Spielberg’s Direction: Where He’s Come From & What Lies Ahead

Spielberg is arguably one of the most versatile directors of our generation. Although he first established his footing in the Hollywood system by providing an escape for movie-goers as he evolved, he has allowed his films to take a more realistic turn. Spielberg, in no uncertain terms, has been hailed as a success both critically and commercially. However, the element that makes his films so fantastical and others, more honest, is the element of Spielberg himself. He invests a great deal into his craft, addressing elements of his own heritage in some films, while modeling his films about fantasy and science fiction after his own fears. Spielberg is by no means the first to have done this, but what makes Spielberg’s journey so memorable is how he got his start. Beginning with Jaws, we saw him deal with his characters insecurities. He began his career by displacing his own fears and projecting them onto characters. Although the process was a somewhat convoluted one, Spielberg later made the issues of his characters much more personal and for lack of a better term “more Spielberg”. All the while, Spielberg continued to make movies. It was as if he enabled American audiences everywhere to watch as he evolved. American movie-goers have watched as he essentially grew up, making his story of success a much more personal one. Some of the best examples of his growing up and addressing his past can be found in Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Catch Me If You Can while other films of his about confronting the future are The Lost World: Jurassic Park, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds.
Schindler’s List is easily one of Spielberg’s most obvious films. This is not to discount its message, but by this stage in his life Spielberg had discovered his own personal understanding of the importance of being a Jew. However, this is Spielberg’s first film where he expressly says this by telling the story of Oskar Schindler who saved the lives of thousands of Jews in a time when the Jewish people needed a hero. This film, although obvious, is also complicated in the general feel of it. Spielberg shows the urgency of understanding the atrocities committed by the Nazi party during the Holocaust. He unflinchingly shows the utter desecration of the Krakow ghetto in one of the most moving scenes in recent movie history. However, all of this is done in black and white with the exception of the little girl in the red coat. Although the symbolism behind the red coat has been a topic of debate since the film’s release, the only reason it receives any importance is the rest of the film being black and white. Spielberg gives color to the little girl while leaving the other deaths cold and gray in a sort of respectful censorship of his own work. Nothing is to be gained by pouring on gallons of fake blood, but rather, the imagery of these corpses is just as powerful in black and white, while at the same time, somewhat softening the blow for both audiences and to an extent, Spielberg himself. Spielberg has grown in being able to even show these horrors in black and white at all. However, Spielberg, after shocking audiences with this brutal imagery, returns to his attempts to make audiences happy. While the story of Oskar Schindler is an important story to tell, it is a triumphant one in a period which was not traditionally marked by salvation. Although some may argue that the film wouldn’t be as well received if Spielberg had told a tale that ended with everyone dying, death in the Holocaust is an important part of Spielberg’s heritage as a Jew. This is not to say that the film is any less of a film because Spielberg ended on a fairly positive note, but rather that Schindler’s List in some ways feels like a test to Spielberg. Not only is he questioning if he can handle making such a personal film, but it’s as if he’s asking himself if he can bear to disappoint his audience by not giving them a traditional somewhat hopeful ending. Regardless, Schindler’s List is a bittersweet homage to Spielberg’s own history.
Saving Private Ryan is 5 years down the line for Spielberg. In it, he re-visits the same time period as Schindler’s List, but concentrates on a very different matter. He concentrates on the American involvement in the efforts of World War II. Once again, Spielberg shocks audiences in this film with the graphic portrayal of the war effort. However, in this film there are several key differences from Schindler’s List which in some ways made it more relate-able to audiences and at the same time, all the more horrifying, while illustrating how Spielberg had grown in between the two. First and foremost, Spielberg filmed Saving Private Ryan in color. He brought to life the grit of the trenches in a way that he was almost too afraid to do in his earlier work. Merely a few minutes in, Spielberg re-creates the invasion of Normandy in frightening realism. With Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg was unafraid in his portrayal of WWII. He was fully aware that what occurred during the time the World was at war was terrifying. With this film, he sought to show younger generations, generations that had only been shown the victorious photographs of WWII and read about it in textbooks, just what America had been through. This was also a crucial difference in Saving Private Ryan. Whereas Schindler’s List had been set in Poland with Europeans, this film took Americans abroad. While American audiences were able to watch Schindler’s List and few able to actually experience the film, Saving Private Ryan was about Americans, there was no longer any way for audiences to disassociate. This was a daring move on Spielberg’s part, but showed his maturity in being able to break away from his image as the blockbuster crowd-pleaser. Once again, Spielberg by the end of the movie is trying to make amends for what he’s done to audience members over the course of the film, but there is a sense of a changed man in this film’s ending. Spielberg kills off Miller who is essentially his main character. Not only that, but viewers see Miller die onscreen. The concept alone of the main character dying isn’t something Spielberg had toyed with before really until Schindler’s List and even then, we are only shown his grave. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg illustrates his growth in ways that audiences had never seen before. Although Private Ryan lives because Miller dies, Spielberg offers a far more intense bittersweet ending than in his previous work.
Catch Me If You Can is one of Spielberg’s most backwards films in terms of his cinematic evolution. It once again returns to some of the issues that have been plaguing Spielberg since his childhood, predominantly his conflict with his father. Most importantly, the issues that Frank has with his father mirror the issues that Spielberg has with his own father. Just like in Spielberg’s own life, the family unit goes down the drain. However, although these are old issues, Spielberg addresses them with a newfound understanding. In many of his movies, Spielberg fights to keep the family together or form a new family and everyone will be happy again. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank’s family falls apart in the first part when his father is discovered as a criminal and later, Frank’s mother has an affair. This is initially one of the deciding factors that sends Frank into a life of crime. While the film is about Frank Abagnale Jr. and his madcap crimes, to Spielberg, the focus never seems to shift from Frank as a person and of course, his interaction with his family. One of the most realistic aspects of the film that Spielberg seems to be working towards is the lack of resolution with the father figure. At one point when Frank is told that his father has passed away, he reaches the most emotional state the audience has seen him in. Spielberg seems to be hinting at the fact that he’s not entirely over his own issues with his father and there’s a good possibility that he will never resolve them. Further more, when Frank sees his mother again he finds out that she has moved on and created a family of her own with the man that she was having an affair with. Together, the two have a child, thus completing their family. There is no longer a need for the prodigal son. This being established, Spielberg establishes for the audience that things will never be the same for Frank. His issues with his father left unresolved, and his mother moving on with a new family, there seems to be no hope left for him. Spielberg’s own disappointment is what characterizes this film as maturation in terms of the Spielberg film. It’s as if for the first time Spielberg is being absolutely honest and absolutely blunt about his own feelings of displacement as a result of his own father’s abandonment. There’s a certain fearfulness in his portrayal of the family that is also recognizable in other Spielberg films addressing other matters.
One example of such is The Lost World: Jurassic Park in which Spielberg returns to familiar territory with this sequel. Spielberg has fun with the sequel, largely playing it off as mere entertainment or yet another Summer blockbuster. However, the dynamics in The Lost World are interesting in the way that Spielberg has played with them. For example, Malcolm returns except this time with an African-American daughter. Spielberg, after marrying Kate Capshaw who had previously adopted children, adopted one of Capshaw’s children, Theo, an African-American child. Although such a minute detail, it shows Spielberg’s more involved approach to his film-making, injecting a little bit of himself into the project to make it his own. Also, the concern for the children is once again a major part of the story although in this film, it’s only one child. Malcolm’s daughter differs from Tim and Lex in that Spielberg also seems to be saying that as wonderful as they are, it’s also difficult to raise children. Throughout the film, Malcolm and Kelly are at odds with each other for most of the time starting from when Kelly stows away and sneaks onto the island until the end. However, Spielberg also shares with the audience some of his newer, sub-conscious fears which manifest themselves in the finale of the film. In 1997, Spielberg was 51, which is by no means old, but it also the age where the philosophy that “age is just a number” seems to lose some of its rationale. His fear of growing old comes alive towards the end of the film when we see old, represented by the T-Rex, meet the new, which is illustrated in San Diego. Of course when the T-Rex arrives in San Diego mass hysteria ensues. The only way that the problem can be solved is when the T-Rex is tranquilized and shipped back to the island from which it was created. There’s no place for the old in the age of the new. Spielberg’s films were still wildly successful in 1997 and continue to be in this day and age, but Spielberg’s irrational fear of becoming old or dated come alive in an interesting way in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
In A.I. Spielberg once again faces the future, however, his fears take a variety of shapes in this film. Perhaps the most universal fear that Spielberg addresses in the beginning of the movie when it discusses the effects that global warming has had on the Earth. In 2001, global warming wasn’t as widely regarded a phenomenon as it is today, but it still seemed urgent enough for Spielberg to place as a detail in the movie. It is by no mistake that he doesn’t make it the central focus of the film, because he uses the rest of the film to recognize much more personal fears, but in using the detail that global warming has reduced some of the World’s greatest cities to things of the past, he is addressing it as a very real problem and an utterly universal issue. Although the problem of global warming is predominantly addressed in passing, Spielberg occupies his audience with one of his more personal problems which is the issue of love. Love is obviously a very strong theme in the movie since it is the driving force for David’s actions which span thousands of years. As viewers we are shown the profound impact David’s ability to love has on his actions and the actions of those around him, but more importantly, we see the effects of a lack of love. We see this when Henry’s love for his own son trumps whatever emotion he had for David who was merely a stand-in for his son. As soon as Henry’s son comes back, his love for his own son complicates his relationship with David. It’s as if Henry were simply waiting for David to screw up so he could get rid of him and focus on his relationship with his biological son. Still, David persists. He continues to love Monica because in actuality, she was the only one who showed any real love for him. This allows the audience to see Henry, a father figure, as weak and even callous in his actions, once again returning to Spielberg’s complicated relationship with his own father. However, in Monica, we see true love. Monica’s ability to see past biological vs. non-biological is what makes her a dimensional character to the audience. In a way, this is Spielberg once again returning to his experience with adoption. Through this film, he works through his own personal fears surrounding the questions that adoption has raised for him. In the very beginning, Spielberg is asking himself “Can I love this kid enough?”. Spielberg’s own father might not have been able to, but Spielberg seems fairly certain that he can by the end of the movie when Monica tells David that she has always loved him. Perhaps an even more important question Spielberg asks himself is in the scene at the flesh fair. With this scene he seems to be asking “What will my child have to endure?”. Obviously the differences between Steven Spielberg and Theo are pronounced. Spielberg seems to fear that these differences will have a profound effect on his adopted children. Not necessarily from his standpoint, but how other people interact with them. However, all of his fears are resolved in the conclusion of the film when he states that love is enough. Love is what drove David and allowed Monica to accept him regardless in a time when people seemed to be afraid of the advancements of technology.
By 2002, something had changed within Spielberg. Technology was no longer something that offered hope, but it had since become an instrument of power. However, he is quick to make the distinction that it is not technology that is inherently evil, but the people that abuse it for their own gains are evil. This is the main focus of Minority Report. With this film, Spielberg shows exactly why he has lasted so long as a director. Although loosely based off of a Phillip K. Dick novel, Spielberg brings his own touch and a certain sense of sensibility to the film bringing a touch of realism to the science fiction epic. By this period in time, America had been transformed by the events of 9/11 and the actions that the government was taking had begun to transform the nation into a unified community, but also, a very suspicious community. Minority Report functions beautifully as a product of its time. Even though it could’ve been created at any time, a certain potency lingers thanks to the fact that it was created when it was. It wasn’t soon after the American public found out about Bush’s wire tapping thus, in a way, confirming the fears that Spielberg had outlined in Minority Report. Another aspect of Minority Report is Spielberg’s fear of the system which in most of his films is either not addressed, more than likely because he has the system to thank for his success, or is otherwise considered to be a minor plot point. It shows a side of Spielberg that realizes his influence on the Hollywood system and on movie-going audiences. He is asking audiences everywhere to question what is going on, to do more than just accept the course that the American government had taken in limiting the rights of its citizens. However, Minority Report is set in the further future and takes a much more extreme route, therefore it serves almost as a cautionary tale. Spielberg seems to be saying with the film that things have gotten bad in America, but they always could get worse. Although in some respects it’s a reflection of America’s current state, it also serves as a cautionary tale of what we could become.
War of the Worlds is also a product of the post-9/11 craze that very much affected the American public, except with the subject matter being invaders from outer space, the fear is clearly an outside one. Spielberg seems to enjoy making War of the Worlds on a very different level than his other films. He seems somewhat detached from the project, perhaps because it is predominantly recycled material, or perhaps because it simply is less personal. The concept of foreign beings and the fear of them is not something particularly characteristic of Spielberg himself, but it represents the fear of the American public seen through Spielberg’s eyes. Although most people before they even saw the film were aware of the role it played in U.S. history when Orson Welles first broadcast it on the radio in 1938, it’s fair to say that Spielberg’s film enveloped audiences and re-created the fear that audiences knew so well. One particularly memorable moment in War of the Worlds is when Rachel, in the grip of fear, timidly asks if it’s the terrorists that are doing this. This line is particularly telling because not only does it represent the fear in a post-9/11 world, but also how even years later, the media and the government, essentially all of America, continues to sensationalize every story in order to keep Americans in a constant state of fear for other terrorist attacks. Spielberg seems to attempt to communicate that fear is a very basic human emotion. It’s to be expected that people would be living in fear, but at the same time, there are things to be more fearful of than terrorists. While at no point during the film does Spielberg make the events as realistic as they were when first heard in 1938, he does seem to consider the effects of fear to be a very real experience. As ridiculous as it may sound, War of the Worlds is just as much an alien movie as it is Spielberg expressing his own fear about what people become when in a state of fear. The utter desperation of the situation is perhaps more frightening than the mechanical beings themselves. There are a variety of examples, but perhaps the most upsetting is when Ray kills Harlan. Audiences have watched Ray from the beginning, we see how he cares for his kids, how he reacts when the tripods first attack, but we see a complete overhaul of his character when he feels that Harlan threatens his own and his daughter’s chances of survival. He kills the man because he feels it is what must be done, but at the same time, it represents a darker side of Ray than audiences thought capable. Especially since Ray is portrayed as a very every man American figure, it represents the capability of destructiveness that lives within us all. Although War of the Worlds is at first glance a story of fear of the unknown and foreign figures, it is just as much about the fear of the unknown within ourselves and the fear of desperation and even fear itself.
Spielberg examines a variety of themes in his always versatile projects. A main focus of his is that Spielberg examines both the past and the future in an effort to understand himself, both in terms of his heritage as illustrated in a variety of his films and his fears which usually manifest themselves in his more fantasy-oriented films. Although Spielberg has grown throughout his time as a film-maker he continues to remain somewhat guarded in the handling of his own fears while he is also able to distance himself to a certain degree with the removal of himself in his historical films. Regardless, throughout his films Spielberg continues to grow and expose himself to movie-going audiences everywhere, allowing a more personal look into the life and works of one of America’s cinematic geniuses.


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