bonnie and Clyde" epitomized a surge of fresh artistry, the era of New Hollywood, in which wildly experimental and unnerving generational statements took the place of the vapid musicals that had dominated theaters in the previous decade. By virtue of delivering a first-rate piece of genre filmmaking mostly devoid of such countercultural vitality, Spielberg brought Hollywood back to sturdier ground. When the shark's teeth clamped down, they effectively halted the prospects of free-flowing ingenuity on the studio level.
That hardly discounts the brilliance of "Jaws" or Spielberg's filmmaking in general. Inspired by Frank Capra's sentimentality and matching it to the epic visions found in the big screen spectacles of John Ford and David Lean, Spielberg has never ceased making movies with a confident grip on film form. Even "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," his weakest movie in a decade, contained a couple of marvelous tracking shots and a goofy energy that carries it through everything but the ludicrous climax. Spielberg manages to use many of the same techniques across a variety of genres. He could have better benefited from the "60 Minutes" treatment last year, when "War Horse" and "Tintin" opened a week apart and thoroughly demonstrated the director's extraordinary range.
Spielberg is 65, but neither he nor his impact on the blockbuster model have shown signs of letting up. Hollywood product still reflects a search for the next "Jaws," even if these days it reflects a different vernacular (note the prominence of the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, now on the brink of its fifth entry). By setting the standards of the Hollywood blockbuster, Spielberg also ushered in an era of fairly conservative filmmaking: The blockbuster mold rarely allows for honest portraits of sexuality, graphic horror, or unhappy endings. Popular entertainment still manages to circumnavigate ideas and situations deemed unsafe by cultural gatekeepers, none of them more prominent or successful than Spielberg. While Tim Burton smuggles a gothic sensibilities into mainstream works of art, and Paul Verhoeven tries to subvert them, Spielberg's formula remains pure. It's why we love him and must always look beyond him.
Even "Lincoln," one of the director's most subdued works, delivers a clean look at the iconic president that humanizes him while still foregrounding his startling qualities as a leader. Lincoln struggles behind closed doors to justify his push to abolish slavery, but because we know how things work out (at least, I'm assuming you do), these moments are always balanced off by the light at the end of the tunnel. Drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" and scripted by Tony Kushner, "Lincoln" maintains an engaging level of intellectual intrigue, but no matter how much Daniel Day-Lewis humanizes the man, the movie still celebrates Lincoln with unquestioned authority.
It pulls back the veil on the president only to find…another veil, this one showcasing an affable family man whose historical impact extended beyond the podium. That's enough to keep us thoroughly engaged moment to moment without thirsting for a bigger picture. For that reason, even as "Lincoln" diverges from much of the Spielberg oeuvre, it's also his most definitive work. Spielberg may feel haunted by his past, but "Lincoln" shows the continuing vitality of its cinematic manifestation.
For more on Lincoln, check out the film page HERE.