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Critic’s Notebook: Putting Steven Spielberg On Trial

Critic's Notebook: Putting Steven Spielberg On Trial

The dream is always the same. The movie gods of the modern blockbuster, presided over by the likes of Optimus Prime, E.T. and a very hungry great white shark, stare down at the genial man before them. The scene is a grand multiplex transformed into a courthouse for the cinematic trial of the century. The defendant is no obvious criminal, but rather an affable, good-natured filmmaker with a much larger legacy than his appearance suggests. His name is Steven Spielberg. The allegation is simple: Did this man destroy the movies?

This isn’t exclusively my dream, of course, but rather an (admittedly absurd) vision of the collective experience endured by countless moviegoers as they’ve evolved from blind devotees of Spielberg’s escapist marvels to self-serious movie buffs, eager to reject anything commercial — especially the epitome of commercial expression that Spielberg’s career has come to define during Hollywood’s last four decades.

Spielberg mania hits U.S. shores this holiday weekend with the release of two new Spielberg films, days apart: Today, his vibrant old-school action rush “The Adventures of Tintin,” the best motion-capture movie yet, arrives after a successful run in the U.K.; “War Horse,” his epic WWI adaptation of the 2007 stage play (itself taken from an earlier novel) opens Sunday. The filmmaker just turned 65, but shows no sign of retirement. This rather extreme reminder of Spielberg’s continuing marketplace dominance arrives at a moment of crucial transformation for young adults reared on the likes of Indiana Jones and “Jurassic Park.”

Many people grew up with Spielberg movies and then claimed to move on to other, allegedly more complex moviegoing experiences. But Spielberg never went away and his stranglehold on the kind of product Hollywood has churned out since the mid-1970s remains stronger than ever. It’s fair to say that Spielberg has helped sustain large-scale studio filmmaking by showing how to do it well. But can we blame him for its crasser aspects, the diminishing returns of franchises and braindead CGI stunts? That’s a harder question to answer.

Depending on who you ask, Spielberg is either the best or worst thing to happen to American movies in the last quarter of the 20th century. His arrival as a wunderkind occurred at the peak of New Hollywood’s explosive creativity, when studios had few clues about what movie formulas might stick and opened the doors for psychedelic endeavors like “Easy Rider” and countless other iconoclastic generational statements, which unquestionably injected a strange new energy into American cinema.

The popular history proclaims that Spielberg’s “Jaws” helped put an end to that streak in 1975, with the assistance of “Star Wars” two years later. Rejuvenating Saturday matinee appeal with a combination of shock, suspense and wild imagination, these movies showed that classic Hollywood formula could still translate into box office dynamite. The steady string of hits that followed (with very few, largely forgotten duds) deepened Spielberg’s status at the quintessential commercial director leading the charge of the Movie Brats domination.

But Spielberg is hardly a William Castle-like showman. The other side of his brand, his ability to moonlight as a chronicler of vast historical events, broadens the catch-all essence of his career. Virtually every Spielberg movie deemed valuable to the national conversation has arrived alongside another extraordinary flight of fancy: “Schindler’s List” followed “Jurassic Park;” “Amistad” arrived the same year as “The Lost World;” “Munich” immediately preceded “War of the Worlds.” Spielberg’s oscillation between tentpole blockbusters and conventionally defined “important” works speaks to the broad potential of all popular culture, which is why his films tend to inspire young people struggling to understand the world.  

Audiences committed to rolling their eyes at Spielberg as too obvious a filmmaker worthy of serious discussion should consider the ways his films link to many other forms of cinema in the details of their conception. This critic, for instance, first encountered the work of Francois Truffaut (and, by extension, much of the French New Wave) not through “The 400 Blows” but rather Truffaut’s performance in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Perhaps not incidentally, that’s the only Spielberg film included on a list of some 200 must-see titles allegedly drafted by the man himself. He knows his best work as well as anybody — and, as the list attests, he knows his Hollywood history, too.
Spielberg’s prominence has obscured his cinephilia, but not by design. A recent series of video essays produced by Press Play launch into great detail about the complex themes and technical strategies that give Spielberg’s films such consistent allure. Warren Buckland’s fascinating book “Directed By Steven Spielberg” goes great lengths to show how “Spielberg does not invent a new film language, but manipulates the existing language in a distinct and completely effective manner.” To watch a Spielberg movie at an early age is to learn what movies can do.

Or, at least, it shows what moves can do in their most systematic, rigid form. You won’t learn about the transcendent beauty of a Stan Brakhage film from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But that movie might set you on a journey that leads to other cinematic possibilities. Meanwhile, Spielberg keeps providing an entry point. “Tintin” is technically an homage to the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, but it’s also an homage to Spielberg’s own breezy action choreography in “Raiders,” just as “War Horse” successfully channels both “Lawrence of Arabia” and Spielberg’s own war epics. “War Horse” is gorgeous but slight, while “Tintin” easily delivers the best action rush of the year, even more than David Fincher’s admittedly sleeker “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” After a misguided return to the Indiana Jones franchise in 2008, Spielberg has rediscovered his inner Spielberg.

And yet it can prove challenging to throw one’s hat in the arena of Spielbergian delights without feeling a twinge of cinephilic guilt. His movies not only frequently center around children but inhabit their perspective, tapping into a juvenile sense of imagination that explains the profound impact his work tends to have on younger viewers. Over time, Spielbergian awe becomes entrenched in the nostalgia many moviegoers may experience as they grow older. During the last 12 months, both J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (which I dubbed “Spielberg porn” earlier this year, only half-jokingly) and “Trollhunter” blatantly referenced Spielbergian thrills.

It’s easy to rally against Spielberg because he has developed into the epitome of mainstream, his movies aiming to please mass audiences rather than erring on the side of hip, radical statements or subversive artistry. However, for that very reason he provides a portal to more audacious work. Spielberg’s exoneration arrives in the form of the gateway his movies continue to deliver time and again–and in the skillful maneuvering of existing film language that continually testifies to the medium’s lasting power. That’s no bizarre dream of mine or of anyone else born into the Spielberg Age; the results are at multiplex this weekend. See them if you must, and then consider your other options.

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