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The Films Of Steven Spielberg, Part Two: The Serious Fare

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 23, 2011 at 12:00PM

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.
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Always

"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

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]

Amistad

Amistad” (1997)
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

"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-]

This article is related to: Features, Steven Spielberg, War Horse, The Essentials, Feature


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