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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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A.I.

"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

"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+]

Terminal

"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+]

Munich

"Munich" (2005)
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+]

-- William Goss, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Erik McClanahan, Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth

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


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