Saving Steven Spielberg

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker of tremendous talent who mostly makes very bad movies. The explanation: He is immature and probably also lazy, and the world has given him no reason to grow up.

Some artists likely have a built-in desire to continue honing their art after the public has told them it is perfect. When the world said to Shakespeare, "Others abide our measure; thou art free," he did not stop criticizing himself. When the world made the same comment to Spielberg, he assumed the statement was true.

Spielberg's immaturity is evident from his work. A great, self-conscious, maturing artist would always make new mistakes. Spielberg keeps making the same ones over and over again. He has an "oh, golly" reflex. He gets serious and sophisticated for minutes at a time, but inevitably something happens which causes him to say, "Oh, golly!" Cue the swelling music, light the scene as if God were about to part the Red Sea, and the audience will also exclaim "Oh, golly!" Another Spielberg moment.

The first time I noticed this was in Empire of the Sun, which is by far his best movie. It is is about a young boy, separated from his parents in China during World War II, who survives on his own, first in the streets, then in an internment camp. Spielberg told this extremely dramatic story with a minimum of frills until a scene near the end. The boy, after escaping, returns to the now abandoned camp. He is eating an orange when a young Japanese soldier with whom he had been friendly pops into the frame and slices the orange with a sword.

Spielberg thus combines a "golly" moment with a manipulation. We are meant to think that the Japanese soldier is trying to kill the boy, but in reality he is protecting him from a wasp on the orange. This is unlikely enough in itself, but Spielberg also shows us a closeup, as the sword bisects the orange: it is bleeding. Golly! A bloody orange in this otherwise extremely realistic story is a false note. One Spielberg appears to be incapable of detecting.

Spielberg's manipulations are also a sign of immaturity. These are creaky old film devices, which he obviously thoroughly enjoyed in his childhood, but which are too out-moded to live. In a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was a tribute to these old adventure films, such manipulations are nothing to be ashamed of; Raiders sends them up. But they have no place in a film like Empire of the Sun, or in Schindler's List.

Two manipulations in particular stood out in the latter film. We see a bookcase fall on a character and are allowed to believe she is dead, until she shows up again later. Even worse, Jews are crowded into a shower in Auschwitz; when the faucet is turned, out comes water, when they are expecting gas. This was a shameful moment, and completely unneccessary in a film that succeeds best when it is telling its story straight.

Schindler also had its share of "gollys": Oskar Schindler's speech to the Jews, about how he should have saved more of them; and the final shot of the Jews walking over the hill into the Promised Land.

Raise your hand if you noticed that the "Give us free" moment in Amistad recapitulated the "phone home" scene from ET. Gee, golly.

Think of a few of the great American films, if they had been made by Spielberg: Raging Bull, in his hands, would have become Rocky. Treasure of the Sierra Madre would have been Raiders. Spielberg's motto could be, "In every story, look for the cheap thrill (and if its not already there, graft it on.)"

Manipulations and gollys prove that Spielberg is not changing as an artist. A stranger to his career who watched Schindler, Saving Private Ryan, and Empire of The Sun would undoubtedly believe that Empire was the latest of the three, not the first. It is a better movie, it has a more sophisticated moral center, and it tells its story with many fewer embarrassing errors.

I wrote some years ago that Schindler was a remake of ET: The Extraterrestrial, earning myself a fair amount of angry email. Spielberg has proved me right by remaking ET at least twice more since, in Amistad and Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg tells the same story over and over again, about rescuing someone from danger: an alien, Jews, escaped slaves, a soldier whose brothers have died.

Now, many artists obsessively rework the same material, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that at the core of Spielberg's vision is a "golly." His stories, even when based on facts, are rescue fantasies; they are not essays or meditations. As I wrote in my review, the message of Schindler was: "The Holocaust has been handled; a hero has arisen." Amistad implied that slavery had been resolved; there was no mention of the Supreme Court's later Dred Scott decision, returning an escaped slave to the South.

There are other perspectives on rescue. The greatest American rescue film ever made is probably John Ford's The Searchers, where we don't know if John Wayne is searching for Natalie Wood in order to save her from the Indians, or kill her. Watch A River Runs Through It (or better, read the book) with an eye out for the scene in which the father comments on the impossibility of helping his son: "It is like that auto shop over to town where they are always out of the part you need." The help offered is never exactly what is needed, or it is not wanted by the recipient. Last year's Georgia was a fine movie about two sisters, one of whom had a drug problem. The entire movie was a dance, about offering and accepting help. I am not saying that the only good movie about rescue would portray its failure. In Ulee's Gold, a skeptical, exhausted man who does not believe in the possibility of redemption nonetheless saves his son and knits his family back together. Each of these movies is far more complex and successful than any Spielberg work.

The problem with rescue fantasies, is that, like any other fantasy, they require an object, not a person. The rescuee is either a stereotype or a symbol, never a human. He is never selfish, ungrateful, or unworthy of rescue; he never has ideas of his own (other than those, like Private Ryan's, which advance the wheels of the story in some other way.)

Saving Private Ryan is a very bad movie; it is the worst "serious" film Spielberg has yet made.

It is a World War II story. We spend most of it watching a squad combing Normandy for Ryan, in the days after the invasion. There is the captain, a former schoolteacher with real leadership qualities, who has earned the profound trust of his men. There is the crusty older adjutant, who nursemaids the captain. There is a kid named Lefty who comes from Brooklyn. A profoundly religious sniper from the heartland, who prays as he is killing people. The intellectual weakling who quotes Emerson, and folds at the crucial moment. The elderly journalist nicknamed Pop who....

Golly! I just faked you out, partly. The kid from Brooklyn isn't "Lefty". Pop isn't in the movie. Go rent Objective Burma and watch the ur-Private Ryan. Spielberg hasn't avoided any of the usual cliches.

Art holds a mirror to life, but much of Spielberg's work simply mirrors earlier movies. This was all right in Raiders, which didn't pretend to do anything else. But his "serious" films, like Ryan, claim to be much more than they are.

The movies which Spielberg is recapitulating here were made during World War II and are, to put it bluntly, propaganda. Their intention was to leave the audience angry at the enemy and ready to fight. Whether or not this is what Spielberg intended, Ryan has the same effect. It would have been a perfect film to show before the Gulf war.

In those old war films, a Nazi or "Jap" rescued or freed will inevitably pull a knife or a gun and kill someone. Spielberg cannot even avoid recycling this old cliche. The squad captures a German machine-gunner and is preparing to execute him in cold blood. The captain, who has watched his men shoot down other captured Germans, hesitates after the weak intellectual protests. It is inevitable that in the film's climactic shoot-out, the freed German turns up again and kills several members of the squad.

The killing of prisoners may be realistic (a small squad moving rapidly through a war zone would probably not take a prisoner with them) but it also results in the movie having no moral center. If the movie is intended to be about the terrible things we must do during war, Spielberg never makes this clear. The morality here is so muddled that it is also possible that Spielberg thinks that the only good German is a dead one.

When we finally meet Ryan, he is naturally a cipher as well as a symbol: a grab-bag of unrelated attitudes, he displays heroism, nostalgia, idiocy and even self-doubt. While a fully realized character could have all these qualities, the artist describing him would also portray the glue that holds them together. Ryan instead is a doll with a pull-string. The captain wants to take him home before the climactic battle occurs. Pull the string and he displays heroism in refusing to leave. The captain encourages him to remember his dead brothers; pull the string and he describes the last time they were together. The captain, dying, tells him "Earn this"; flash forward fifty years and we see the elderly Ryan expressing self-doubt.

Ryan's anecdote about his brothers involves the consensual gang bang of the town's ugliest girl; she is knocked unconscious when the brothers start to brawl. Are we meant to conclude he and his brothers are thugs? Spielberg, speaking from his moral blind spot, seems to think this is a charming story.

In the first twenty minutes of the movie, we believe we are seeing a masterpiece because of the technical virtuosity with which Spielberg shows the attack on the beaches at Normandy. Infantry in full kit drown in ten feet of water. A man picks up his severed hand and runs with it. Another, after a bullet bounces harmlessly off his helmet, takes the helmet off to look at it and is struck by the next bullet in the forehead. The camera is hand-held; the film is grainy; some scenes are silent, as a deafened or reflective character watches the carnage.

This is what Spielberg does best; but in the end, he fails to provide a single scene as evocative as the one in The Longest Day where a paratrooper hung from a church steeple, watching his friends falling into murderous machine gun fire, burning buildings and even down a well.

For some films, God is in the details. Ulee's Gold is an example, with its extended scenes of bee-keeping. For Ryan, it is the devil who inhabits the details: all this information is useless if it doesn't stand for something. In Empire of the Sun, Spielberg showed his juvenile protagonist standing rapt on a rooftop, as Allied planes flew a bombing mission against the Japanese base next to the camp. He called out the name of every plane as it passed: "B-52, queen of the skies!" That child apparently represented Spielberg himself. In Ryan, he is obviously proud to be able to tell us what a "sticky bomb" is, or identify a "P-51 tank killer." But in a film with no center, the details eventually become mere data, not information: they do not inform.

What does Steven Spielberg really stand for? He is best when telling morally unambiguous stories; the heroes and villains are not hard to tell apart in Schindler or Amistad. In Empire of the Sun, his best movie, he acknowledges that sometimes the heroes and villains are hard to distinguish; the boy tells an older mentor, who is a petty thief: "You taught me that people will do anything for a potato." Ryan doesn't seem to take any perspective whatever. Is killing prisoners wrong? Regrettable but necessary? A good idea? Spielberg doesn't seem to know. Is Ryan a hero or a jerk? He doesn't seem sure of that either.

The most awkward touch of the movie is the present-day scene which is used as a framing device. An elderly man is visiting a U.S. military cemetery in Normandy with his family. He becomes emotional, but his wife, children and grandchildren hang back; even when he cries, no-one touches him. He asks his wife if he has lived a good life and she says, "You have," but so curtly and undemonstratively that we don't believe her. Yet we have no evidence to the contrary. In trying to choreograph a human moment, Spielberg becomes the most inept of tyro directors.

Procedurally, the framing device is a cheap trick. We meet the elderly man, then the scene dissolves to the face of Captain Miller, just before the Normandy invasion. At the end, we find out the old fellow is not Miller at all, but Ryan. This seems to me to belong pretty firmly in the category of things you just shouldn't do without a really good reason---which Spielberg doesn't have. "Others abide our measure, thou art free"---In his mind, this may translate as, "Fake us out again, by golly!"

Spielberg the child loves to play with toys, and here he gets to handle some pretty good ones: tanks, planes, amphibious landing vehicles, gliders and jeeps. From this perspective, Ryan also proves the adage, that the less money the director had, the more movie he makes. Too bad that with all those expensive toys, what we get is a Toy Story, nothing more.