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Category Archives: A Study in Spielberg

A Study in Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

SavingPrivateRyan

When Spielberg made Schindler’s List in 1993, it had such an impact on me that I felt that he could never reach that kind of personal or artistic pinnacle again.  When I saw Saving Private Ryan five years later, I remember that I liked it but it didn’t have the same jangling effect on me that it seemed to have on everyone else.  Oh, I thought it was a great movie, but somehow I wasn’t nearly as excited as those around me.

This attitude changed just the other night when I got a chance to sit and watch the film again with fresh eyes.  I hadn’t seen it since the summer of 1998, and this time I was able to concentrate on its intricate details, on great storytelling brought about by Spielberg’s direction and the screenplay by Robert Rodat.  This time, I feel like I saw the movie without the distraction of expectation.  This is a great successor to Schindler’s List because it takes place in the same world, essentially.

Saving Private Ryan takes place on the other side of the war.  While Schindler’s List dealt with the horrors of the holocaust, this one dealt with the horrors of the American G.I.s who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and shows us the pure Hell of blood and guts and noise and randomness that went along with it.  The first 25 minutes of this film are a brilliant reconstruction of man-made war at its worst.  There is no movie-style heroism here, no John Wayne heroics, and no brave lads giving their all for Uncle Sam.  Spielberg’s documentary-style approach puts us in the middle of the chaos, in the midst of the noise and the misery of that day.  Spielberg takes out certain shots and edits across several moments at differing speeds to give us the sense of disorientation.  We see soldiers torn apart by bullets and fire.  We see body parts, intestines, men killed for the simple act of being the wrong place at the wrong time.

Spielberg’s goal here, I think, is to overturn the notion of World War II being “The Good War.”  Yes, we won but just like every other war, this one is nasty, ugly, brutal and often propped up on decision making from the top that seems fool hearty and careless.  The central story deals with a platoon led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) to travel into the heart of German territory to find one particular soldier in order to bring him home.  The reason: a P.R. stunt that is noble at heart but questionable in terms of ethics.  A certain Private James Ryan has had all three of his brothers killed in action and the Army wants to spare her from losing her last remaining son.  So Miller and his company have to move into occupied territory to pull him out and bring him home.  The problem: They only have a vague idea where he is.

This could have been a silly, simple-minded action picture, but Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat have thought this story out.  The eight men of Miller’s company question the wisdom of this mission and wonder why they have to risk their necks to same one man on a P.R. stunt.  Miller doesn’t care about the mission, his goal is simply to follow orders and get the job done.  That’s what I love about this film.  It oversteps all the clichés of World War II movies and deals with the subject rationally.  This company of eight men is not seen as colorful, goofy stereotypes but as ordinary men with realistic ideas about war.  The closest to my heart is Corporal Upham, a translator who has been pulled into action because he speaks French and German.  Upham is wet-behind-the-ears and hasn’t seen combat, he admits “I haven’t fired my weapon since basic training.  I think he represents those of us who don’t have the brute strength.  He’s filled with naiveté and idealism, much of which will be washed away by his experience.

The combat scenes here are a reminder of how badly other movies get them wrong.  There is a bold continuity to the chaos.  Yes, combat is random, but we are aware at every moment what is happening, we are aware of the positioning of every soldier in relation to the enemy so that the tension builds not from words, but from the moment.  Spielberg, in these scenes, comments on the action by not making them into big entertainments but into the horror show that they really are.  I was reminded of the chaos and the sadness of seeing All Quiet on the Western Front the story of soldiers in World War I.  Both films do a great job of exposing the realities of a war that isn’t cinematic – it’s a war that you don’t want any part of in terms of heroic fantasy.

I can’t say enough about Saving Private Ryan.  I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the movie when I saw it, but revisiting it again I now understand the glowing response.  This is one the best war movies ever made, one of the best anti-war movies ever made.

The movie would become a sort of turning point.  It was the first time that Spielberg would work with Tom Hanks and it turned out to be a great partnership.  The two have worked together four times and in all four cases, they have done great things together.  Here, Hanks turns in one of the best – if not the best – performances of his career, just as good as his work in Forrest Gump.  Here he plays a man whose body and soul have been deadened by war, but who does his job without regard for personal feelings.  He’s a man who buries his feelings and his insecurities in the rigors of the job.  I’ve always loved Hanks as an actor when he moves out of the Tom Hanks that we are all familiar with.  Here he gives a brilliant performance, and one that stays with me.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Amistad (1997)

Amistad

I have found it nearly impossible to look at Amistad without thinking of Schindler’s List.  Both films are so intrinsically linked by the similarities of their subject matter; both are so much about the battle to overcome inhuman treatment that one seems to be the cousin to the other.  And yet, I think Schindler’s List dealt with the subject in a much better and much craftier way.

Amistad has moments of great emotional power, but it is a movie that steps wrong in so many different ways.  Schindler’s List dealt perfectly with the deception of a war profiteer to save 1,100 Jews from the hands of the Nazis.  Amistad is a 19th century courtroom drama that deals with the question of whether or not a group of purloined Africans could be considered property.  That’s where I have a problem.

The subject of slavery is tricky because the larger picture of the American slave trade is so vast that a two or three hour narrative isn’t sufficient to capture the complete horror of that era.  In that, Amistad deals with the subject in a way that feels rather awkward.  The issue at hand is a slave revolt led by the imposing figure of Cinque (Djimon Honsou), an African tribal leader whose people are captured in Africa and, on the way to Cuba, engineer a revolt in which they kill all aboard except the Spanish captain.  Cinque intends the ship to go back to Africa, but instead it veers into American waters and the Africans are minted slaves.

Stuck in a land that is unfamiliar to them, jailed by white men who speak a language they do not understand and run through a court system that is unfamiliar to them, they don’t understand their plight.  None of the men speak English so it is left to their attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) to try and come up with the way to defend them even though none can understand him.  Even his associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), a freed slave from Georgia can’t communicate with them.

The story deals with the lawyer’s attempts to free these men in a case that eventually reaches the Supreme Court.  It is tricky, and requires the aid of the wise and wonderful former President of the United States John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins).

Much like Oscar Schindler’s attempts to bribe the Nazis with money and gifts to save the lives of the Jews that were being exterminated on a daily basis, here is a movie that argues for the freedoms of these men and requires just as much craftiness to get around the barriers of the law and the barriers of language to try this case even though they all know that doing so will spark a debate that is likely to send the country into civil war.

Yet, I find that the urgency of Amistad isn’t as strong as it should be.  Yes, we want the Africans to be returned to their country, but somehow it feels less compelling.  That’s not to say that it is not an important story, but I just wasn’t as moved as I should have been.

There were two characters that I found intriguing.  One is Cinque, the leader of the Africans who doesn’t speak English but whose powerful presence speaks volumes.  The other is former President John Quincy Adams, whose elegant 11-minutes speech to the Supreme Court is one of the greatest courtroom scenes in recent memory.

The other characters left me cold.  The defense attorney Roger Baldwin seemed like a typical movie lawyer.  He at first sees the case as just another case, but by the end his heart has apparently change.  Yet, I don’t see how his character has changed at all.  For me, he seems more like a functionary, a mouth-piece for the case.  The other is Theodore Joadson, played by Morgan Freeman.  He is a special associate to Baldwin but what is his real stake in this?  How does a freed slave see this case in relation to his own experience?  Freeman is a great actor but he seems to be missing some key scenes here and it leaves his character without purpose.

Amistad is a movie waiting to make a big emotional point, but I always come away feeling rather hollow.  Of course the cause of slavery is important to the larger tapestry of American history but this movie seems to be more about ideals then about the urgency of abolition.  I think Spielberg dealt much better with the same subject in Lincoln 15 years later with the attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.  That film had the power that this film does not.  Amistad is a good film, not a great one.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

LostWorld

After Schindler’s List in 1993, Steven Spielberg got busy promoting the film, raising awareness about The Holocaust and becoming the founder of The Shoah Project.  It was, everyone would agree, a more noble effort then jumping head-first into a new entertainment film, but when he came back four years later there seemed to be some sense of passion that was missing from his work.

In 1997, he returned to directing with two films that one might think were attempts to repeat his brilliant success from four years earlier.  As he had before, he made a big-budget summer movie – a sequel to Jurassic Park – and then followed it with a serious and sober epic about inhuman mistreatment of African slaves in the mid-19th century.  Neither film could match the awesome experience of either Jurassic Park or Schindler’s List, but then again what film could?

The Lost World: Jurassic Park never feels like a movie that anyone really wanted to make.  It feels like a
pressure-sequel, a movie put into production by pressure from the studio in the same way that Michael Critchton was pressured to write the book.  With that, the passion is gone and so is the sense of wonder.

I remember seeing “The Lost World” on opening weekend back in 1997, and I remember that it left me cold. What I remember is that when I left the theater I didn’t remember much about it at all, and I think I commented that this would not go down as one of Spielberg’s more memorable pictures. I was right and in revisiting that movie I think I have a better idea why.

The dinosaurs in The Lost World are supporting players in their own movie. They seem to be background filler in a movie where the foreground is filled with a lot of heavy machinery; cages, guns, gadgets, cars, trucks, boats. It’s like a movie brought to you by Hot Wheels. And the characters aren’t that interesting either, there’s a lot of machismo given to a mostly male cast that looks and sounds basically interchangeable. Jeff Goldblum, whom I consider a treasure, is relegated to the role of “I told you so,” which is a note that he plays over and over.  Julianne Moore plays his girlfriend, a paleontologist but she’s given little if anything to do.

The story could work. I like the idea of a Jurassic Park safari hunt. We get a little of that but most of the movie is shot at night in the dark with a lot of negligible characters running around in the woods and in the grass.  Most of the scenes take place in the dark and the death scene all seem to deal with characters that we don’t care anything about.

But the biggest problem is that there is the movie has no sense of wonder. There’s no sense of loving these creatures. There’s no scene here that matches or equals the majesty of the first time we saw the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.  Everything here is cold and efficient and kind of mean-spirited. Not to mention forgettable. Seeing it again last night I realized that while the movie opens well, it quickly degenerates into a retread of the earlier movie. “The Lost World” feels like a movie that Spielberg was contracted to make. Like Crystal Skull, it never feels like a movie that he wanted to make. It’s like his mind was somewhere else.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Schindler’s List (1993)

SchindlersList

I had never seen anything like it before       . . .  23 years later, I still haven’t.

Schindler’s List is an uncommonly moving experience that in many ways the kind of experience that illicit all the reasons that I go to the movies.  For Spielberg, it was a massive turning point, proving that  the cinema’s biggest little kid had grown into a great film artist.  Schindler’s List was like nothing that he had ever directed before and it was like nothing we had ever seen before. It moved me greatly as it did millions.

Watching Schindler’s List is like watching a train wreck; you can’t stand to watch yet you cannot bear to look away. Shot in black and white it has a kind of documentary quality, peering with unblinking eyes into one of the most horrific events in modern human history – how the Nazis could take lives without rhyme or reason and then how they were robbed of a small number of their victims through one man’s kindness.

We meet that man Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) an alcoholic, a womanizer who joined the Nazi party because it was an easy way to fund his businesses through money given to him by throwing parties for high officials. He’s a swindler of the highest order, a virtuoso flim flam man who could bedazzled and charm anyone into doing almost anything.  In a virtuoso opening scene we see a magician at work.  He can walk into a party thrown for and by top Nazi officials, parties in which he is a total stranger.  Using money as a form of greeting, he buys a bottle of campaign for an officer’s table.  Soon the officer is joining him along with a volley of women.  The night goes on and more and more people eventually join Schindler.  He orders the best drinks, the best food, entertains with the best jokes, sings the best songs.  Soon an officer is asking the waiter, “Who is that man?”  The waiter speaks as if the answer is obvious, “Why, that’s Oskar Schindler!”

That scene, in many ways plays like the computer simulation in Titanic.  It’s a masterstroke because we see how Schindler operates and it gives us a mental template for how things will play out for the rest of the film.  From that moment, we understand what a great swindler he is and how he operates the game.  He’s a con artist, able to speak and to buy his way in and out of everything.  It prepares us for what comes later.

There is some question about when and why Schindler’s heart begins the shift.  When the Nazis begin arounding up and murdering Jews in the Krakow ghetto, Schindler’s face might indicate that something has turned over in his soul, but the movie isn’t blunt about it.  Much of his motivation (verbally) lies in keeping his factory operating.  He needs cheap labor and the enslaved Jews to keep things running.  Is he saving them or is running a business.  At first, it’s hard to tell.

He hires a soft-spoken Jew, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to be his accountant.  After many Jews have been killed for no reason, Schindler and Stern begin drawing up a list of workers for his factory – workers that Stern slowly begins to realize are being bought one by one.  “You’re not buying them?” Stern says.  And then begins an exhilarating moment when the two being drawing up this list.  For a handful of Jews this is their ark, their port in the storm.  Never has the click of a typewriter in a movie been used to better effect because we know that every click means life, means a chance, means generations yet unborn.  Holding the list in his arms like a sacred text Stern can hardly speak “This list… is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”

Many have spoken about this as a new kind of storytelling for Spielberg.  Thematically it’s is exactly the same as his other works. Schindler’s struggle to save the Jews were really no different than the men battling the shark in Jaws, Indiana Jones tackling the Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Elliot trying to save E.T. from the government officials, the scientists battling the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, all of these had external struggles but nothing ever came as close to the bone. He used his skill for stories about struggles in fantasy films and put it to use with one of the darkest chapters of human history. He always said that he waited until he grew up as a person and as a filmmaker before he was ready to make the film.

That’s best because for a director known for his content, Schindler’s List is a film in which he shows great restraint. He shows us the murders and the horror that befell the Jews but he also knows that there is only so much that we can take so he shows us just enough (most of the murders take place in long or medium distance shots). He also calls the murders before they happen.  There is a beat, a notation to the audience that something is about to happen, then comes the murder.  We have a second to process things so it doesn’t play as cinematic.

The film is shot the film in black and white partly because the murders in a color would be too much to bear. Most amazingly each murder happens differently, all of the actors die in a different fashion. Spielberg wants us to witness the atrocities in all their horror and he also wants us to understand that each was an individual, a person. At one point a woman is shot for speaking out and as the Nazis grab her she is pulled up to the camera so we can look in her eyes and realize that a worthwhile life is about to end.

Spielberg also realizes that the scope of the holocaust is too vast for one movie so he slims it down to a smaller story. He was wise, with all those denying that it ever happened, to base the film on a true story, a single act of selfless heroism. But Oskar Schindler is not a conventional hero, he realizes that saving these people is an act of cunning in which one false move could mean instant death. He and Stern work in code and in corners to insure that what they are doing is kept out of the spotlight. They realize that it would be suicide to take on the Nazi’s head on.

One of Schindler’s biggest obstacles is Amon Geoth (Ralph Fiennes) the commandant of the camp holding Schindler’s workers. If Schindler used the Nazi Party as a cover for his business interests Geoth uses the party as a cover for his psychopathic tendencies. He murders Jews at will, using a scope to shoot them from the balcony of his villa. He uses a minor incident involving a stolen chicken to shoot a line of Jewish men dead. He forgives a young boy who failed to clean his bathtub properly and lets him leave only to shoot him dead a moment later. Schindler’s advantage over Geoth is his tunnel vision and the fact that he is almost always drunk, a sober man with his attention at full would begin to spot.

Geoth’s pleasure comes from shooting and killing at random which robs the Jews of any hope that the promised slogan “Arbiet Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”) may have provided. Many critics cited the character of Geoth as a mistake, that putting a psychotic in the film robs us of a real sense of the Nazi functionaries, of how a man could dehumanize the Jews on the basis of his orders. I don’t think it’s a weakness, I think that understanding the psychotic nature of murdering the Jews helps us understand how the Nazi era began in the first place. Geoth can’t see the Jews as human beings and he stands for the maniacal tendencies of Hitler, Georring, Hess, Himmler who certainly weren’t functionaries. Geoth is a one-dimensional person but it’s that kind of narrow thinking that breed genocide in the first place. Schindler on the other hand represents those who recognize this as insanity, his character is so complex that we don’t get a sense of the man or his reasons, we only get a sense that this is a complex man driven to do a very good thing (think the opposite with Hitler and you understand).

What comes of Schindler’s deeds is a reward, one of the most emotional moments in cinema history.  As the war draws to a close, the Jews are liberated.  They walk out of the concentration camps toward the horizon toward the future.  It’s an uncertain future, but it’s a future none-the-less.

THEN the moment that takes my breath away and brings me to tears.  We see the horizon filled with people, the scene turns from black and white to color and we see those people in modern dress.  These are no longer actors, these are the real Jews that Schindler saved, with their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, affirming Stern’s assertion that “There will be generations.”  The real people, accompanied by the actors who played them, file past Schindler’s headstone at the Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery in Jerusalem to pay their grateful respects.  Then the camera pulls back and we see how long the line is how long the line is!  Generations have come to pay their respects, generations that he allowed to happen by robbing the Nazi of a handful of their victims.

I’ve never seen an ending like this, not ever.  Every other biographical film ends with cold informational text that tells us what happened to the real people, but for Spielberg it isn’t enough, not by a long shot.  He has gathered these generations to tell their story, the story of their tragedy, the story of their salvation, the story of the list because the list is life.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Jurassic Park (1993)

JurassicPark

After the creative and financial success of The Color Purple in 1985, Steven Spielberg’s work slipped into a pattern of mediocrity for the rest of the decade.  His films weren’t terrible, but one had to admit that when compared with what came before, Empire of The Sun, Always and Hook didn’t exactly match up to the enormous originality of Raiders or Jaws or Close Encounters.  Then in 1993, he roared back with a vengeance with two films that would change his career and his life.  In one year he made the most popular film of the year, Jurassic Park and followed it with the best film of the decade (we’ll get to that tomorrow).

The proof of Spielberg’s creative heft when it came to Jurassic Park was his ability to clear out the clutter of convoluted techno-babble from Michael Critchton’s over-stuff book and streamline it down to an adventure fit for the ages.  Much as he had done with Peter Benchley’s Jaws, he removed gaggles of extraneous characters and subplots and refit the main characters to make them far more relatable (John Hammond in the book, you should know, was unbearable).

The result, at heart, is simply a monster movie, but a monster movie put together with loving care.  What was special about Jurassic Park was that it felt new.  This is the movie that announced with thunder that the age of computer-generated visual effects had arrived.  Not only that but the new age of digital sound had arrived as well.  I remember going to the theater and receiving, along with my ticket, a little yellow card embossed with the JP logo that told me “You are about to experience ‘Jurassic Park’ in digital sound.”  It was no gimmick.  The sound was immersive.  Seated in the theater, you heard grass moving in the forward speakers; insects in the left speakers; footsteps in the right speakers; and rain all around.  When a character spoke and walked, it sounded like they were moving around behind you from left to right.  I had never experienced a movie like this before.

Then came the dinosaurs.

What an awesome spectacle Steven Spielberg and his creative team had put on the screen.  What a bold announcement of the new age of digital effects.  Ever the showman, Spielberg decided not to let us see the dinosaurs until we got to see the movie, much as he had with E.T. and Gremlins a decade earlier.  That greatness came from the fact that the dinosaurs seemed so real that you couldn’t see the line between the real and the imaginary.  30 years after its release, I’m still astonished by it.

Not only that, but the adventure itself is paced beautifully.  The movie has action set pieces that are allowed to go on and on and on, building on thing on top of another.  Spielberg’s team were not interested in one thrill, they wanted to give you ten or fifteen.  There are half a dozen scenes in this movie that have gone down in movie history.

I could carp about the characters.  They’re not as sharply drawn as they were in Jaws or Raiders, but I’m so impressed by everything else that it hardly matters.  This is a roller coaster ride, a great one.

And yet, watching it again the other night I approached it with a touch of sadness.  This was Spielberg’s last great entertainment film.  For the next 20 years his greater focus would be on his historical films, serious works about serious issues.  For that, his action pictures would suffer.  They never had the same jolt or sense of greatness as they did before 1994.  It can be hoped that he gets it back.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Hook (1991)

Hook

Before he started making grown-up movies, many saw Steven Spielberg as a living, breathing Peter Pan, a man who never grew up and seemed to be making great movies for the young at heart.  Yet, by the beginning of the 1990s, Spielberg had grown up; he had made pictures for adults; and he got married and had kids of his own.  In that spirit, it is likely that something of the energy of his earlier pictures seemed to have gone out.  By this point he seemed to have passed the point where he could effectively tell the story of Peter Pan.

Hook sounds like one of those ideas that probably seemed interesting in a story conference but seemed less inspiring as it got closer to production.  What would happen if Peter Pan grew up?  That’s heavy material to deal with, and in fact much of Hook is so weighed down by dealing with this problem that it ultimately saps the fun out of the first half of the picture.  My first problem with Hook is that Peter Pan hasn’t just put away childish things, he’s forgotten all of the adventures of his early life as if he has amnesia.  The second problem is that in forgetting his adventures in Neverland, he’s grown up and become a workaholic jerk.

The rest of the movie isn’t much better.  Neverland looks spectacular from the air, but on the ground it looks like overgrown vegetation on a studio backlot.  The Lost Boys are irritating, they look like the ensemble of a Nickelodeon kid’s show.  And I wasn’t too fond of Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell.  In fact, the whole production seems lead-footed.  The pacing is way too slow, and the movie just doesn’t seem all that magical.

The one element that I did like was Captain Hook.  As played by Dustin Hoffman, he seems to be having a grand time.  I love his imperious nature as his first mate Smee (Bob Hoskins) starts the day by introducing him as if he were a rock star.  I loved all the scenes aboard his ship, they had all the spirit that I wish the rest of the movie had.

Those scenes are few and far between.  For the rest of the time I just got bored.  There’s also some fun bits in the third act but we have to wade through so much laborious plot to get Peter back to Neverland and back into his former mind that you have to wonder why the movie didn’t start in Neverland.  Which begs the question: Why didn’t Spielberg just make Peter Pan?  Why weigh this story down with such a grim concept.  I don’t want Peter Pan to grow up.  That’s why we’ve been reading this book for 100 years, it’s about the joy of keeping the grand adventures of our childhood and never growing up.  Hook is a movie that doesn’t seem to know that.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Always (1989)

Always

Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss made no secret of the fact that they were enormous fans of the 1943 romantic adventure A Guy Named Joe, the story of a World War II aviator who dies during a bombing run only to come back as a ghost where he is forced to watch his best girl fall for someone else.  Both the actor and the director had seen the movie more than 20 times and had its dialogue committed to memory.

That story, in and of itself, just sounds like a Spielberg confection and I give him points for trying, but maybe he didn’t do it justice enough.  He transplants the story to modern times and turns the characters into aerial firefighters.  The story is the same.  After promising his girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter) that he is out of the firefighting game, pilot Pete Sandrich (Dreyfuss) goes on one last mission and is killed when he maneuvers a risky dive and his engine catches fire and explodes.  Sometime later, he comes back as a ghost that no one can see where he is forced to watch Dorinda fall in love with another man.

Revisiting the film again the other night, I was struck by how beautiful the romance is.  The relationship between Pete and Dorinda has a great deal of weight and passion – you really feel that these two are in deeply in love.  I was also caught up in the particulars of the job of aerial firefighters, and kind of wanted a little time getting to how and why they do this job.

Yet, both of those things go out the window once Pete comes back as a ghost.  The weight and energy of the earlier scenes seems to drain completely out of the film as it meanders with Dorinda’s romance with a hot-shot newby (Brad Sullivan) and Pete’s buddy Al (John Goodman) attempting to start a flight school to train a new generation.  For the first half hour, I sat there spellbound, then for the next 90s minutes I found myself in a state of indifference.  I really didn’t care about the problems of Dorina’s new love, and I couldn’t care less about whatever Pete’s mission was that was keeping him here on Earth.

I was also a little confused by the presence of Audrey Hepburn as a character named Hap, a supernatural barber whose sole purpose is the explain the plot to Richard Dreyfuss and then disappear without a trace.  This was Hepburn’s final film role, but she seems tragically underused in a role that could have been excised with no repercussions whatsoever.  I wish, in fact, that the whole supernatural plot could have been scrapped.  I would love to have seen a great love story about Pete and Dorinda set against the backdrop of an aerial firefighting school.  Those parts of the movie I found fascinating, the rest should have been laid to rest.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

IndianaJonesandtheLastCrusade

I am of two minds with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and both are battling for space in my brain.  In one corner, the battling critic who roots around for all the flaws.  And in the other corner his opponent, a more benign film fan who admits that this movie is just plain fun.  Let us deal with both, beginning with the positive.

After the dread and darkness of Raiders and then Temple of Doom Spielberg, now a married man with kids of his own decided to reel things in bit.  Last Crusade has a lot of violent moments but the reigns of the violence have been pulled back.  There are gross-out moments, but for the most part this is the kinder, gentler Indiana Jones.  I’ll admit that I’m a little ambivalent about that.

What works best is the new approach.  Every good Spielberg movie works on two levels and this one has a personal story that I found refreshing.  We meet his father, played by Sean Connery, and we see the strained relationship that has given Indy some of his deeper insecurities.  This movie isn’t all about the adventure.  It’s about discovering new things about Indy.  The movie begins with and adventure he had back in 1912 when he was a boy scout.   It takes us back to the turn of the century and introduces us to young Indy when he was just a good-natured boy scout (played in a wonderful performance by River Phoenix) with a nose for adventure and a nasty habit of getting himself into trouble.  When he steals a golden cross from some fortune hunters, we are led on an adventure that helps us understand how he gained his trademarks such as his fear of snakes, his affinity for whips and even the scar on his chin.  We also understand his isolation.  He was the son of a celebrated archaeologist, Henry Jones (Sean Connery) who was happy to leave him to his own devices, and it’s a wound that he carries into adulthood.  The strained relationship between father and son lies at the heart of the movie.  It completes the character of Indiana Jones because we understand his vulnerability.

Which brings me to the negative . . .

The movie has been accused for years of too closely resembling Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s true.  Indy’s mission is to recover a supernatural religious artifact that will allow Hitler and his Nazi thugs to rule the world is a reasonable motivation.  But somehow here it doesn’t seem to have the urgency that it did in the earlier film.  Maybe that’s because the Holy Grail itself doesn’t seem to have the wow factor that The Ark of the Covenant did.  There was a tone to Raiders that gave us the sense that the ark was an object made of death; Spielberg surrounded it at all times with motifs of death – rats, snakes, Nazis.  Here the cup of Christ just isn’t as urgent.  We know what it can do, but it doesn’t seem to have the same punch.

Watching the film again the other night I was forced to deal with the two halves of the movie.  I love the relationship but the outer story feels kind of pedestrian.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t well told.  There are some brilliant set pieces here, like a stop at a German castle the that pair end up setting on fire; and a trip right into the heart of Berlin where Indy comes face to face with der fuhrer himself.  And, of course, I love the ending of the film which questions the value of artifacts over family.

So, here I am, at a loss over which side to choose.  I sat back and enjoyed the movie as I revisited it the other night, but I find my critical waves washing through.  Is Last Crusade a perfect movie?  No.  Is it a fun movie?  You bet.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: Empire of the Sun (1987)

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I have had the hardest time trying to figure out why Empire of the Sun doesn’t work.  I saw the movie when it came out 30 years ago and I hadn’t seen it again until last night.  My reaction remains the same now as it did back then.  It has gorgeous imagery that rolls around in my brain but I am at a loss to understand why the connective tissue of those images doesn’t move me as it should.  All the pieces are here.  All the parts are in place.  All the elements have been pulled together into a glorious production.  There’s a grand epic sweep.  There’s a great story being told.  There are moments of brilliance.  All the great Spielberg trademarks are present – this feels very much like a Spielberg production.  So, when it is all over . . . why don’t I feel anything?  Why does this film leave me cold?

After the experience of making his first “grown-up movie” with The Color Purple there may have been in Spielberg’s heart the burning desire to follow it up.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it is admirable of him to want to grow as an artist and I suppose it came from his desire to finally make a film that delves into his full-boar obsession with The Second World War.  The problem is that he made a film that is difficult to care about.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by English novelist J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun tells a relatively simple story amid complex and difficult circumstances.  It concerns a young English boy named Jamie Graham (played by 12 year-old Christian Bale) who is living with his wealthy parents in the Shanghai International Settlement in China in the midst of World War II.  But the dark clouds are forming and everyone is keenly aware that an attack and subsequent occupation by the Japanese is eminent.  During the rush to escape the country before the enemy attacks, Jamie and his parents are separated and young Jamie finds himself alone in a country mired in too much chaos to care about his needs.

The rest of the movie is his coming-of-age adventure as Jamie first wanders the occupied streets of Shanghai and eventually finds himself prisoner in Suzhou Creek Internment Camp where he develops an uneasy alliance with an American expatriate named Basie (John Malkovich) who treats the kid like an adult, but not exactly as a friend.  He even gives him a new name, christening him “Jim.”

Despite my underwhelmed reaction to the film, I don’t find it a total washout.  It is a great looking production – I felt as if I were in China during World War II and not on some phony soundstage.  I liked the supporting cast including John Malkovich as Basie and Joe Pantiliano as his buddy Frank.  There are also nice performances by Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers and a very young Ben Stiller.

I liked parts of Christian Bale’s performance – this was his second film.  I liked that Jim was allowed to grow up through his experience and I liked that he was also allowed to retain some of his childlike qualities in this inhospitable terrain.  Yet, he has moments that leave me baffled.  For example, he has a near-fatal obsession with military aircraft that, several times, seem to be responsible for nearly getting him killed.  There is a moment that is supposed to be an emotional high when American Air Force P-15 Mustang aircrafts bomb the camp and Jim is too busy cheering the beauty of the planes to notice that he’s only a few feet from an explosion.  It’s a baffling moment that didn’t give me the emotional charge that I think Spielberg was aiming for.  Plus, he has moments that are just aggravating.  I realize that the circumstances of war are affecting his sanity, but I get irritating with his habit of repeating sentences over and over again and doing things out of symbolism instead of practicality.

The problem is that there were far too many moments in Empire of the Sun, in which the movie kept reaching for my heart and coming away empty handed.  The movie rises and swells to great emotional heights but I just couldn’t go with it.  And I’m not sure I understand what I am supposed to feel when the movie is over.  In my mind I kept thinking that this is the story of a kid in the midst of war – shouldn’t the circumstances be uglier and less adventurous?  This is war, but it very often plays like an issue of Boys’ Life.  For a director with such a talent for connecting with his audience, I found this one to be a struggle to get close to.

This wouldn’t be the last time that Spielberg stumbled.  Starting with this film, over the next five years, his films would slip into a pattern of lackluster mediocrity.  Sometimes experimental, sometimes just roused for entertainment, the second half of the 1980s would be a relatively dark time for the most popular director in American history.  He would bounce back though but we had to get through some underwhelming stuff to get there.

 
 

A Study in Spielberg: The Color Purple (1985)

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When examining the cannon of Steven Spielberg’s work, The Color Purple is a little jarring if you are inclined to follow his filmography from beginning to end.  In later years he would call it “my first grown-up movie” and indeed it is a massive departure from what had come before.  This was a man known for fluffy entertainments about sharks, aliens and battering archeologists.  Therefore it is reasonable that most people approached The Color Purple with a sense of trepidation.

I admit that I did so as well.  When I saw the movie in the late 80s I enjoyed it tremendously but I admit that it didn’t have the glowing impact that it did on everyone else.  Seeing it again after 30 years, I’m inclined to think that the critical praise was completely justified.  This is a wonderful movie, a movie about a culture of people that don’t get the chance to tell their story in the movies very often – black women in the early days of 20th century America.  In most cases, this time period might either deal with white people or if it focuses on African-Americans, the central roles are given to the men.  Black women in period films usually take supporting roles or roles of no real significance.

In The Color Purple , black women are the central focus.  The men are there but they are usually abusive buffoons who have no need or respect for their humanity.  The few white characters are the ones who are forced to play roles of little to no significance.  But that’s okay because the story is told from a specific point of view, of three black women whose fury at being treated as property sets this multifaceted story in motion.

At the center, of course is Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut as Celie, a painfully shy young woman who has been abused and mistreated from the moment she came into the world.  Forced to marry Mister (Danny Glover) a man who treats her like garbage; who makes her play servant to his needs and punching bag to his tantrums, the story is a journey of how grows out of that dark place through the strength of three women.

First is Shug (Margaret Avery) a jook joint singer whom Mister has been in love with for years.  She has family problems of her own but her looks have always let her get ahead.  She opens up Celie to believe that she is not all of the terrible things that Mister heaps upon her.

The second is Sophie (Oprah Winfrey, also in her film debut) a head-strong black woman with a fiery personality living at a moment when this could get blacks could be jailed or killed.  Her story is just as sad and heartbreaking as Celie’s.

The last is Celie’s sister Nettie, whom she is separated from because of Mister and never allowed to communicate with.  Under the influence of these women, Celie grows to love herself.  The story takes place from 1909 up through 1943 and we see the flower of a hidden personality, one that has been forced to hide in shame and darkness from the very start.  The movie doesn’t go easy on the abuse, so that when she does finally flower at the end it is a booming revelation.

Spielberg’s great trademarks are all here.  His emotional sweeps could have over-crowded the story, but they feel justified.  The emotional heights fill in the gaps of outward expression that Celie is often forced to hide.  There is much of the same emotional outpouring as in E.T. and for almost the same purpose.  Despite all the abuse and violence that the women are forced to endure, this is one of the most emotionally satisfying movies I’ve ever seen.  This is a movie that shows him growing into a serious filmmaker, one that can use his gifts to tells a grounded story just as well as he could tell fantasy.

Yet, the film industry at the time wasn’t ready to reward Spielberg’s growth.  Perhaps jealous of his success, the movie was punished at that year’s Academy Awards.  It received ten nominations and won nothing.  Plus, in the biggest “screw you” of his career, Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  For Spielberg’s career, it would mark a high point for a very unfortunate reason.  This was the last great film that he would direct for the rest of the decade.  Starting with his next film, Spielberg would spend the next six years mired in mediocre work that didn’t match up to his earlier greatness.