Ultimate Guide To Steven Spielberg And His Directing Techniques



Ask anybody with a passing interest in movies who they think of when they hear the word “director”, and 9 times out of ten, you’ll get the same name:  Steven Spielberg.  The man is undoubtedly the most successful director of our time, perhaps of all time.

He single-handedly invented the blockbuster with 1975’s JAWS, but he’s also responsible for some of the most viscerally powerful “serious” films ever made: SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  He’s one of the biggest personalities in entertainment, recognized the world over with several entries in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time.

His brand has bled over into new media like videogames and television and his influence can be felt in the ambition of every single up-and-coming director.  Simply put, Steven Spielberg IS movies.

There’s a growing pool of cinema enthusiasts who are quick to discredit Spielberg as a studio hack or a peddler of maudlin entertainment.  I’ve certainly been guilty of downplaying his accomplishments on occasion, which is a hard feeling for me to grapple with since much of his work has directly inspired me to pursue film as my life’s work.

No matter your stance on the man, you have to respect his contribution to the art form, as it has indelibly shaped the very fabric of the entertainment industry.  The earliest film I can remember seeing was a Spielberg film.

It was E.T: THE EXTRATERRESTIAL (1982).  I could have only been three or four years old at the time, and I remember it well because it was during a tumultuous period in my brand-spanking-new life.  My younger brother had just been born, and due to our growing family, my parents moved us out of the home in the working-class southeast Portland neighborhood in which I was born.

As my architect father was designing and building the house that I would eventually spend the bulk of my childhood in, we lived in a small apartment out in the suburbs, with a large, vacant field serving as a backyard.  One day my mother sat me down in front of our TV and popped in a VHS cassette of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL while she prepared dinner.

I don’t know why I connected with it at such an early age—perhaps the film’s suburban setting subconsciously connected with my own alienation that stemmed from my new, similarly-suburban surroundings.  By the end of the film, I was a sobbing mess.  Just soggy as all hell, blubbering as the credits rolled.

My mother leaned out from the kitchen to ask what was wrong.  I remember my reply very distinctly, delivered between wet gasps of air as my little frame shook: “It’s just SO SAD!!!”.

Most people don’t really begin to start forming concrete memories until about four or five.  And indeed, this early period of my life I can only remember in brief snippets, like a hazy half-forgotten dream (oddly enough, I can still remember some very vivid dreams from that time).

But there was something about this movie that just cut right to the core of my little heart, searing itself into my permanent memory before I could really begin to process what I was even watching.  It’s a great illustration of cinema’s profound emotional power in the hands of a capable filmmaker.

Like laughter or music, cinema is a global language in its own right, transcending borders and cultures and connecting us all to the greater human experience.  Spielberg is an aspirational figure for many wannabe filmmakers because he’s proof positive that anyone with talent and passion could go on to become the biggest filmmaker of all time.

Many of these filmmakers, myself included, will find parallels between Spielberg’s development and their own—to a point.  In fact, the parallels stop right around the internship phase, unless you too got signed to a television-directing contract after showing your short film to an executive at Universal. My point is that Spielberg didn’t have the luxury of connections to get him in the door.  What got him there was the singular desire and drive to make movies.


Spielberg was born in 1946, in Cincinnati, OH to a concert pianist mother and electrical engineer father.  He moved around a lot as a kid, spending good chunks of his childhood in New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona.  The Spielbergs came from an Orthodox Jewish heritage, which Spielberg would grapple and explore with in his films later in life.

As a child, he initially found himself embarrassed by, and at odds with, his family’s faith.  As you can imagine, Orthodox Jews were probably rare in midcentury Arizona, so he was self-conscious about its strange perception to his WASP-y set of friends.

Despite his exotic heritage (to Arizonians, at least), Spielberg grew up like any other prototypical suburban American boy in the mid-twentieth century.  He was quite active in the Boy Scouts, and as fate would have it, it was his stint in the Scouts that would lead to the making of his very first film.

The twelve year-old Spielberg found himself with a photography merit badge to complete, but his father’s still camera was broken.  Instead, he got permission to make a movie with his father’s working motion picture camera.  He conceived and shot a short western, called THE LAST GUNFIGHT (1958).  And just like that, Spielberg was bit by the bug.  Hard.

I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years making movies with my neighborhood friends, so it’s reassuring to see that Spielberg did the same thing when he was young.  Even at such an early age, his aptitude for composition, pacing, and grandeur is immediately apparent.

It’s interesting that the subject matter of his early amateur work deals with the same themes as his professional oeuvre.  Amongst his movies in this time period, he shows a preoccupation with alien encounters and World War 2, no doubt inspired by the stories his father would tell him after returning from the war.

He’d later realize a lot of these themes again on a professional level, such as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Looking at the whole of his filmography, one notes that a substantial percentage of his work takes place in the World War 2 era.

It’s clear that the conflict and the resulting cultural shifts profoundly shaped him, giving him an appreciation for history and dramatic stakes.  His 1961 short, FIGHTER SQUAD, would be the first time Spielberg ever tackled the subject of World War 2.

Even in his teen years, Spielberg accomplished big production values with inspired resourcefulness.  In filming a story about WW2 fighter pilots, he used his father’s access to military equipment to achieve an unbelievable degree of authenticity.

He even went so far as to shoot in the cockpits of grounded fighter planes, which he shot using 8mm black-and-white film seamlessly intercut with stock footage of aerial dogfights.  I did something similar in one of my own early shorts, whereby I cut in the climactic explosion shot from Terence Young’s DR. NO (1962) when I needed a big explosion to happen in my story.

There’s a tactile joy and magic to editing when you first discover it, and the purity of youth makes for some charming resourcefulness.  It was this very resourcefulness that would propel Spielberg to unparalleled heights throughout his career.

Also in 1961, Spielberg filmed the short ESCAPE TO NOWHERE, inspired by a World War 2 battle that occurred in East Africa.  Spielberg shot it on 8mm color film with his friends and siblings in the dusty Arizona chaparral that was his neighborhood’s backyard.

Originally running 40 minutes long, there’s only a 2 & ½ minute excerpt that exists for public eyes.  The excerpt depicts a heated battle, with no real coherent sense of geography or who’s who.

Due to the limitations of childhood, Spielberg’s actors are all dressed the same—army pants and helmets, and white t-shirts—and probably all are using the same handful of rifles.  Young boys frequently play war in their backyards, filling in the majority of the battle with their imaginations.

ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is just like playing war as a kid, only fully realized.  There’s a palpable homemade, amateur element to the film, understandably due to Spielberg’s resources at the time, but he makes up for it in sheer zeal and energy.

However, even at age 13, it’s striking to see his craftiness with homegrown special effects (stomping on shovels to kick up dust in simulated landmine explosions) and his imaginative approach to composition and camera movements—one handheld tracking shot is clearly intended to emulate a dolly, etc.  It’s unclear whether the soundtrack on the excerpt—Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries” laid on top of a booming sound effects mix—accompanied the original film or was the work of whoever uploaded it to Youtube.

If it’s original, it shows Spielberg’s innate sense of spectacle and understanding of sound’s crucial role in film.  It also predates his filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous use of it in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) by nearly twenty years.

Regardless, ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is a captivating and chaotic look at Spielberg’s fascination with World War 2 and how it shaped his approach to one of his finest films, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

Spielberg’s success as a filmmaker can’t be attributed to talent alone.  He’s also proved himself as a cunning businessman and studio head.  The long, (somewhat) healthy life of his own Dreamworks Studios is a testament to his grasp on the business side of filmmaking.

The origins of this aspect of his career can be traced back to his very first amateur feature film: 1964’s FIRELIGHT.  In shooting a story about alien UFO’s terrorizing a small town (a forerunner to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), the 18-year old Spielberg set about making his first serious-minded film.

By this point, he knew that filmmaking was what he wanted to pursue as his career, and he was eager to get started on it.  Shooting again with friends and family in Arizona, Spielberg put in $600 of his own money, emerging with a 150 minute long 8mm sci-fi epic.

FIRELIGHT became his first work viewed by a paying audience when he booked a screening at the Phoenix Little Theatre and charged 75 cents a seat.  The budding entrepreneur turned a profit of only one dollar, but the fact remains that he had nonetheless turned a profit.  It was a formative night in what would become an exceptional career.

tumblr_inline_mpqo5haxih1qafcizUnfortunately, only a few minutes of FIRELIGHT are available for public view, and they seem to be random excerpts taken throughout the film.  Again, however, these excerpts show a young Spielberg already in control of his craft, with his now-signature style beginning to find its footing.

The excerpts depict a dark film, with high-key lighting giving an unworldly glow to the proceedings.  A variety of suburban, Americana character archetypes—the high school couple on a date in dad’s pickup truck, the young child playing in the yard, etc.—look up in awe as a red flare of light (standing in for the UFO) slowly jerks across the screen.

The sound design reflects the grand cinematic ambitions Spielberg has for the story, even if his limited visual resources can’t quite pull it off.  It’s a curious prelude to his further exploration of alien life forms in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).

tumblr_inline_mpqo5yq1ye1qafcizDuring this early amateur period, Spielberg made another short, the unfinished SLIPSTREAM (1967).  Like THE LAST GUNFIGHT before it, it is unavailable for public viewing so I can’t consider it in the context of Spielberg’s development.  It’s unclear to why the film was unfinished, but it probably owes to the fact that the young Spielberg was embarking on college, and the significant life changes it brought likely derailed the project.

While Spielberg’s amateur work is scarce, the scraps available to us give intimate insight into the mind of an auteur who would go on to help make cinema what it is today.  By starting out in childhood, Spielberg got a head start over his contemporaries.

He had already been making movies for ten years by the time he received attention for his 1968 short AMBLIN’.  Thusly, when Hollywood came knocking, Spielberg was ready.

AMBLIN (1968)

When I first decided that I wanted to make films for a living (which was at the tender young age of eleven), I immediately began to dream about one day moving to Los Angeles to pursue that career.  I knew that I’d have to go to film school, and had heard that the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California was the best in the country.

 Naturally, that meant that I would go there.  For the next seven years, all my filmmaking efforts, as well as my school performance, were aimed towards the singular goal of getting into USC.  Of course, you can imagine my crushing disappointment when that rejection letter came in the mail one sunny spring day.  As fate would have it, I was destined for a detour in Boston to study film at Emerson College before moving to the balmy climes of southern California.

It’s impossible to tell whether a USC education would have had a different impact on my still-budding career, but funnily enough, next year I’ll be marrying a Trojan, so in a way I still get to have my cake and eat it too.  I say all this because in those dark days following the USC rejection, I had one bright, shining beacon of hope to guide me onward: the knowledge that director Steven Spielberg, inarguably the most successful filmmaker of all time, had been rejected from USC too (twice!).

By virtue of his association with high-profile USC alumni like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, many people simply assume that Spielberg had gone there as well.  Instead, he attended California State University at Long Beach and dropped out altogether after his sophomore year (he later finished his degree in 2002).  I was reassured in the notion that, if he could accomplish all that he has without the aid of a USC education or family connections to the industry, then surely so could I.

Of course, Spielberg experienced his own trials and tribulations to get where he is today.  During his late teens and early twenties, Spielberg was desperate to break into the movie business any way he could.

Rather famously, he took a tour of the Universal lot and ditched the tram halfway through, wandering around for hours and making friends with various people who then allowed him to sneak back onto the lot whenever he pleased.  This bold move on his part would indirectly lead to him getting an audience with Universal VP of television of production, Sid Sheinberg—a story that I’ll get into a little later.

All this sneaky stuff would be for naught if Spielberg had nothing to show for his own talents.  Obviously, he couldn’t show his amateur home movies (except maybe 1964’s FIRELIGHT) and still be taken seriously.  To that end, he began writing a short script about a young man and woman discovering each other and themselves on a hitchhiking trip to California. Spielberg met an aspiring producer named Denis Hoffman who was looking to fund a film, and they decided to begin work on what would eventually become Spielberg’s first 35mm short: AMBLIN’ (1968)

Presented completely without dialogue for the entire duration of its 25-minute running time, AMBLIN’ is a light-hearted romp through the Joshua tree-dotted landscapes of the Mojave Desert.  Actor Richard Levin plays the unnamed young man, and Pamela McMyler plays his free-spirited female companion.

As they work together to hitch a ride to the coast, the woman coaxes the man into several rites of passage—like smoking pot and having sex in a sleeping bag, to name a few.  All the while, the man carefully guards his guitar case, which only makes the woman more curious to find out what’s inside.

Shooting on a budget of $15,000 with a crew of college kids, Spielberg nevertheless makes the film feel professional and polished.  Together with cinematographer Allen Daviau, Spielberg employs a blown-out aesthetic and sun-bleached color palette.

He resourcefully creates a grand sense of scale by composing his characters as lone figures against the expansive desert landscape (an effect somewhat dampened by the format’s limiting 4:3 aspect ratio).  Spielberg’s camerawork is youthful and energetic to match the tone of story, using dolly shots, rack zooms, and handheld takes that evoke the experimental style of the New Hollywood movement with which Spielberg would later become associated with (a movement that itself was directly influenced by the bold cinematic transgressions of the French New Wave).

Michael Lloyd contributed the film’s score, which plays from end to end in place of dialogue.  Lloyd’s work takes on a boppy, travelling vibe that sounds a lot like the easy-going folk/hippie rock of its day.

The folk-y/western theme song that plays over the opening credits is performed by a band called October Country, which conveniently happened to be one of the acts that producer Hoffman was managing at the time. Spielberg knew he was making a career game-changer, even if his disgruntled, unpaid crew didn’t.

He was so nervous during production that he reportedly puked every day before showing up on set.  Despite the adverse conditions of the shoot, Spielberg came out with a finished film that he could use as a calling card.

This may not seem like that big of an accomplishment in today’s democratic age of filmmaking, where everyone has a short to their credit. But in 1968, the sheer cost of film stock meant that the pool of successful short film directors was pretty thin.

Spielberg had a leg up over the countless mob of LA wannabes simply by virtue of having something to show.  This is where the aforementioned Universal connection comes into play.

After spending a summer getting to know various people on the Universal lot, a copy of AMBLIN’ found its way into the office of television VP Sid Sheinberg.  Sheinberg was so impressed by the film that he signed the young Spielberg to a seven-year TV-directing contract.  With that, the ambitious 22-year-old filmmaker had officially become a paid director.  Achieving his dreams came at a cost, however—Spielberg had to drop out of college and put his education on hold.  Real-world directing would be his film school now.

AMBLIN’ continued playing an influential role in Spielberg’s career by giving him the name for his first big production company, Amblin’ Entertainment.  Amblin’ Entertainment has gone on to become one of the most iconic shingles in cinematic history—every kid who grew up watching movies in the 90’s has that logo (featuring the classic E.T. bicycling against the moon imagery) seared into their memory.

For the film that launched the biggest career in the game, AMBLIN’ has been surprisingly neglected.  Judging by the stream available on Youtube, it hasn’t been officially released since the days of VHS.  The well-worn copy available online has warped the presentation to a far-from-pristine state.

Given the extensive number of film restorations that Universal has been commissioning for its centennial celebration, it strikes me as odd that they wouldn’t preserve the debut work of its most valuable director.  Perhaps Criterion will come to its rescue if it ever decides to give one of its coveted spine numbers to a Spielberg film.

For a film that’s now more than 40 years old, AMBLIN’ comes off as very dated due to its focus on late 60’s youth culture.  Its poor visual presentation doesn’t help either.  However, it is still a fascinating document by the world’s most successful filmmaker at the shaky beginnings of his career.

A far cry from the big-budget blockbuster spectacles that would make his name, AMBLIN’ is a quiet, intimate story with themes of discovery and innocence against the wider world—themes that would come to define Spielberg’s style and chart the course of his career.


American screenwriter and TV producer Rod Serling was a household name in the 1960’s, due to the massive popularity of his show “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”.  This was not only due to the strength and quality of his work, but also due to the fact that he introduced each segment on-screen in his now-signature enigmatic showman’s demeanor.

In 1969, Serling created a second series titled NIGHT GALLERY that would serve as another outlet for his exploration of the weird, the strange, and the macabre.  It was also around this time that Side Sheinberg,

Universal’s VP of Television, signed the young, twenty-three year-old director Steven Spielberg to a television contract after being impressed by his short film, AMBLIN’ (1968).  To his credit, he was wise enough to see both Spielberg and Serling’s new series as complementary to each other, and thus Spielberg found himself with his first paid directing assignment: one of the three segments that would make up a televised anthology movie/pilot.

Spielberg’s segment is entitled “EYES”, and tells the story of a rich, elderly, and vainglorious blind woman who contracts her (very reluctant) doctor to perform an eye transplant surgery that will restore her vision, albeit for only twelve hours.  The eye comes from some sad sack who is desperate to pay off his own debts, unaware that he’s losing his eyesight forever in exchange for a paltry sum that will be gone just as soon as he’s paid.

  The surgery goes off seemingly without a hitch, only for the woman’s new eyes to fail her shortly after exposing them to light.  Subsequently, she is plunged into a dark nightmare of a night that will take away her very sanity.

As Spielberg’s first big directing job, “EYES” naturally marks the first occasion that Spielberg works with big Hollywood talent.  And during that time, it didn’t get much bigger for him than working with Oscar-winning screen legend Joan Crawford, star of such seminal Hollywood classics as MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962).

In one of her last high-profile performances, Crawford looms large on NIGHT GALLERY’s small screen as the blind Mrs. Menlo, who lives on the top floor of her large Park Avenue apartment complex like a Queen lording over her castle.  Being as such that she is the sole tenant in the entire building, however, she has no subjects to rule over besides her trusted doctor.

Crawford’s performance is “old-school Hollywood” big, much like Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950).  By this point in time, the old guard of Hollywood’s Golden Age starlets were just that: old.  A lifetime of excess and indulgence had made them grand old dames, stubborn in their ways and their collaborator choices.

Upon learning that the young hotshot Spielberg would be directing her on his first time at bat, Crawford reportedly called up Sid Sheinberg to demand he be replaced by someone more experienced.  It could’ve ended Spielberg’s career before it even begun. Fortunately for him (and us), Sheinberg talked Crawford down from the ledge and backed his man.

Despite this early hiccup, Crawford and Spielberg got along famously, even so far as keeping in touch for the remainder of her lifetime.

tumblr_inline_mq06daon7y1qafcizTelevision isn’t the most director-friendly medium, in that directors are subject to an aesthetic and tone predetermined by the producer or show runner.   Since Spielberg was helping to launch a new show, he enjoyed much more freedom in shooting his segment.

While he most likely didn’t have a hand in creating NIGHT GALLERY’s recurring moments (the spooky opening titles or Serling’s on-screen segment introduction), Spielberg gives his segment a bold, colorful, and bright look that sets it apart from the other stories.

Working with cinematographers Robert Batcheller and William Margulies, Spielberg opts for a classical approach to match the elegant production design by Howard E. Johnson.  A neutral color palette accentuates bold punches of color, and high-key lighting adds a lurid quality to the 35mm film image.

Camera-work is fairly reserved, employing both dolly shots and locked-off static shots.  Spielberg covers most of the action in well-composed, evocative wide shots, which gives a greater heft to his strategic close-ups.  Despite the sober “establishment” approach, Spielberg was able to incorporate elements from the transgressive, burgeoning French New Wave movement into his coverage.

He uses a well-placed series of jump cuts to add intensity to an already-intense outburst by Crawford, and creates an expressionistic climax by swapping out a traditional set for an inspired blend of sound design and well-placed pools of light that cut through a harsh blackness.  In doing so, Spielberg shows a remarkable aptitude for turning the ordinary into anything but.

The eye-swapping conceits of the story are highly reminiscent of the same conceits that would shape the plot of Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece MINORITY REPORT over thirty years later.  The imagery of gauze bandages wrapped around the eyes is consistent between both works, and the imagery of eyes in a larger sense recurs throughout Spielberg’s filmography, like the iconic T-Rex pupil dilation shot in JURASSIC PARK (1993).

For his first real directing gig, Spielberg’s contribution to NIGHT GALLERY is a curious rarity in the pop cultural wasteland. The series is highly-regarded amongst cult fans, but even then, it’s difficult to find the TV movie that launched prior to Season 1.

To view it, I had to venture into the dark corners of the internet to salvage an old VHS rip with Spanish subtitles. Hardly the sort of preservation and reverence you expect would be given to the first professional work of the biggest director in mainstream American cinema, but these are the times we live in.

EYES is a humble beginning for Spielberg, a project overshadowed by Serling’s then-celebrity and influence.  His natural talent is immediately apparent; one could be forgiven for thinking that he had already been a working television director for several years.

Due to the quality of his segment, Spielberg would be called to work on several other shows (including another episode of NIGHT GALLERY), and his status as a “director to watch” was affirmed.


In 1971, the young television director Steven Spielberg was invited back to the scene of his first major directing gig, ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY, for another crack at bat.  His second episode, titled “MAKE ME LAUGH”, told the story of a failing comedian (Godfrey Cambridge) who would give anything just to make people laugh.

By chance, he runs into a self-described “miracle guru” (Jackie Vernon) who reluctantly grants him his wish after his pleas for caution fall on deaf ears.  Sure enough, the comedian shoots to stardom off of his ability to make guts bust at the slightest of utterances.

But he soon finds that this dream comes at a price—no one can ever take him seriously.  For a comedian, this would be all good and well, but his gift becomes a curse when he loses out on a serious dramatic part on Broadway and, subsequently, the career acclaim and reverence that he truly desires.

There are a few notable performers in the piece, led by Godfrey Cambridge, who excels at appearing sweaty and desperate as his dreams unravel before his very eyes.  Tom Bosley, who previously appeared for Spielberg in his “EYES” NIGHT GALLERY episode, plays the comedian’s mild-mannered agent.

Real-life comedian Jackie Vernon seems an odd choice to play a turban’d mystic/sage, but his goofy cadence brings an unexpected flavor to the proceedings.  And finally, Al Lewis—who’s better known as Grandpa Munster—makes a cameo as a gruff nightclub owner with little patience for the comedian’s failings.

As far as NIGHT GALLERY episodes go, “MAKE ME LAUGH” is probably the most straightforward and non-surreal. Spielberg presents the story in a reserved manner with classical camera moves and non-distracting locked-off shots.

Little of the New Wave flourishes that dotted his camerawork in “EYES” shows up here, but he does utilize the scale-generating power of a crane for his ending shot.  I mention this crane shot mainly because it hints at Spielberg’s own internal ambitions and what was likely his nagging desire to graduate from TV into big-budget feature film making.

Even the most pedestrian of coverage angles, the close-up, possesses a strange kind of subliminal vocation in its composition.  Spielberg was trying very hard to be noticed while simultaneously “coloring inside the lines”.

“MAKE ME LAUGH” doesn’t show much in the way of growth for young Spielberg, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.  These were journeyman years for the director, whereby he cut his teeth over the safety net of a predetermined aesthetic and a support group of producers, supervisors, editors, and other craftsmen.

The urge to get into features was growing stronger, but he was only midway through his television phase when he made “MAKE ME LAUGH”.  I imagine that he felt like he was spinning his wheels, but with each successive television gig, Spielberg was  growing stronger and more confident.  When his day in the sun came, he would be ready.


The year 1971 was a fateful one for director Steven Spielberg.  The young hotshot had already racked up some impressive credits on ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY and MARCUS WELBY, MD in the years prior, but 1971 in particular saw the production of no less than 6 television projects—one of which became his break-out into features.

First up is THE NAME OF THE GAME, a series that was well into its third season when Spielberg came onboard to direct an episode titled “LA 2017”.  The show revolved around the magazine industry and was set in the present day, but “LA 2017” used the “it was all a dream” conceit as an excuse to transport the show’s main character (Gene Barry) into a future version of Los Angeles.

Why they did this, I haven’t the slightest clue.  Anyways, the series appears to be unavailable on DVD, and the only version of the episode that exists online is a short fan-made trailer featuring scenes from the episode.  Going off that, it’s quite apparent how much of a deviation it is from Spielberg’s previous television work.

As his first project with a feature-length running time, Spielberg uses imaginative, slightly kitschy production design to create a dystopian Los Angeles of the future.  Based off the trailer, it seems to be populated by geriatric hippies who perform in underground rock clubs.

This makes a strange kind of sense, given the fact that most of pop culture’s predictions about the future are really just projections of the present times they’re made in.  As the father of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg’s career has understandably been heavily associated with visual effects

“LA 2017” marks the young director’s first professional use of visual effects, as well as his first professional dabble in the sci-fi genre.  Judging by the glimpses given in the trailer, Spielberg’s visual style at this time seems to be coalescing around evocative low-angles and compelling close-ups, with camerawork reminiscent of—and no doubt influenced by—the French New Wave movement that was then-unfolding across the pond.

After the successful reception of “LA 2017”, Spielberg contributed two episodes to the unsuccessful television show THE PSYCHIATRIST.  His episodes, “THE PRIVATE WORLD OF MARTIN DALTON” and “PAR FOR THE COURSE”, were unavailable for viewing, as is the entire series.

Later that year, Spielberg landed a plumb job in directing the series premiere of COLUMBO, a property that had already enjoyed a few successful TV movie incarnations.  Featuring well-known film actor Peter Falk as the titular detective, COLUMBO bucked the trend of most television serials at the time by regularly crafting movie-length episodes.

Each COLUMBO episode was self-contained, further leading to its cinematic nature.  Spielberg’s episode, titled “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, featured a “perfect crime” mystery, wherein Columbo cracks the case of a brilliantly covered-up murder.

Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) is one half of a writing team behind a successful series of murder mystery books, but in reality he is the one that does all of the writing.  His partner, Ken (Jack Cassidy) enjoys all of the benefits of the series’ success without actually contributing anything.

This poses a problem when Jim decides to go solo, which would dry up all of Ken’s income.  Naturally, Ken kills Jim and covers it up using a ruse from one of their stories.  Once the murder is discovered, Columbo gets on the case, immediately setting his sights on Ken as a suspect and unraveling his so-called “perfect plan” quite easily.

Ken was so confident in getting away with murder, he neglected to mind that his meticulous plan was laid right out in the open—inside Jim’s own books—for Columbo to find.  Despite being a series premiere, Spielberg still adheres to the aesthetic established in previous COLUMBO TV movies by going with a naturalistic, high contrast look.

Dolly and crane-based camera movements give the episode a high degree of production value, while Spielberg’s use of a handheld, documentary aesthetic in the crime-scene sequence further points to his fascination with the French New Wave.  One of the great things about watching old TV shows and movies shot in Los Angeles is recognizing certain landmarks and how their surroundings looked at the time of production.

I remember seeing an aerial shot of downtown LA in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT (9170) and being blown away by how non-existent today’s skyline was back then.  Similarly, I recognized the locale of an early scene in “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, which featured a building on Sunset Boulevard that I came to know very well after working inside of it for two years.

However, in COLUMBO this building was still under construction, having only reached the steel frame stage.  It has no real bearing on my analysis of Spielberg’s work here, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Spielberg would go on to direct an episode for the series OWEN MARSHALL: COUNSELOR AT LAWcalled “EULOGY FOR A WIDE RECEIVER”.  This too wasn’t available for viewing at the time of this writing, so “MURDER BY THE BOOK” is the latest example of Spielberg’s episodic work.

However, it is appropriate given the fact that it was his work on COLUMBO that directly resulted in Spielberg being hired for the television film DUEL (1971).  To him, it was just another TV gig, but fate had other plans.

DUEL (1971)

By 1971, the young Steven Spielberg had made significant headway as a television director.  His eye started to wander into theatrical feature territory, but he was uncertain how he’d get there.  Until a better opportunity would arise, the best he could do was approach each TV gig with the same kind of attention to detail that he would lavish on a work of cinema.

Ironically enough, Spielberg’s first foray in theatrical exhibition wasn’t so much a calculated move as it was stumbling headlong into it.  After his successful foray into feature running times with his “MURDER BY THE BOOK” episode of COLUMBO earlier that year, Spielberg’s assistant brought him a short story written by I AM LEGEND author Richard Matheson about a man stalked on a desert highway by a trucker stricken by a serious case of road rage.

The young director was immediately enamored with the simplistic, yet almost Hitchcock-ian story conceit.  Using the rough cut of his COLUMBO episode as proof of his ability, he acquired the rights to the story and set it up at ABC as a Movie of The Week.

Spielberg’s adaptation, DUEL, is ferocious in its simplicity.  A mild-mannered salesman named David Mann (stage and screen veteran Dennis Weaver) is driving through the California desert en route to an unspecified “appointment”.

He encounters a monstrous truck lumbering slowly ahead of him, so he drives around to pass the behemoth.  Unfortunately, this incites a murderous rampage of terror as the truck stalks David’s car across the vast expanse of desert.

Literally driving for his life, David soon realizes the only way to rid himself of the menace is to confront it head-on.  Dennis Weaver gets the majority of screen-time to himself, as his co-star is the faceless hulk of a truck looming ever closer in his rearview mirror.

To this end, Weaver ably holds our attention and interest like one would endeavor to do in a one-man stage show.  His transformation from mild-mannered pushover, to terrified impotent, and finally to cunning fighter is compelling to watch.

The truck itself, however, is just as much a leading character as David is.  It becomes a primal force of nature, belching black smoke into the sky and bearing down in David’s rearview mirror like some vengeful beast.  Spielberg brilliantly never shows the actual truck driver at the helm, thus giving the truck itself a malevolent sentience.

A lot has been written in recent times about “the decline of men”.  In a nutshell, the phenomenon is described as men relinquishing their “traditional” status as heads of households, breadwinners, masters of the universe, etc.  Analysts like to argue that distractions such as video games and pornography have lulled men into a state of submissive complacency, in addition to abdication from parental and social responsibilities.

Now, I personally think a lot of that talk is bullshit, but the greater conversation does have a lot of valid points.  Watching DUEL, I noticed several corollaries that lead me to believe this isn’t a recent conversation at all.

One of the major themes running through DUEL is this concept of emasculation.  David Mann (the last name isn’t coincidental) is initially depicted as something of an ineffectual pushover.  The truck that chases after him is a symbol of a primal masculinity, roaring like hellfire as it mercilessly hunts down its prey.

Those are the obvious signs, but Spielberg cleverly peppers in several other subtle moments that reinforce the theme.  For instance, the film begins with audio from David’s radio: a man calls into a local radio show and expresses his paranoia over his neighbors getting a hold of his tax return and finding out that he has filed his family’s taxes with his wife designated as the head of the household.

Yet another instance finds David entering a roadside diner to gather himself together and eat some lunch, only to find that the trucker that’s been terrorizing him is in there too.  Spielberg blocks the action so that David is sitting alone in the corner of the diner, a section that’s been painted entirely with pink.

The image of a grown man relegated to “the pink corner” is understandably emasculating, made even more so by the curious glances he receives from the line of grizzled truckers eating at the bar. David’s internal monologue, rendered as a breathless voiceover, also reinforces the story’s challenge of his masculinity.

He describes his ordeal as being “suddenly back in the jungle”, with the stakes being reverted to a primal state of life or death. He is the hunted, and he has to become the hunter if he is to survive.

While DUEL was intended for television exhibition (the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is a dead giveaway), Spielberg strives for a grandly cinematic approach in his collaboration with cinematographer Jack A. Marta.  The 35mm film image looks as sun-baked as its desert setting, with saturated orange, red and brown tones burnt into the high-contrast frame.

The camerawork evokes the relentless juggernaut pursuing David by using a restless mix of cranes, rack-zooms, and car-mounted POV shots that speed along the cracked two-lane blacktop.  Since this is the first professional work where Spielberg is truly calling the shots in terms of style, he indulges in a variety of nouvelle vague techniques that make DUEL one of the most visually stylized films he’s ever made.

In creating the film’s score, Spielberg turned to composer Billy Goldenberg, who had scored early television works for the director like ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” (1969) and COLUMBO: “MURDER BY THE BOOK” (1971). Goldenberg creates a driving, discordant score that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock film.

Furthermore, Spielberg uses a variety of bland, generic muzak for the in-radio music.  By using source music that’s devoid of any personality, Spielberg reinforces the tamed, neutered aspect of David’s personality, as well as the film’s theme of masculinity on the wane.

Spielberg once said that he watches DUEL about twice a year so he won’t forget how he made it.  He was only given ten days to shoot—a tall order when you are a relatively inexperienced director and want to shoot everything on location.  He had to fight to shoot the film in the way he wanted.

In those days, television simply wasn’t given the same kind of care and consideration that cinema enjoyed.  Most directors would have shot the majority of DUEL on soundstages using chintzy rear projection techniques, but Spielberg wasn’t like most directors.

He barnstormed through the shoot so fast, that it’s actually something of a miracle that it turned out this good.

tumblr_inline_mqepjmj8zr1qafcizDUEL is consistently rated as one of the best television films ever made.  We all know the stigma that comes with the Movie Of The Week format, so the fact that Spielberg worked so hard to transcend it as a testament to his love for the craft.  When it aired, it scored some of the biggest ratings ever—even by today’s standards.

In Europe, it was released theatrically in cinemas after Spielberg shot a few extra sequences to pad out the running time.  Its association with the cinematic medium has become so entrenched over time that it is commonly thought of as Spielberg’s first feature film.

DUEL comes off as understandably dated now, but the action is still as pulse-pounding as the day it came out.  Its success showed that Spielberg was capable of making a killer film, and that his days in television were numbered.  Indeed, the road ahead was paved with the promise of greater things.


Spielberg’s first television movie, 1971’s DUEL, was a big success—even going so far as to screen theatrically in European cinemas.  Before he could go headlong into features however, there was still the matter of that little seven-year TV contract he signed for Universal.

The very thing that had kickstarted his career now held him back from reaching new heights.  In 1972, Spielberg once again tackled a Movie Of The Week, this time for CBS.  Capitalizing on a surge of fascination with demonic possession and exorcism brought about by the publication of the infamous novel by William Peter Blatty (I’m talking about “The Exorcist” of course), Spielberg and CBS embarked on a little horror tale called SOMETHING EVIL.

SOMETHING EVIL is pretty standard as far as horror films goes.  An idyllic, nuclear American family (and almost always white) moves into their dream home in the country—in this incarnation, rural Pennsylvania.  Soon enough, the wife begins hearing strange sounds at night, and before she knows it, she’s caught in the grip of a horrific demonic possession.

In SOMETHING EVIL’s case, the possessed is the family’s young son, and the mother must fight to save her little boy from Satan himself.  The film stars Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis as Paul and Marjorie Worden, respectively.

McGavin is the father who reluctantly leaves their home in NYC for Dennis’ impulsive plea to buy a country house two hours away.  As he is frequently away on business for his high-powered career in advertising, Marjorie is usually alone in the house with the children.   The performances of SOMETHING EVIL are not really noteworthy.

Uninspired at best.  Dennis’s shrill Mid-Atlantic accent is grating on the ears, and I found her overall character to be really irritating.  The usage of such stock tropes, even in the fledgling days of demonic horror stories, points to writer Robert Clouse’s utter disinterest in crafting a television experience that aspired to anything higher than its station.

SOMETHING EVIL could be considered Spielberg’s first (and only?) dabbling in the horror genre, except it’s really more of a melodrama than an outright scary story.  It doesn’t boast a conventionally moody aesthetic, instead opting for a straightforward, unadorned visual presentation by cinematographer Bill Butler.

Unimaginative, sedate camerawork counters Spielberg’s reputation for inspired compositions and moves, save for a few evocative frames seen from a low angle. Despite the success of DUEL before it, SOMETHING EVIL has never been released publicly, so it’s hard to discern whether it looks any good or not.

The only version of the film that seems to be available is a badly-worn VHS dub loaded onto Youtube, which washes everything out into a smear of green and yellow.  As a horror story, SOMETHING EVIL is completely ineffective, save for one singular thing.

Marjorie is woken up in the middle of the night several times by sounds of a baby crying.  Naturally she gets up to find out what the sound is, and spooky-time commences.  Nothing scary actually happens during these sequences, but that damn sound effect Spielberg uses is unnerving.

When I have kids, if they cry like that at night, they’re on their own.  Nope nope nope.  SOMETHING EVIL does contain a theme that runs throughout Spielberg’s body of work, that of the “absent father”.   This theme is a reflection of Spielberg’s own difficult relationship with his father, and tends to manifest itself most strongly in stories with suburban, familial settings.

In SOMETHING EVIL, it isn’t exactly a broken home, per se, but Paul and Marjorie do have their share of marital troubles—namely, his rational disbelief alienating his over-sensitive wife.  A long commute and a successful career in the city takes him out of the story for long stretches at a time, leaving Marjorie to face the forces of evil alone.

And in the end, it is only a mother’s touch that can save a young boy from possession.  All told, SOMETHING EVIL is probably the most lackluster thing Spielberg had done up to that point (at least from what I’ve seen).  As an exercise in horror, it falls flat on its face—making me wonder if that’s why Spielberg has never really attempted a true horror film in his career.

It’s not terrible, it’s just an uninspired hour of television that is as easily forgotten an hour later.  It’s so generic that the writer couldn’t even be bothered to specify what the “evil” was that he was referring to in the title.  SOMETHING EVIL is…. something bland.

SAVAGE (1973)

1971’s television film DUEL had generated director Steven Spielberg some significant attention from the cinematic world. Longing to answer their call, he frustratingly found himself still bound in place by his TV contract, which was nearing its end.

His impatience to graduate into feature filmmaking showed through in his 1972 TV film SOMETHING EVIL, and 1973 saw the production of the last television work that he was contractually obligated to.  This project was SAVAGE, a feature-length pilot about a muckraking journalist named Paul Savage (Martin Landau) who investigates rumors of a sex scandal concerning a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Despite the lurid subject matter and its high-profile star, SAVAGE ultimately failed to be picked up as a series.  To this day, it remains unreleased on home video, and the only version I could find on the internet was a five-minute cut-down of various scenes.

From what I can piece together, Spielberg attempted to make something slick and entertaining (unlike the indifferent SOMETHING EVIL before it).  The 35mm film image is appropriately polished and lit by SOMETHING EVIL’s cinematographer Bill Butler.

Spielberg employs various low angle compositions and extensive camera moves as his aesthetic by this point had begun coalescing into something distinctly his own.  Gil Melle is credited as the music composer, but I can’t tell if the music on the embedded Youtube video is from SAVAGE itself or was added for the cut-down.

If it’s original, then the light jazzy mood fits the sophisticated, urban sensibility Spielberg is after.  Like that trailer of THE NAME OF THE GAME: “LA 2017” (1971), I can really only comment on what I can see from the cut-down.

Spielberg– already a TV veteran by age 27– seems to be in firm command of his faculties within the medium.  It’s almost like he knows this is his last hurrah in this world (even though it wouldn’t be), and he wants to go out on a strong note.  SAVAGE also finds him taking on the sort of serious, decidedly adult issues for that he would later explore in films like SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and LINCOLN (2012).

SAVAGE itself looks to be entertaining and strong, but its inability to amount to a successful series dooms it to the footnotes of a career that has all but overshadowed it.


The success of 1971’s television film DUEL generated some momentum for director Steven Spielberg’s career, and as soon as his TV contract with Universal expired, he decided it was time to make the jump into feature filmmaking.

In 1974, he partnered with producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to make a fictionalized film about a true event that took place in 1969-era Sugarland, Texas, whereby a young couple broke out of jail and abducted a police officer en route to steal their son back from the foster family he was given to by social services.

This film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and was a striking debut in the feature film realm for the young director. Boasting a box-office friendly star like Goldie Hawn and with the full financial backup of Universal Studios, Spielberg was able to make an earnest, crowd-pleasing take on the then-popular “lovers on the run” genre.

This genre in particular, kickstarted in 1967 by Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), served as an ideal format for many of Spielberg’s directing contemporaries to make their debut—Terrence Malick had BADLANDS in 1973, and Francis Ford Coppola had THE RAIN PEOPLE in 1969, to name a few.

The story begins when Lou Jean (Hawn) smuggles her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the pre-release facility where he’s got just four months left on his prison sentence.  Their intent is to get to Sugarland, Texas and reclaim the infant son that was taken away from them and placed into foster care when they were arrested.

  Their escape is briefly foiled by a young police officer named Slide (Michael Sacks) until Lou Jean steals his gun and takes him hostage.  As they make the policeman drive them to Sugarland himself, the couple incites a media frenzy and a police response of epic proportions.

As the sole recognizable “name” talent, Hawn anchors an eclectic cast of solid performances.  Hawn plays well into type as a gum-smacking, feisty redneck queen who doesn’t take no for an answer.  I’m familiar with Hawn mostly as an older actress, so it was striking to see her so young here, looking very much like her daughter, Kate Hudson.

The rest of the cast is relatively unknown to me, but I was impressed by their performances nonetheless.  Atherton is appropriately jittery as Lou Jean’s anxious husband, Clovis.  As Clovis and Lou Jean’s police hostage, Michael Sacks does a great job of portraying his conflicted emotions as he comes to befriend his captors.

In many ways, he is the film’s protagonist, as he undergoes the biggest transformation by the end of the film, which concludes on a shot of him in a moment of solemn contemplation beside a lake.  And then there’s Ben Johnson as Sacks’ superior, Captain Tanner: a seasoned Texan cop whose sensitivity and expertise is challenged by Lou Jean and Clovis’ unpredictable streak of mayhem.

Spielberg fully embraces the opportunity of making a feature film by hiring the great Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer.  Zsigmond had already shot 1972’s DELIVERANCE for director John Boorman, but the man who would eventually lens Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) was still a young upstart when he collaborated with Spielberg on THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.

Zsigmond is one of the best cinematographers to ever work with the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a personal conclusion that’s evident in Spielberg’s film.  The 35mm film image is high in contrast, with a dusty color palette evocative of the Texas setting.

Spielberg had gained something of a reputation in the TV realm for placing a lot of his focus on camera movements and lens choices (more so than his peers), and his comfort with movement brings a great deal of energy to the film.  He uses cranes, dollys, car-mounted POV shots, and complicated zooms to tell his story, as well as employing his now-signature low angle compositions to powerful effect.

Spielberg’s use of a surreal perspective technique in 1975’s JAWS, accomplished by zooming in while dollying out and first used by Alfred Hitchcock in VERTIGO (1958), is heavily referenced in film circles.  What’s not mentioned, however, is that Spielberg first uses it in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, during the climax where snipers hide inside the foster family’s house and wait for the fugitive couple to approach.

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS also marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and world-renowned composer, John Williams.  The two must have gotten along quite well during production, but I wonder if they had any clue that their collaboration here would result a lifelong friendship and several of the most iconic film scores ever produced.

Williams’ score for THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is considerably less iconic, but still effective in setting Spielberg’s intended tone.  It’s appropriately cinematic, utilizing various folk instruments like harmonicas and guitars to convey the country tone.

There’s even a strange kazoo-like instrument thrown into the mix, which reminds me of SESAME STREET, but seemed to be the sound du jour for this type of picture at the time.  A modest selection of honky tonk source cues fill out the world and place the story inside of a palpable reality.

tumblr_inline_mqif2q6klw1qafcizTHE SUGARLAND EXPRESS fits comfortably within Spielberg’s body of work as one of his more-daring films, ending on a note of ambiguity and uncertainty rather than the cathartic happy endings for which he’s known (and often derided).  It also deals heavily with the concept of a broken family, a theme that runs heavily through Spielberg’s canon.

Here, both parents are to blame for their separation from their son due to their criminal behavior—a stark difference from Spielberg’s other depictions where the father is the main absentee.  It should be noted, though, that Goldie Hawn’s character is the instigator and key proponent of the plot; Atherton is initially reluctant to break out of his pre-release facility to fetch his son, and is more prone to doubt about the success of their mission.

In that sense, the father is not as invested in his family as the mother is, a notion that fits much more easily into Spielberg’s thematic conceits.  Spielberg’s first true feature film was well-received, even going so far as to receive the Best Screenplay at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Most directors don’t enjoy the benefits of making their first film with the backing of a major film studio– a significant perk that made Spielberg’s debut more high-profile than it might have otherwise been.  Interestingly enough, it hasn’t been paid as much attention in recent years by Universal’s home video department.

One would think that their most treasured director’s first feature film would be readily available in the high definition Blu-Ray format, but as of this writing, there are no plans for its release in the foreseeable future.  Time has shown that many films are simply lost forever when they fail to make the jump to subsequent video formats, so we should be concerned that an important work of cinema is at risk of being lost beneath the tidal wave of the massive studio blockbusters that Spielberg helped to create in the first place.

As well as THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was received upon its release, and as much of a career game-changer as it was for the young director, it could not begin to compare to Spielberg’s next film, which would change the face of Hollywood filmmaking forever.

JAWS (1975)

“We’re going to need a bigger boat”.

It was an unscripted line, an off-the-cuff remark during a take that somehow grabbed hold of an entire collective consciousness.  The phrase has become a linguistic shorthand for confrontation with insurmountable odds.

It came from the 1975 film JAWS, a seemingly frivolous B-film about a Great White shark terrorizing a small beachside community.  However, something about the movie tapped into a primal fear, generating an unconscious callback to those terrifying caveman days when we weren’t at the top of the food chain.

The fear generated by the film also leaked out into the real world: people refused to go swimming in the ocean, and beachside resort towns felt the sting of needed tourist dollars going elsewhere.  The 28 year-old director Steven Spielberg couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting himself into when he signed on to JAWS.

He had seen the galley version of the eponymous novel by Peter Benchley in his producers’ office, and was drawn to it because of the thematic similarities to his 1971 TV film, DUEL.  He responded to the struggle between anonymous, unknowable evil and an every-man protagonist, and saw an opportunity in JAWS to do for water what he did for the open road in DUEL.  In the process, however, he’d inadvertently change the face of cinema forever.

JAWS is the kind of movie that most of the world’s population has seen, so we are all familiar with its story.  Amity Island—an idyllic, fictional seaside community—finds itself besieged by a monstrous shark during peak tourist season.

The town’s chief of police, Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with subduing the shark threat while contending with familial troubles and hamstringing, bureaucratic challenges on his authority by a shamelessly negligent mayor.  As the body count climbs and the town’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch, Brody teams up with a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and a skilled fisherman (Quint) to take down the fish themselves out on the open water.

Spielberg and his producers (David Brown and Richard Zanuck) agreed that hiring a cast of well-known faces would ultimately take away the effectiveness of the shark.  To that end, Spielberg sought actors like Roy Scheider to headline his shark tale.

Scheider is a strong everyman type, somewhat like Dennis Weaver’s mild-mannered protagonist in DUEL. Scheider gives a tremendous amount of paternal pathos to the part, and many times comes off as an authority figure not unlike Gregory Peck.  The emotional through-line of JAWS is embodied in him, wherein one must conquer their own doubts and believe in themselves if they are to conquer unstoppable evil.

Robert Shaw plays Quint, a tough, salty bastard of a fisherman straight out of MOBY DICK.  I was blown away to find that this was the same Shaw who terrorized Sean Connery’s James Bond as SPECTRE agent Red Grant in Terence Young’s FROM RUSSIA LOVE (1963).

In that film, he’s so young, fit and Aryan he qualifies as Hitler Youth, but only ten years later in JAWS, he’s just as believable as an old, burnt-out barnacle of a man.  Shaw’s performance as Quint is just as iconic as the titular shark itself, although I will say that his accent is bewilderingly ambiguous.  Is it Irish?  Pirate?  What?

Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper, a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute who’s called in because of his extensive knowledge of sharks.  Dreyfuss is a fine foil to Scheider and Shaw, balancing out their measured machismo with an anxious, nerdy energy and hotheadedness.

JAWS is one of Dreyfuss’ earliest appearances, and one that almost never happened at all—he famously turned down Spielberg upon first approach, only to come crawling back to the production after convincing himself that his perceived “terrible” performance in a prior film would sink his career if it came out and he didn’t have something already lined up.   Given Dreyfuss’ long and fruitful career since then, those concerns obviously never came to pass.

Rounding out Spielberg’s cast is Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody and Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor, Vaughn.   Gary balances out the prevailing machismo tone fairly well, but is ultimately never really given anything substantial to do besides fret and wail about the wellbeing of her husband.

Hamilton does a great job playing the opportunistic mayor archetype, giving the glad-handing character a smarmy, curmudgeon edge.  JAWS finds Spielberg collaborating with Bill Butler, his cinematographer for the television films SOMETHING EVIL (1972) and SAVAGE (1973).

Freed from the boxy constraints of the small screen, Spielberg and Butler take full advantage of the panoramic real estate that the anarmorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio offers.  For a film with such dark subject matter, JAWS looks surprisingly bright and sunny (as befitting a film set in an idyllic beach community).

Spielberg and Butler have cultivated a palette of neutral tones and striking primaries, especially the blue of the ocean/sky, and the red of blood in the water.  In fact, red is used so little throughout the film that, when it bubbles up from the ocean depths, the effect is acutely arresting.

Spielberg makes no attempt to avoid lens flare, which not only gives the film its sun-bleached patina, but also marks the first instance of a visual conceit that would mark many of Spielberg’s works to come, as well as influence the filmmakers who would follow in his footsteps (I’m looking at you, JJ).


Spielberg’s first high-profile film utilizes surprisingly primitive camerawork, mainly because of the realities of location shooting under harsh conditions.  For instance, the majority of the camerawork is handheld, due to having to counterbalance the roll of the ocean during boat-based sequences.

The well-documented technical difficulties with “Bruce” (the life-sized shark animatronic) resulted in a lot of unusable takes, so Spielberg embraced the Alfred Hitchcock approach and created a palpable atmosphere of suspense by showing the shark as little as possible.  In a further nod to Hitchcock, Spielberg reprises the infamous VERTIGO zoom technique during a key beach attack sequence, and in the process created a reference-grade example of the technique that he first used in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.

Spielberg also ratchets up the tension by continually adopting the shark’s POV as it swims towards its prey.  The underwater photography results in some of JAWS’ most enduring and iconic moments, but many film buffs will be able to see the influence of another underwater monster movie: Jack Arnold’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

There’s one sequence in particular that illustrates the fundamental effectiveness of JAWS as well as the young Spielberg’s mastery of the craft.  This is the aforementioned beach attack that occurs early on in the film.  The scene assumes the POV of Chief Brody as he uneasily watches over a crowded beach blissfully unaware of the shark that lurks in its waters.

Spielberg gives us several character threads to follow—a dog, a young boy, an obese woman—and we see them through Brody’s eyes, with the uneasy tension that comes with knowing something everyone else does not.  Spielberg, along with editor Verna Fields, strings together these vignettes into a suspenseful edit that commandeers our eyeballs and rumbles ominously in our gut.

In addition to the already-virtuoso nature of the sequence, Spielberg had initially planned to cover the entire thing in one continuous shot.  While this conceit was highly indicative of traits shared by many a young, overconfident director, Spielberg was experienced enough to realize that there was little value in an approach that wouldn’t justify the considerable resources he’d need to accomplish it.

Instead, he used screen wipes of people walking past the camera as a way to seamlessly hide his cuts and punch-ins. The “Get Out Of The Water” sequence has become one of the most well-known in cinema, with Spielberg channeling the likes of Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein to remind us of the primordial power of montage.

For the most part, Spielberg brings back his core creative team from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS for JAWS.  The film was production designer Joe Alves’ second collaboration with Spielberg, and he would eventually go on to direct JAWS 3-D (1983) himself.

Editor Verna Fields won an Academy Award for her work on JAWS, and ironically, her work would prove to be too good—many critics attributed the film’s greatness to Fields’ touch instead of Spielberg’s.  In somewhat of a dick move designed to assert his talents better on the next project, Spielberg would never again collaborate with Fields.

Spielberg’s collaboration with John Williams on the score continues, this time resulting in the first of many films together to boast a universally recognized theme.  I don’t even have to describe the JAWS theme to you, because you’re playing it in your head right now.

Williams’ Oscar-winning theme has become the archetypical cue for looming danger, imitated and parodied countless times throughout pop culture.  Spielberg initially thought Williams was playing a joke on him when he played him the two-note theme; he didn’t realize that he was the first one to be hearing what is arguably the most iconic film theme of all time.

JAWS was one of the most difficult shoots of Spielberg’s career, owing primarily to his insistence that the film be shot in the choppy waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard.  Between various instances of the shark animatronic malfunctioning, the cast and crew getting seasick, or even the Orca boat set sinking in the ocean, the production was literally a baptism by fire for the young director.

What was initially scheduled to be a 55-day shoot ballooned to 159, and Spielberg feared that he’d never work again because no one had ever fallen that behind on a schedule before.

tumblr_inline_mqq2heqn2v1qafcizDespite the hardships, however, fortune was smiling on Spielberg and his beleaguered crew.  Much like the accidental capturing on film of a gorgeous shooting star (which remains in the final edit), there was a magical quality to JAWS that fundamentally connected with audiences.

When he was 18, Spielberg made a $1 profit from his film FIRELIGHT (1964). Ten years later, he found himself the director of JAWS: the highest-grossing motion picture of all time.  If that’s not encouraging to aspiring filmmakers than I don’t know what it is.

All that success at such an early age has its drawbacks.  JAWS gave Spielberg the freedom to pursue any film he desired, with final cut privileges to boot.  Critical acclaim was pouring in alongside the box office receipts, and Spielberg began to believe that JAWS was not only bound for Oscar glory, but would sweep the whole damn thing.

There exists a fascinating home video of Spielberg, literally drunk off of his own confidence, watching the Oscar nominations come in on live TV—only for him to grow increasingly dejected as reality set in.  Spielberg was so confident that he’d net a Best Director nomination that it’s almost disgusting to watch his hubris try to compensate for the subsequent deflation.

I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be so unenthused about scoring a Best Picture nomination at that age.    JAWS eventually won for Best Editing, Score and Sound, and Spielberg would go on to personal Oscar glory for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but I like to think this early disappointment was a learning experience for the young director, and turned him away from the entitled, bratty persona he was dangerously flirting with.

Ultimately, JAWS got something even better than the Best Picture Oscar when it was inducted into the National Film Registry as an important artifact of American culture by the Library of Congress in 2001.  Even with its massive success, the rippling wake of JAWS’ release proved farther-reaching than anyone thought.

Before JAWS, the summer season was a cinematic dumping ground, a clearinghouse of sorts to make way for the big studio releases in winter.  JAWS proved that summer could be an extremely lucrative season for profits, and thus the summer blockbuster phenomenon was born and an entire way of organizing the release calendar was fundamentally altered.

As the “first” blockbuster, JAWS became the benchmark against which all others were, and still are, measured.  It reigned supreme as the highest grossing film of all time until two years later, when it was unseated by Spielberg’s friend, George Lucas, and his humble little space opera.

JAWS itself would go on to get three sequels, but with each one bringing in exponentially diminishing returns, the original remains the only entry that still enjoys relevancy today.  While the rise of the summer blockbuster has resulted in several decades’ worth of cinematic memories, the coming of JAWS could be likened to letting the Trojan Horse inside the city walls.

JAWS’ Trojan Horse hid a battalion of studio executives, who used the film’ unprecedented success to leverage more power for themselves and ring in the age of high-concept spectacle films at the expense of thoughtful, auteur-oriented cinema.  Spielberg is often regarded as an auteur in the same breath as Kubrick or Fellini (and rightfully so), but he is one of the few auteurs whose work has the unintended effect of displacing auteurs altogether.

When one entity rises, another must fall, and as JAWS gave rise to the modern spectacle film, it did so at great detriment to the adult, auteur-oriented cinema of the 1960’s and 70’s—ironically, the very kind of films that influenced Spielberg’s style in the first place.  JAWS transformed Spielberg from a French New Wave fringe-kid into an establishment director, and it earned him just as many detractors as it did admirers.

All told, the effect of JAWS on Spielberg’s career cannot be understated.  The little boy who had grown up in the Arizona desert with dreams of making movies was now the biggest filmmaker of them all.  In doing so, he had—for better or worse– fundamentally changed Hollywood for decades, if not forever.


After the breakout success of 1975’s JAWS, director Steven Spielberg earned the privilege to pursue any project he desired. Instead of attaching himself to whatever high-profile project was currently circulating around town, he chose to go back to his roots.

He updated the central idea behind his 1964 amateur feature, FIRELIGHT, a story about aliens descending on earth as told from the point of view of regular folks on the ground.  Now with a big studio backing him—in this case, Columbia Pictures—Spielberg wanted to expand the story out on a grand scale.

After having already completed what is essentially the rough draft of the film in his youth, Spielberg’s third professional feature—CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)—is widely considered in several film circles to be his first master work.

Spielberg’s story begins in rural Indiana, when an electrical engineer named Roy sees (and subsequently chases after) a fleet of mysterious, blindingly-bright aircraft zipping through the night sky.  He soon grows obsessed with seeing them again, and is consumed by visions of an ambiguous mountain shape.

 Meanwhile, a woman named Jillian Guiler is having unexplained experiences of her own and seeks out Roy’s assistance after her son is abducted in the middle of the night.  And on the other side of the globe, French scientist Claude Lacombe and his aides have come to the conclusion that a string of recent, mysterious phenomena are alien in nature.

These story threads converge at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where an elaborate facility has been constructed out of the geological formation’s bedrock in a bid to establish contact with the extraterrestrials. And once they do, their understanding of the universe is fundamentally altered.

Richard Dreyfuss, who had first appeared for Spielberg in JAWS previous, plays the protagonist, Roy Neary.  In stark contrast to JAWS’ Hooper, Neary is a clean-cut family man, and something of a brute.  His obsession with his mountainous visions spirals out of control, as does his grasp on his own family, who increasingly fear for his sanity.

  This is easily one of Dreyfuss’ best performances, definitely his strongest one for Spielberg, who has come to use Dreyfuss as something like an avatar when the director decides to inject some of his own psyche into a character.  Famed French New Wave director Francois Truffaut—helmer of the groundbreaking 400 BLOWS (1959)—was Spielberg’s first choice for the scientist Lacombe, and an unconventional one at that.

The nouvelle vague style (that Truffaut helped to invent) greatly influenced a younger Spielberg, who was elated to be working with one of his heroes.  Truffaut plays Lacombe as a sophisticated, urbane academic, and holds his own mightily against Dreyfuss.

The inclusion of the acclaimed director to the cast lent a great deal of prestige to the picture, and even though one might reasonably expect two directors on one production would butt heads, Truffaut was gracious enough to submit himself entirely to Spielberg’s direction.  Class act.

Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perhaps the biggest names involved in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, although they can’t help but be eclipsed by the celebrity of Spielberg himself.  The supporting cast doesn’t fare any better, but they turn in solid, effective performances.

As Roy’s wife, Ronnie, Teri Garr gives a good turn as a beleaguered woman who runs out of patience with her husband.  However, the character itself is underwritten, and she ultimately fails to transcend the trappings of the archetype.

Melinda Dillon, as fellow believer Jillian Guiler, proves a better companion for Roy, but Spielberg forces a romantic angle between the two that feels forced.  Veteran character actors Carl Weathers and Lance Henricksen– albeit before the “veteran” part– appear in brief cameos here, but their presence is more amusing than notable.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND finds Spielberg re-teaming with his director of photography from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, the venerable Vilmos Zsigmond.  The film’s visual language deals predominantly in beams of light, so Zsigmond adopts a high-key approach that accentuates the bright blue lights of the alien craft.

Once again, Spielberg shows little regard for lens flares leaking into his shot, which is suitable for the blinding wonder of the film’s starships.  His embrace of lens flares has become massively influential in modern filmmaking, especially in the sci-fi genre.

One very striking aspect of the film’s cinematography is the numerous panoramic vista shots, complemented by the wider field of view afford by the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Many of them are notable for the sheer number of stars visible in the night sky, which is next to impossible to capture using natural methods.

Instead, these shots were accomplished using the tried-and-true matte painting technique.  While it can’t quite compete with the realism that CGI-based methods have to offer, matte painting has a charm all its own that adds to the timelessness of the story.

Spielberg’s camerawork in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND marks a shift away from the experimental, nouvelle vague techniques that peppered his television and early film work, and towards a formalist, locked-off aesthetic (necessitated by the heavy use of pre-motion-control/in-camera effects shots like the aforementioned matte painting joins, etc.).

Another classic Spielberg technique finds its first concrete use here: the dolly-in “wonder/awe” shot.  By this I mean: a character looks up in wonder/awe at something past the camera as it dollies in on the subject.  This could be seen as an evolution of the low-angle compositions that Spielberg frequently uses, and has become a staple of his spectacle-based work.

For instance, look at the compositions in the big “Devil’s Tower” reveal sequence in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND compared to its counterpart, the brachiosaurus reveal in JURASSIC PARK (1993).  They are essentially the same shot, with a colossal object slowly revealed from the point of view of the subjects as the camera cranes up and the score swells.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND also sees the solidifying of Spielberg’s core team of collaborators.  Joe Alves, production designer for JAWS and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), returns to give CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND a lived-in, every-man reality to the production.

After dumping Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her work on JAWS, Spielberg hired Michael Kahn as his editor.  Much like John Williams, Kahn has since become an integral part of Spielberg’s team, cutting nearly every film the director has made to this day.

Doug Trumbull, who created the groundbreaking effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), lends his expertise to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well, giving a wondrous believability and tangible weight to the UFO sequences that still comes across as realistically as they did over thirty years ago.

John Williams once again returns to Spielberg’s fold, making for their third consecutive collaboration.  Williams crafts a grand, romantic score that gives a sense of wonder to the unfathomable reaches of the cosmos.  In the 1980 Special Edition, he even riffs on this further by playing a new arrangement of “When You Wish Upon A Star” when Dreyfuss’ character enters the starship.

Much like the iconic two-note theme of JAWS, Williams is able to construct an equally-recognizable theme for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND using five notes.  This fragment has a diagetic purpose within the narrative, whereby music is used as a form of communication between the scientists and the aliens.

Because of music’s mathematical properties, it is truly a universal language that can be understood across cultures, so why not use it to communicate with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization?  Regardless, William’s five-note theme instantly became part of pop culture, and has been parodied and referenced countless times since.

Due to Spielberg having complete creative control, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is perhaps one of the most “Spielberg-ian” of his early films.   It introduces many of the hallmarks that would become his aesthetic: the suburban/ Americana setting, WW2-era imagery (the opening sequence with the lost fighter planes), and the sense of childlike wonder and innocence inherent in Spielberg’s awed approach to the story (rather than taking a fearful tack).

There’s even a guy who runs to hide from the aliens in the bathroom, much like the lawyer in JURASSIC PARK hides from the T-Rex.  The most prominent Spielberg-ian conceit is the estranged father trope, which is given focus as one of the main storylines of the film.

As Roy descends deeper into his obsession, he drives his wife and kids to the point of fleeing from him out of neglect.  Once they’re gone and he gets to Devil’s Tower, he proceeds to forget all about them, even going so far as to kiss another woman and leave Earth behind indefinitely to travel with the aliens across the stars.

It’s a peculiar choice on Spielberg’s behalf for the character to indulge in behavior that, while probably justified in his own mind, is inherently misguided in the audience’s perspective.  If anything, it suggests a sympathetic exploration of Spielberg’s own father’s reasons for dissolving their family.

In other words: trying to put himself in his father’s shoes.  Of course, Spielberg made CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND while he was thirty and single, so he had yet to experience a family of his own.  He has admitted in later years that were he to re-make the film now that he’s got seven kids, he would never have Roy get on that ship and abandon his family.

There’s a few other various observations I made while watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  One is the presence of some strangely blatant branding; the conspicuous inclusion of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola imagery seems like a half-baked attempt at product placement.

I remember seeing in a making-of featurette that this was due to an idea whereby the aliens would attempt to establish contact using imagery familiar to the population (hence huge corporate logos), but a coherent follow-through is never applied towards this end.

There’s also the notable presence of a TV playing LOONEY TUNES in the background of a scene, which doesn’t say much on its own but is a subtle foreshadowing of Spielberg’s eventual involvement with Warner Brothers’ 90’s-era re-launch cartoon, TINY TOONS.

A true labor of love, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was released to great financial and critical success. Spielberg’s optimistic approach made for one of the first Hollywood films to portray aliens as benevolent ambassadors, and not destructive invaders.

The financial windfall from the film secured Spielberg’s reputation as a dependable filmmaker of blockbuster spectacles, and even led directly to his first directing nomination at the Academy Awards.  He didn’t win it, but his film did take away two other Oscars: one for Sound Editing and the other for Zsigmond’s striking cinematography.

Like JAWS before it, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2007.   It is widely recognized as the definitive film about UFOs, and has been an inspiration to countless of filmmakers who aspire to follow in Spielberg’s footsteps.

In the years since its release, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has been released in no fewer than three separate cuts.  Spielberg was initially unsatisfied with his first cut, which he had to rush out to meet a December deadline imposed by a financially-struggling Columbia Pictures.

So in 1980, he obtained permission to re-cut the film to his satisfaction, but with the stipulation that he shoot new footage showing the inside of the ship so that the studio would have something to hinge a marketing campaign on.  Spielberg complied, but quickly realized that the interior of the alien craft should have never been shown.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Spielberg was able to go back and create a third cut, dubbed The Director’s Cut, whereby he condensed the best parts of both prior cuts and restored the original ending.  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to what is the definitive, superior cut of the film, but logic would appear to dictate that honor probably would go to The Director’s Cut.

For his third professional feature film (and his first done outside Universal, his home base studio), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shows a full realization of Spielberg’s unique vision and promise.  The freedom he earned from the success of JAWS manifested itself in creative control and final cut privileges on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, arguably making it his first true auteur work.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has endured for over thirty years against a yearly onslaught of new films by continuing to capture our imaginations and cast our eyes up towards the stars.  And as long as we wonder about our place in the heavens, Spielberg’s vision will continue to dazzle us.

1941 (1979)

Director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 feature, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, was the culmination of many years of personal development.  It was a passion project wrought from the skeleton of an amateur feature (his first) that he had shot in his teens: FIRELIGHT (1964).

 Once CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was completed and became another hit for the young director, he found himself with no immediate plans for his next project.  At this same time, a couple of interns named Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were being groomed as Spielberg’s protégés.

They were working on a zany WW2 comedy about the hysteria in America following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which piqued Spielberg’s curiosity enough to attach him to the script as a director.  Spielberg initially saw an opportunity to create a lavish WW2-era musical, but he ultimately chose to pursue the black comedy/slapstick satire approach that his idol Stanley Kubrick had previously employed with DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964).

In the end, however, Spielberg wasn’t Kubrick, and his comedic talents weren’t as well-honed as his dramatic ones. The film as it came to be known, 1941, debuted in 1979 debuted with a lackluster thud at the box-office and was deemed Spielberg’s first high-profile failure.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see why people didn’t exactly cotton to the idea in 1979.  While the story becomes more rewarding towards the end, the picture as a whole feels off-tone and obtuse.  1941 sheds a humorous light on the wave of hysteria and paranoia that swept over America in the days following Pearl Harbor.

A regiment headed by Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd) is arming the coastline while Captain “Wild Bill” Kelso flies like a bat out of hell towards the west coast. Meanwhile, a Japanese sub has surfaced off the coast, their sights set on destroying Hollywood.

  Their geographically-inept soldiers accidentally kidnap a redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood instead, and set about interrogating him to “hilarious” results.  The whole thing culminates in a massive, confused air battle over Hollywood and a standoff in Santa Monica.

If you didn’t know 1941 was a comedy by reading the script, then you’d know once you saw the cast, which is headlined by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE stars John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd, as well as popular comedian John Candy.  The late Belushi gives a great performance as the wild-eyed lunatic Bill Kelso, giving him a kamikaze-like obsession with finding and defeating the Japanese.

Aykroyd makes his film debut in 1941, finding the goofiness inherent in a bumbling salesman persona transposed to the rigid protocol of the military.  As Private Foley, Candy isn’t given a lot to do, but he is nonetheless a welcome, friendly presence.

Spielberg’s supporting cast is equally off-kilter and eccentric.  Treat Williams plays Stretch, a young, handsome corporal with anger problems and entitlement issues.  Veteran horror icon Christopher Lee plays Captain Wolfgang Kleinschmidt– a great casting choice on Spielberg’s part that allows Lee to eschew his Hammer Dracula image and indulge in some Nazi goofery.

A regular of films by Akira Kurosawa (another huge influence on Spielberg), Toshiro Mifune gives one of his very few performances in an English-language film as Commander Mitamora, the gruff Japanese officer leading the charge against Hollywood.  In a quasi-reprisal of his role in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, Slim Pickens serves as a great foil to the would-be Japanese invaders as the redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood.

And apparently Mickey Rourke makes his film debut in 1941 as well, but I never saw him anywhere.  Maybe that was the part of the film I missed when I dozed off on my couch.  Nancy Allen and Lorraine Gary provide a small measure of femininity to balance out the machismo of 1941’s narrative, but for the most part their characters are fairly over-looked and under-developed.

The youthful Nancy Allen is there to fulfill the “ingénue love interest” archetype, while JAWS’ (1975) Lorraine Gary doesn’t fare much better as the “shrill harpy wife” character, even if it’s a marked improvement on her prior performance.  It could’ve been the shitty transfer of the DVD I viewed, but cinematographer William A. Fraker’s work on 1941 is far less impressive than that of Vilmos Zsigmond or even Bill Butler’s work previous (it also might account for why Fraker was fired midway through the film).

The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is consistent within Spielberg’s filmography, but Fraker seems to have muddled the image with a middling contrast and diffused light that blights exterior daylight sequences.   Sweeping crane shots add to an imaginative mix of matte paintings and miniature work, resulting in an epic sense of scale.

Say what you want about Spielberg’s technical proficiency, but the man truly knows how to move a camera.  Overall, he cultivates a hyper-comedic vibe with strangely racist undertones.  I’ll admit that the race humor was appropriate given the story’s midcentury setting, but watching it in 2013, it still felt like it was in poor taste.

Along with editor Michael Kahn, John Williams is one of only two of Spielberg’s regular collaborators to return for 1941. Williams crafts a serviceable score that’s appropriately patriotic to match the heroic, bombastic comedy on display.

Spielberg has gone on record to state that Williams’ march theme for 1941 is one of his personal favorites from the acclaimed musician, but I personally found it nowhere near as iconic as the bulk of their work together.  1941 occupies a strange place within Spielberg’s canon, as it is very self-aware of the fact that it is a Spielberg film.

Obviously, the film deals heavily in WW2 imagery, which Spielberg has trafficked in from his early childhood films all the way to present day.  But this same familiarity is also used for laughs that poke fun at the director himself.  The humor is surprisingly sexual for Spielberg, who has built a bonafide institution around his family-friendly brand of filmmaking.

There’s also the parody of JAWS that opens the film, which replicates the earlier film’s cold open right down to the naked blonde girl and Williams’ ominous two-note theme.  As a native Oregonian, I should also take this opportunity to note that this sequence was shot in Cannon Beach, a very iconic landmark on Oregon’s coastline.

Like I mentioned before, 1941 went down in history as Spielberg’s first big flop.  It wasn’t necessarily a financial failure, but critics were aching for some blood in the water after the one-two strike of JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND—so when they smelled it, they pounced.

By experiencing this kind of disappointment, Spielberg learned a very valuable lesson: even the world’s most successful filmmaker had a ceiling that his talent could not surmount.  The stillbirth of 1941 showed Spielberg what he was best at– and comedy was not one of those things.

To this day, Spielberg has never made another film that could be considered a full-on comedy.  Even the lighthearted, freewheeling nature of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) was counterbalanced by the pathos of serious adult problems.

Every filmmaker will experience a dud at some point in his/her career; it’s inevitable.  1941 isn’t a particularly good film, but it’s not terrible either.  Despite a sluggish opening, the investment in Spielberg’s 150-minute epic farce pays off towards the end with a relatively enjoyable battle sequence over the low-slung buildings of Hollywood and the darkened boardwalks of Santa Monica.

1941 hasn’t been given much respect in the years since its release, and as long the current DVD (with its terrible transfer struck during the format’s early days) remains in print, it’s not likely to gain further appreciation anytime soon.  It may wallow in obscurity and mediocrity, but there are far worse fates awaiting films out there.

Those who do give 1941 the time of day will, at the very least, find a curious look into Spielberg’s career at one of its humbling moments.


Indiana Jones.  Few names have such cultural cache, fewer characters are so instantly iconic.  Indiana Jones and his adventures have tapped into an inherently American psyche, channeling a Theodore Roosevelt-esque masculinity in its attitude towards danger and mystery.

He is a mythic character that was given breath by an inspired Harrison Ford, a performance that defies the ravages of time (even as it acknowledges their inevitability like it does in the fourth installment of the series).  As long as movies are around, there will always be Indiana Jones.

The failure of 1979’s 1941 was a sobering experience for director Steven Spielberg.  Thinking he was untouchable because of JAWS’ (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND’s (1977) mega-success, his indulgent approach to 1941’s making led to its shaming at the box office.

Shaken by his sudden mortality, Spielberg knew that he needed to bring his best to the next project, lest it be his last.  Spielberg turned his attention to an idea he had first heard about from his filmmaking pal, George Lucas.  It was the summer of 1977, and the two were vacationing in Hawaii to escape the hullabaloo over STAR WARS’ record opening.

As they built sandcastles on the beach, Spielberg mentioned his dream of making a James Bond film.  Lucas replied that he had something better:  a callback to the cliffhanger serials of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring a rugged character named Indiana Smith.

Spielberg suggested the Jones surname might be better, and a cinematic institution was subsequently born. Despite Lucas’ STAR WARS clout backing their collaboration, the duo’s idea was rejected by every studio in town until it finally found a home in Paramount.  The result?  1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—one of the biggest, most-cherished films of all time.

tumblr_inline_mr6lq8twqp1qafcizAs depicted in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indiana Jones is a mild-mannered archaeology professor by day, and an adventurous, death-defying tomb raider by night.  He serves as an independent contractor, recovering priceless relics from the bowels of antiquity for museums and academic preservation.

His latest assignment has him tracking down the Ark of the Covenant, the chest built by the Israelites said to contain the remnants of the Ten Commandments.  To accomplish this, Indy will need to team up with his feisty ex-lover and the daughter of his mentor, Marion Ravenwood, while racing against the efforts of the Nazis– who plan on recovering the Ark for their own nefarious purposes.

The action is sprawling, taking Indy to such far-flung places as Nepal and Egypt in pursuit of the lost Ark.  By 1981, Harrison Ford was already internationally famous for playing the role of Han Solo in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

Lucas initially didn’t want Ford to play Indy for fear of overexposure, but Spielberg won out.  In taking on the role of Indiana Jones, Ford escaped the STAR WARS typecasting curse that afflicted his co-stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer.

Not only that, he arguably created a performance in Indiana Jones that would define his career. He inhabits the role so naturally that no other actor could ever replace him.  The fact that Ford’s rugged, gruff characterization is still a model of masculinity for millions of men is a testament to the character’s enduring quality.

For all his skill and wit, Indiana could never make do without the help of his friends and the challenges of his enemies. Karen Allen, then a stage actress from New York, plays Marion Ravenwood with a tough, yet feminine air.  She can hold her own, often proving to be every bit Indiana’s equal (out of all the women Indiana is shown to be romantically involved, there’s a reason that Marion is the only one he actually has children with).

Spielberg’s career up to this point had been littered with lackluster female characters, so Marion Ravenwood is easily his most-fully realized yet.  Paul Freeman plays Dr. Rene Belloq, a sophisticated rival archeologist in the Nazi’s employ.

Freeman’s performance is charming but deceitful, and his dedication to his craft is palpable—at one point, he swallows a fly that randomly lands on his lips without blinking or breaking character.  Jonathan Rhys-Davies finds an iconic role for himself in Sallah, Indiana’s Egyptian ally.  Rhys-Davies plays the character as jovial and boisterous, giving the film some inspired comic relief.

Furthermore, Alfred Molina makes his film debut as Satipo, a colleague of Indiana’s in the prologue who dies after betraying our hero.  Always interesting to see the humble beginnings of such a seasoned character actor as Molina.

In shooting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turns to a new cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe.  Slocombe crafts an appropriately epic feel using the panoramic 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio and warm, natural colors that evoke a romantic, swashbuckling tone.

Spielberg’s camerawork matches the impressive scope, infusing an exhilarating sense of energy and scale through the unrelenting use of dolly and crane movements.  Production designer Leslie Dilley brings an authentic, dusty air of mystery to the set design, while returning editor Michael Kahn blends it all together, in the process managing to create an entirely new visual language for the adventure genre.

John Williams is back on scoring duties, creating his single most recognizable theme outside of STAR WARS.  The “Raiders March”, as it was known on the cue sheets, is heroic and appropriately adventurous while infusing hints of Old-World, biblical mystery.

It’s the kind of theme that most composers will struggle their entire lives to create just one of, but Williams churns these iconic cues out with an almost-superhuman ease.  William’s contribution to the Indiana Jones series is incalculable—without its rousing music, the series would not be nearly as effective and memorable as it is.

With Spielberg’s fifth professional feature, his style has coalesced into something imminently recognizable.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK represents Spielberg’s aesthetic operating at its best, an ironic fact given that the schedule was so tight that the director barely had time to consider aesthetic.

The film appropriates a gritty edginess, eschewing the glossy indulgence that sank 1941.  Spielberg also employs direct lens flares to amplify the scorching sun of the Egyptian desert.  I had seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK several times previously (who hasn’t?), but on this particular viewing, I was uncharacteristically sensitive to the amount of violence on display.

For a Spielberg film, it is surprisingly graphic, what with the on-screen bullet wounds and exploding heads.  There’s a tone at play here that skirts the line between PG and R, and it would eventually lead directly to the creation of the PG-13 rating with the series’ second installment, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984).

tumblr_inline_mr6lwodeta1qafcizA combination of a great character, unparalleled talent, and a strong vision, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK finds Spielberg at the peak of his powers.  He knew that he had to create something truly great in order to come back from the failure of 1941and reinforce his reputation as a blockbuster director.

In the undertaking of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg demonstrates his mastery of that time-honored staple of the spectacle genre: “the setpiece”.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is littered with several, distinctive and memorable set pieces: the boulder-rolling opening, the bazaar chase, getting trapped in the Well of Souls, the truck chase, etc.

And of course, who can forget that infamous ending shot of the Ark all boxed up and stowed away in a warehouse that seems to stretch on towards infinity? It’s the perfect note to end the film on, with each mysterious crate suggested an endless universe of adventures that lay in store for Doctor Jones.

Each sequence is given an incredible attention to detail, and Spielberg’s thorough preparation leads to well-structured sequences where character isn’t lost among the action. Spielberg’s natural ability to deliver well-executed setpieces is arguably his most valuable asset as a filmmaker, allowing him to turn in iconic film after iconic film.

As such, his films feel like full-bodied experiences that invite the audience to actively participate.  As we all know, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a box office hit upon its release, restoring Spielberg to critical and financial glory.

It won several technical Oscars, but also netted Spielberg his third and second Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, respectively.  It also established the Indiana Jones franchise, which has generated untold millions in revenue in the form of sequels, TV shows, action figures, Disneyland rides, etc.

It endures today as one of the most-cherished and loved films of all time, and despite its age, feels truly timeless.  The film’s future was secured in 1999, when it was deemed culturally significant and worthy of preservation by its induction into the National Film Registry.

By this point in his career, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was easily the biggest production Spielberg had ever mounted, and he pulled it off with grace and style.  Having atoned for the disaster that was 1941, Spielberg was back on top of his game, and proved to the world that he was here to stay.


1982’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL holds a special place in my heart, as it does for a whole lot of people.  It was the first film I ever saw, and as a filmmaker myself, this was understandably a watershed moment in my life.  Despite only being two or three years old, I remember every little detail like it happened yesterday.

My mother plunked me down in front of the TV and popped in this bright green VHS cassette to entertain me while she cooked dinner.  My eyes didn’t move from the screen for the ensuing two hours, transfixed by what I was seeing.  By the end, I was a blubbering mess, and when my mom asked me why I was crying, I responded: “it’s just so saaaad!”.

Something about E.T. connected with me on a primal level.  I didn’t get this kind of visceral response when I watched TV, or even with the next-earliest film I remember seeing (Disney’s PETER PAN (1953)).  I was living in the suburbs of Tualatin outside of Portland at the time, so I felt that the suburban-based events of the film were happening right out in my backyard.

As far as first films go, E.T. is probably a perfect choice, as it truly captures the magic inherent in cinema.  Oddly enough, I can’t remember watching it another time since then, but after re-watching it the other day, I zeroed in on crazy little details that captivated me when I was 2, such as the rainbow blinds in Elliott’s room.

It all came rushing back to me, transporting me to an innocent state of mind, untainted by the cynicism of adulthood.  For director Steven Spielberg, E.T. was also a transformative experience.  It’s the film that convinced him he was ready for a family of his own.

Even though he wouldn’t be married for another three years, the acknowledgement of “readiness” is still an unfathomably huge ideological shift in a man’s life.  As such, E.T. shows a marked change in attitude towards family and responsibility.


After the success of 1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turned his attention to a long-gestating alien invasion idea called NIGHT SKIES.  After careful consideration, he decided it was better to create a friendly alien, so that the film could be told from a child’s point of view.

He reached deep back into his own childhood, calling on an imaginary friend he had created to cope with his alienation in school and his parents’ growing marital discord.  The lonely child archetype is seen a lot in Spielberg’s films, but E.T. places it front and center.  And in the process, it becomes one of the most personal stories that Spielberg has ever told.

The film is set in a generic, geographically-unspecified suburban town, where an alien (affectionately known to us as E.T.) has been accidentally left behind by his spaceship.  A young, lonely boy named Elliott discovers E.T. has taken refuge in his backyard shed, and they form an instant bond.

Elliott takes the creature in, revealing its existence only to his siblings. Meanwhile, a group of scientists and government bureaucrats are searching for E.T., whom they witnessed getting left behind.  As they converge on Elliott’s home, and E.T. begins to weaken from an Earth ecosystem that can’t biologically support him, Elliott and his siblings have to find a way for E.T. to reconnect with his spaceship before the government finds them.

There’s a common saying in the film business: “never work with children or animals”.  You can’t direct an animal, you can only manipulate it into doing the desired action.  Children are a little easier to direct, but they lack discipline and the level of skill that comes with years of experience.

Spielberg had his work cut out for him by fashioning a story where a group of kids were the focus, but incredibly, E.T’s child performers are pitch-perfect.  Henry Thomas plays Elliott, the misunderstood and lonely boy at the center of the story.

He’s somewhat of an avatar for Spielberg as a child, dealing in the same marginalized existence that the director experienced in his school days.  Thomas anchors the film with an authentic, engrossing performance, and it’s strange that he never went on to a larger career in film after this.

By contrast, Drew Barrymore obviously did go on to bigger fame as an actress, so it’s incredibly striking to see her as Elliott’s little sister, Gertie.  Even as a girl barely out of toddler-hood, she displays the same kind of spunkiness that is so evident in her adult persona.

Knowing her problems with drug abuse later in life, it’s somewhat tough to watch this pristine, innocent version of her—a version completely unaware of the rough years that will lie ahead.  Thankfully, she came through it all okay and avoided the typical Hollywood overdose tragedy.

Seeing as the film is told form a child’s perspective, Spielberg wisely chooses to portray the adults from the waist down for the majority, save for Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote.  Wallace plays Mary, Elliott’s mother who has been left to raise a family of three rambunctious children all by herself.

She whirls through the film in a breathless huff, always on her way to the multiple jobs I assume she has.  The whereabouts of the father are left enigmatic, but Wallace’s stressed, courageous performance goes a long way towards filling in the gaps.  The great thing about her character is that she’s not the “cynical nonbeliever” that adults are so commonly portrayed as.

While she’s initially terrified of E.T. when she discovers it, she becomes supportive of her kid’s attempts to return the creature to his spaceship.  Coyote is the only other adult who’s given considerable attention by the camera.  He plays a man known only as “Keys”, evidenced by the dangling keys that hang from his belt.

For the bulk of the film, it’s implied that he’s this ominous force relentlessly tracking E.T. down—a directorial decision further enhanced by the fact that Spielberg holds off on showing his face until well into the second act.  Keys is ultimately revealed as a benevolent character who is trying to help them after encountering these aliens himself in his own childhood.

Strangely, I found the character to bear a striking resemblance to Elliott, right down to the huge ears shared between both actors.  It’s a far-fetched theory with no further evidence to support it, but I had the distinct thought that perhaps Keys is the adult Elliott, who travelled back in time to save his alien friend.

In terms of Spielberg’s collaborators, E.T. marks the rise of one his closest and most trusted: producer Kathleen Kennedy. Having first served as a production assistant under screenwriter John Milius on 1941 (1979), she rose through the ranks from Spielberg’s secretary to executive quite quickly, thanks to her ability to distinguish a good story.

She co-founded Amblin with producer (and eventual husband) Frank Marshall and Spielberg in 1981, and since then has become Spielberg’s key producer.  She recently became president of Lucasfilm in 2012, so it’s uncertain how future collaborations with Spielberg will pan out.

One thing I will not be surprised of, however, is if she eventually goes on to be the head of Disney– and the company will be all the better for it.  To accomplish E.T.’s iconic visuals, Spielberg recruits a new cinematographer, Allen Daviau.

While the general look of the film is signature Spielberg, there’s one glaring difference: the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio.  Until E.T., all of Spielberg’s feature films had been shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so why does he change up here?  My guess is that Spielberg felt the family genre had no need for panoramic vistas, choosing instead to emphasize character over spectacle.

There is no doubt, however, that E.T. is one of Spielberg’s most gorgeously realized films (despite the blandness of the suburban setting).  The colors are bright and strong, with the predominantly earth-toned palette giving a natural feel to the visuals.  Spielberg favors wide compositions as well as evocative silhouettes, which creates an inspired hybrid of Rockwell/Americana imagery and intrigue.

In the days before CGI, Spielberg relied on a mix of special effects disciplines to realize his vision, from landscape matte paintings, to spaceship miniatures, to the complicated animatronics of the E.T. puppet.  The camerawork, while classical in nature, is actively telling the story through elaborate dolly movements and swooping aerial shots.

All of these visual elements blended together result in some of the most iconic shots in cinematic history.  Composer John Williams returns, winning his second Oscar from his collaboration with Spielberg.  The E.T. theme is arguably cinema’s most iconic—it’s a sweeping, magical piece of music that’s full of heart-bursting wonder.

They simply don’t make film music like this anymore; you’d be hard-pressed to find a theme so earnest and uplifting today, much less anything so instantly memorable.  Williams’ work adds a substantial degree of magic and emotion to the film, and while Spielberg’s story would be effective without it, it’s Williams’ score that puts the film over the top and captures our imaginations.

If you had to choose only one film that would serve as the complete reference of Spielberg’s style as a director, E.T. would most likely be it.  The film contains all of Spielberg’s trademark visual conceits: lens flares, the low angle “awe/wonder” shot of characters looking off-camera in amazement, the suburban setting, the Hitchcock-pioneered vertigo zoom, jump cuts, city lights laid out in a flat vista, etc.

His recurring thematic conceits are all present as well: the use of aliens as part of the storyline, the broken family with a neglectful/absent father, an innocent/childlike perspective, and the upbeat/optimistic tone.  In many ways, it is the ultimate Spielberg film.

E.T. is easily the most self-referential of all of Spielberg’s films, chock full of little in-jokes to his past films and to those of his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK collaborator George Lucas.  As such, E.T. is Spielberg’s first movie to openly acknowledge an awareness of his direct impact on pop culture.

For instance, Spielberg indirectly references his work on Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY when one of the characters sings the TWILIGHT ZONE theme (the series that made Serling a household name).  Of course, Spielberg would go on to contribute a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) as his next project.

There’s a John Ford movie playing on the television in one scene, which is an instance of Spielberg acknowledging one of the filmmakers that influenced him.  The open referencing of elder directors and the recycling of their style is a tradition that largely began with the Film Brat generation, populated by the likes of Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Lucas’ STAR WARS (1977) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) are also heavily referenced, from the inclusion of Greedo and Boba Fett action figures to a Yoda costume during the Halloween sequence (complete with a musical flourish of the Yoda theme by Williams).

Ironically enough, E.T. would go on to secure its own distinct merchandising empire that rivaled Lucas’ creations. Spielberg’s future involvement with HOOK (1991) is foreshadowed when Mary reads “Peter Pan” to Gertie, but this can also be read as an apt metaphor for Spielberg’s child-like approach to storytelling in general.

And of course, there’s the much-publicized depiction of Reese’s Pieces, the inclusion of which not only ignited sales of the candy but kick-started the practice of product placement in mainstream studio film making.

tumblr_inline_mrjg4giw2q1qafcizStill riding high off of the flyaway success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg found yet another massive hit in E.T. Box office receipts surpassed even Lucas’ STAR WARS to become the highest-grossing film of all time (an honor that held until Spielberg broke his own record with 1993’s JURASSIC PARK).

E.T. went on to win a slew of technical Oscars, and critical praise was so near-unanimous that Spielberg was invited to a private screening and reception with President Ronald Reagan at the White House.  Not many directors get to meet the leader of the free world, let alone watch one of their creations alongside him.

This development marks Spielberg transcending his the station of his occupation, becoming recognized as a genuine voice in American culture.

C8853-5When E.T. was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1994, the film became a cornerstone of Spielberg’s cinematic legacy.  The director acknowledged the profound effect E.T. had on his career by incorporating the iconic “bicycle across the moon” shot into the logo for Amblin.  Simply put, E.T. is the kind of film that only comes around once in a lifetime.

Many have tried to imitate it or emulate it, but none have come close to capturing the same sense of magic and wonder as Spielberg so effortlessly did.  My mother didn’t know it at the time, but she was giving me a profound gift when she popped in that cassette tape on that fateful day: a lifelong love of film and its many wonders.

I fully intend on showing E.T. to my own kids, and I suspect many others will do the same.  As it is passed down from generation to generation, it will achieve what eludes 99% of other films: true timelessness.


With the one-two punch of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), director Steven Spielberg was in a position to tackle any project he wanted.  His choice on a follow-up was a surprising one: contributing a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), an anthology feature that updated four of the seminal show’s most popular episodes— each one under the direction of a different filmmaker.

The film also boasts the work of fellow directors John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller, with Spielberg and Landis serving as the producers shepherding the project to completion.  Spielberg’s segment, an adaptation of KICK THE CAN, occurs after Landis’ opening film, and tells the story of Sunnyvale retirement home, where the kindly old Mr. Bloom has arrived to stay.

After an interaction with his crabby houseguests, Mr. Bloom announces that he can help them recapture their past youth, and all they have to do is play kick the can with him at midnight.  He convinces the houseguests to join him, and sure enough, as they play they find themselves physically transformed back into children.

This soon causes a mix of emotions, with the joy of youth countered by the anxiety of having to grow up all over again.  Scatman Crothers anchors the film, who Spielberg no doubt cast after seeing his memorable performance in THE SHINING (1980), directed by his friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick.

Crothers’ performance as Mr. Bloom is pitch-perfect in conveying the necessary warmth and friendliness of the character, but it still comes off too much like the “magical Negro” stereotype most of the time.  It does help that Crothers is so damn charismatic—that dude could talk me into happily jumping off a bridge.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau returns, showcasing the same talent for nostalgic, golden-tinged images that gave E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL its magic.  Spielberg and Daviau adopt the 1.85:1 aspect ratio once again, and fill the frame with a warm color palette favoring brown and orange.

The camerawork, utilizing primarily classical dolly movements, is very reserved and makes for a conservative visual presentation (much like its subjects).  In terms of other key collaborators, producing partner Kathleen Kennedy and editor Michael Kamen also return, with the latter back after sitting out cutting duties on E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.  KICK THE CAN is one of the only Spielberg films not scored by John Williams; instead, Jerry Goldsmith fills those shoes with a generic, romantic score.  The E.T. theme, this ain’t.

Due to its existence as a short film within a larger anthology feature, KICK THE CAN feels like an exercise in amusement on Spielberg’s part instead of genuine artistic expression.  In that regard, he shows no noticeable growth in his craft here—despite turning in top-quality work.

  KICK THE CAN is integrated into the larger TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE narrative, and doesn’t blatantly announce itself as a Spielberg piece.  However, most would be able to easily tell based off Spielberg’s signature directorial style: the low angle compositions, the upbeat/optimistic tone, and even a moment where Crothers breaks the fourth wall (much like John Belushi did in 1941 (1979).

  One curious aspect to Spielberg’s approach, however, is the openly Jewish comedy on display, which gives off a little insight into an area of Spielberg’s personality that he had previously omitted from his work.  While it’s a source for comedy here, it reads to me as Spielberg beginning to reckon with his Jewish heritage via artistic expression, which as we all know, would ultimately manifest itself in his de facto masterpiece, SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Initially, Spielberg was going to adapt the arguably higher profile TWILIGHT ZONE episode “THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET”, a factoid that caught my attention because it’s my own personal favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episode and I’ve wanted to make my own adaptation of it for several years now.  For whatever reason, Spielberg chose to film KICK THE CAN instead, which ultimately ended up as one of the weaker segments of the anthology feature.

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE encountered middling success when it was released; it wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t a hit either.  If anything, it only proved that anthology films aren’t a big draw for modern audiences.  The film is largely forgotten about today, eclipsed by the very television series it was trying to modernize.

If it’s remembered for anything, it’s the horrible tragedy that engulfed the film when actor Vic Morrow was killed by a helicopter crashing on top of him during the shooting of Landis’ segment.  Ultimately TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE is a nice callback to past forms of cinematic storytelling, but its legacy stands today as more of a curiosity than anything.


RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) was a massive commercial and critical hit, with the adventures of Indiana Jones captivating audiences around the world.  Naturally, fans were clamoring for a sequel– something Spielberg had never actually attempted before.

Indiana Jones’ co-creator, George Lucas, persuaded Spielberg to return, citing the need for a consistent vision across multiple films.  Confident in the knowledge that they had a sure hit on their hands before shooting even a single frame of film, Spielberg and Lucas went about assembling their team.

Spielberg recruited producing partners Kathleen Kenned and Frank Marshall, while Lucas passed off a story treatment to writers Willard Huyk and Gloria Katz, who were chosen due to their extensive experience with Indian culture.  The film that resulted, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), is generally considered to be the darkest entry in the series.

While Lucas attributes this to replicating the template set by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s (1980) darker tone, it was also fueled by a dark phase in Lucas’ personal life caused by his divorce from his wife following the completion of RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).  He used the story as a forum to express said darkness, manifesting in ritualistic sacrifices, child slavery, and demonic entities—not to mention people getting their hearts ripped out of their chests (in a poorly-veiled metaphor for Lucas’ own internal state).

It’s 1935, a year before Indiana Jones’ encounter with the lost Ark of the Covenant, and our intrepid hero is in Shanghai dealing with a dangerous crime lord.  A business deal between the two at a swanky nightclub goes south, and Indiana (Harrison Ford) barely escapes with his life.

Making the escape with him is his trusty child sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and a hysterical showgirl named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw).  They board a plane out of China, which is subsequently sabotaged by the crime lord’s underlings and crash lands over India.

After seeking directions to Nepal in a rural village, Indiana and company are corralled into recovering the tribe’s precious lost stones, as well as their missing children—abducted into slavery by an evil religious cult operating a temple deep underground.  What Indiana doesn’t expect, however, is that his attempts to recover the children and the artifacts will take him on a pitch-black journey into his own heart of darkness.

Harrison Ford, operating at his prime, effortlessly slips back into the fedora and whip.  However, he also expands upon the character by creating a version that’s appropriately younger and less experienced (given the fact that the film is technically a prequel).

Ford endured excruciating pain throughout most of the production after a back injury, so most of his action scenes had to be completed by a stunt double.  Thankfully though, it doesn’t detract from the film at all—Indiana Jones ably delivers on all fronts.

Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is the very antithesis of both Jones and RAIDERS’ Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).  Willie is a blonde, ditzy showgirl with an insufferable vain streak and a tendency to complain about everything.  Capshaw, who is naturally very likeable, does a brilliant job depicting someone so inherently unlikeable.

However, her performance is overshadowed by the happy fact that her collaboration with Spielberg eventually resulted in their marriage in 1991.  As the film was shot in 1984, Spielberg was still a year away from his first marriage to actress Amy Irving, but seeing behind the scenes footage of the Spielberg and Capshaw interacting, it’s clear that they’re totally smitten with each other.

Jonathan Ke Quan makes his mark as Short Round, easily one of the most enjoyable characters in the series.  In the wrong hands (aka: Lucas’), Short Round could be a supremely annoying Jar Jar Binks-style character, but Quan succeeds with a winning mix of rakish charm and mischievous innocence.  I wish he was my sidekick!

To recapture the warm, exotic look of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg brings back its cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe.  INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM also marks Spielberg’s return to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio format, which helps things look consistent and appropriately epic.

Red is used as dominant color throughout, hammering home the fire & brimstone aesthetic of the story.  Spielberg also finds several instances to incorporate his signature visual flourishes, like lens flares or an on-screen shooting star.

Despite a substantial increase in production resources, the filmmakers had difficulty in securing location permits from the Indian government—which combined with a series of other mishaps, translated into much of the film being shot on soundstages.  This has an adverse effect on the film, whereby the look is contained and distinctively stage-y, not gritty and expansive like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was.

In other words, TEMPLE OF DOOM looks a little too polished.  Editor Michael Kahn does an admirable job sewing it all together, utilizing a swift pace that balances the darkness with lighter, comedic elements peppered throughout.  Despite all the doom and gloom, this is a film that doesn’t forget how to have fun.

Just as Spielberg and Slocombe slip right back into the style of INDIANA JONES, so does John Williams effortlessly return to form, expanding on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’s iconic, adventurous theme with ethnic flourishes and dissonant choral chants.  Some of these flourishes—especially in the Shanghai and India sequences—lean heavily on stereotypical conceptions of those cultures’ music.

While it goes a long way towards establishing a geographically-convincing musical palette, it hasn’t aged as well in the context of today’s politically-correct society.  INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM finds Spielberg operating at the peak of his powers as a spectacle director—a peak he still sustains today.

Several of the film’s setpieces—the monkey brain dinner scene, the minecart chase, and the rope bridge finale—stand out as some of the best moments in the entire 4-film saga.  Not only that, they have become classic, enduring moments in cinema at large; a benchmark that most contemporary action films struggle to meet and rarely achieve.

As far as action direction goes, THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is chock full of reference-grade moments.  The success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK also allows for some indulgences on Spielberg’s part, as well.

The Shanghai nightclub sequence that opens the film provides him with the opportunity to combine two types of films that he’s always wanted to make: the Old Hollywood/Busby Berkeley musical, and the James Bond spy film.  Sure enough, TEMPLE OF DOOM starts off with a musical dance number led by Capshaw, which must have surely surprised anyone expecting the same kind of Roosevelt-esque rough rider opening that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK provided.

Likewise, Indiana channels Sean Connery when he appears in a white dinner jacket and tuxedo while dealing with crime bosses in a cool, collected manner.  Complete with hidden guns and shifting power dynamics, the sequence would not be out of place in a Bond film.

Like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, Spielberg includes several references to his past work, as well as those of his collaborators and influences.  The instance of the Shanghai nightclub being named Club Obi-Wan (after Lucas’ seminal STAR WARS character) is well known, but often overlooked is 1941 star Dan Aykroyd, who makes a brief cameo in the Shanghai sequence.

And just like Spielberg cast THE SHINING’s Scatman Crothers for his KICK THE CAN segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), here he casts frequent Kubrick character actor Philip Stone (THE SHINING’s ghostly bartender) as a British military officer who comes to Indiana’s aide in the climax.

tumblr_inline_mrnb2wikc81qafcizAs expected, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM was a smash hit when it debuted, but it received decidedly mixed reviews.  Some found the darkness of the story to be off-putting and overwhelming, while others simply found it not as enjoyable as its predecessor.

For a long time, TEMPLE OF DOOM was generally considered to be the worst film in the INDIANA JONES series— that is, until INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL came about in 2008.  Today, TEMPLE OF DOOM simply stands as a solid, albeit flawed entry in the Indiana Jones saga, with an Oscar for visual effects as its strongest selling point.

For all its efforts, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM did manage to make cinema history.  Together with Joe Dante’s GREMLINS (1984), THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is credited with inspiring the creation of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating.

Families with young children lured into the theatre criticized it for its pervading darkness and violence, which was graphic but not enough to warrant an R rating.  As such, it was deemed that a middle rating was necessary, and Spielberg himself suggested the term “PG-13”.

The rise of the PG-13 rating soon became a boon to both Spielberg and the studios, which were able to counter-act years of flagging sales wrought by a growing cynicism among audiences and a wariness of “family-friendly” films.  The rating is still extremely relevant today, with many studio tentpole films going to great pains in achieving it and maximizing earning potential for mature subject matter.

tumblr_inline_mrnb3bj87f1qafcizINDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, while far from Spielberg’s best film, is highly notable in the context of both his career and his personal life.  It was his first full-fledged sequel, and turned Indiana Jones into a bonafide franchise.

But more importantly, it was the film where Spielberg met the woman he’d later marry.  He had given us the gift of magic and child-like wonder for over ten years now, so it was high time that he finally got to experience some of that for himself.


tumblr_inline_mruoxkjuzx1qafcizIn the mid-80’s, director Steven Spielberg had begun to hit his stride as a feature filmmaker.  After the expected success of 1984’s second installment of the Indiana Jones saga, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Spielberg surprised his fans with a return to the medium that created him: television.

In 1985, he joined up with his Amblin producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall to create AMAZING STORIES, an anthology-format show that would run on NBC until 1987.  AMAZING STORIES takes its title from the science fiction magazine of the same name, and is notable (to me at least) for its hilarious opening credits, which feature terrible CGI in its earliest incarnation.  Spielberg himself developed a substantial number of the episode stories, yet only directed two of them: GHOST TRAIN and THE MISSION.

tumblr_inline_mruoygc1yo1qafcizGHOST TRAIN begins in typical Spielberg fashion—an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque family moves to a new house in the suburbs, with the frail patriarch/grandpa Opa Globe in tow.  Just as soon as they arrive, Opa begins to ramble about a train whose track used to run right through where their house currently stands.

The train derailed one night back when he was a child, and he’s been obsessed with it ever since.  He soon becomes convinced that the train is returning to pick him up, despite there no longer being a train in those parts.  Only his grandson Brian believes him, with his grown son Fenton and his wife Joleen convinced that he’s gone senile.

However, one night the train does arrive, just as Opa said it would: right through the middle of their living room.  Spielberg uses a cast of mostly unknowns for GHOST TRAIN, with Robert Blossom being the most recognizable face as Opa Globe (people my age will remember him fondly as the creepy shovel guy from HOME ALONE (1990).

In GHOST TRAIN, Blossom is basically playing the same character, only less creepy.  Scott Paulin plays Fenton, Opa’s disbelieving son and father to Brian, while Gail Edwards plays Fenton’s equally-cynical wife Joleen.  Lukas Haas– only a child here– plays wide-eyed and optimistic Brian, fitting well into the frustrated, innocent child archetype that Spielberg is fond of.

Haas had yet to hit puberty when he shot GHOST TRAIN, but the natural talent that would lead him to working under the likes of Gus Van Sant and Christopher Nolan is already evident here.  Cinematographer Allen Daviau returns, which results in a piece that feels very much like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL(1982) in presentation.

While Spielberg’s composition suffers from the confining 4:3 aspect ratio dictated by the television medium, his tone still feels distinctly familiar.  Naturalistic, muted colors fill the frame, while a pop of ethereal green lighting creates a mystical, magical aura to the climatic train arrival sequence.

Rick Carter, who would go on to become Spielberg’s regular production designer, finds his first collaboration with the director here.  John Williams is once again on music duties, crafting a score that’s not exactly memorable, but unmistakably his.

Several of Spielberg’s key directorial conceits are present in GHOST TRAIN.  Most notable is the presence of kids, which justifies Spielberg’s adoption of their innocent, untarnished perspective.  As a result, the tone feels whimsical and sentimental.

The absent father trope is also present, manifested in the strained relationship that both sets of sons have with their respective fathers.  Train imagery also runs throughout Spielberg’s work, oftentimes in the form of a toy train set chugging through the living room as it did in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), as well as GHOST TRAIN.

tumblr_inline_mruoyso4wo1qafcizSpielberg’s other episode, THE MISSION, is far more affecting and better crafted than GHOST TRAIN.  Set during World War 2, THE MISSION is about an Air Force squadron sent up on their 24th mission into enemy territory to drop some big bombs.

Along the way, they encounter heavy bombardment and take heavy damage to the plane, but come through victorious.  Unfortunately, the gunner in the turret underneath the craft is trapped by debris spewed forth from the enemy plane’s explosion, and to make matters worse, their landing gear won’t deploy.

Tension and emotions flare as the plane limps back to home base and their efforts to free the gunner from his claustrophobic prison fail.  As the situation becomes more dire, the men have to reckon with internal conflicts and decide whether they can salvage the situation, or give their friend the blessing of a mercy killing before he’s crushed to death upon landing.

THE MISSION boasts some high-profile cast members, albeit they’re high profile only in hindsight as THE MISSION was filmed before their careers took off.  Kevin Costner plays the Captain—the superstitious, paternal pilot and leader to the men.

He’s not given the kind of attention on-screen that you would expect for someone of his stature, but keep in mind he wasn’t universally-known at this point in his career.  Keifer Sutherland plays Static, an aspiring engineer and the brains of the ship.

It’s a sensitive turn for Sutherland, who is better known for his knack for cracking skulls on 24.  Relative unknown Casey Siemaszko gives the most captivating performance as Jonathan, the gunner trapped underneath the plane.  His increasing hopelessness and despair is palpable, making for some extremely moving movement as the story approaches its climax.

To shoot THE MISSION, Spielberg hires cinematographer John McPherson—his first collaboration with this particular DP. THE MISSION differs drastically in visuals to GHOST TRAIN, featuring a mostly-gray, smoky color palette and handheld camerawork that amplifies the cramped nature of the aircraft set.

THE MISSION also sees Spielberg working for the first time with the nascent tool of CGI, which is deployed in service to the cartoonish, yellow landing gear that miraculously saves the day.  This being the early days of CGI and all, it absolutely does not fit in with the realism of the other visuals.

Rick Carter and John Williams return as Production Designer and Composer, respectively- with the latter adapting the Air Force anthem (“Into The Wild Blue Yonder”) as a recurring musical motif.  Spielberg’s hand in directing THE MISSION is quite evident.

The WW2 imagery and setting allows him to indulge in the trappings of his favorite time period and the romanticized iconography of flight (no doubt inspired by the stories his WW2 vet father told him upon returning from the war).  The tone is sentimental, with a moving dramatic arc that hammers home despite being a little overwrought in some instances.

THE MISSION is frankly one of Spielberg’s best narratives, and would adapt well into the feature-length format.  In terms of his television work, it’s easily his best (to date).

Spielberg’s work with AMAZING STORIES is indicative of his embracing the role of producer/developer, whereby he’s creating a television series and shepherding it through several seasons.  Much of Spielberg’s current success and wealth derives from his participation as a producer or executive producer in dozens of films, almost as if he was diversifying his portfolio in the business/investment sense

AMAZING STORIES is one of Spielberg’s less-successful projects, ending its run after only two seasons and quietly immigrating into the syndication market for a few years thereafter.  But as his grand return to the television medium, Spielberg is able to channel his experience in directing features and apply its sensibilities into markedly improved TV work.


After several features completed in the Hollywood studio system, director Steven Spielberg had built up quite the reputation as a maker of spectacle-based “event films”.  Due to this success, he had friends in high places—President Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones to name a few.

And it was Mr. Jones who approached Spielberg after the completion of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) with the idea of adapting author Alice Walker’s seminal novel, “The Color Purple” into a feature film.   The plan was simple: Jones would produce, and Spielberg would direct.

In a rare display of humility that’s uncommon among most directors today, Spielberg was initially reluctant about helming the project, citing his existence as a white man disqualifying him from taking on an inherently African-American story.  Jones disagreed with Spielberg’s assessment, and shot back with some clever logic of his own: he wasn’t an alien when he made E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), so why should that kind of thinking prevent him from taking this job?

Jones made a pretty good argument, and as such, Spielberg took the helm.   It can be argued that he also came aboard because he wanted to expand his reputation; no doubt he felt he had more to offer than just big-budget spectacle; this was his opportunity to make a film in the interest of social good.

As such, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) became Spielberg’s first “serious” film- a streak that would eventually deliver him to the Oscar glory that long eluded him in 1993 with SCHINDLER’S LISTTHE COLOR PURPLE is set in rural Georgia, and spans the years 1909-1937.

A poor woman from a poor family, Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) is given away by her father to marry an abusive farmer named Albert (Danny Glover).  She endures a lonely, miserable life in which Albert drives Celie’s own sister away from her, while also making a cuckold of her each time he heads into the city to meet a glamorous singer named Shug Avery (Margarety Avery).

One day, Shug comes to stay with Albert and Celie, and the two women soon become friends.  They develop a deep love for each other, whereby Celie’s self-esteem is strengthened—and after a lifetime of being beaten down and humiliated by her tyrannical husband, she finally gains the strength of conviction to stand up to him and assert herself.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for an Oscar for her debut in THE COLOR PURPLE by fully embodying the low self-esteem brought about by a lifetime of mental and physical abuse, rape, incest, and the like.  Her Celie is meek, with a latent intelligence brought about by her sister teaching her how to read.

While Goldberg is now known primarily as a comedic actress, her performance here packs a real dramatic punch—and is easily her best.  Danny Glover plays her husband Albert, a sophisticated yet vindictive force of nature.  He plays the unfaithful, abusive bastard quite well.  T

hen there’s daytime TV mega-personality Oprah Winfrey, who also makes an Oscar-nominated film debut in THE COLOR PURPLE as Sofia, Albert’s son’s sassy, tempestuous wife.  Her character is subject to humiliation and scorn by white people who use her stubborn feistiness as an excuse to put her in jail.  By the end of the movie, she’s a broken shell of her former self.

The Big O isn’t really an actress by trade, but whenever she does go before the camera, she tends to be excellent.  Spielberg’s supporting cast also turns in notable performances, especially Margaret Avery and Laurence Fishburne.

As the beautiful songstress Shug, Avery adds a bit of glamor to the film as well as supplies it with a compelling lesbian subplot that’s never fully explored.  Fishburne plays the bit role of Swain, a friend to Albert’s son and a musician at the rickety dive bar they build together.

He doesn’t get to do a whole lot, but his inclusion is a reminder of his general association with the Film Brat generation of directors (as readers of this series will remember, he was frequently cast by Spielberg’s friend and filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola).

With the exception of Douglas Slocombe working on the INDIANA JONES films, Allen Daviau was shaping up to become Spielberg’s regular cinematographer.  Like E.T., Spielberg and Daviau decided that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio was the best format to tell their story in (which is a little bit at odds with the scale Spielberg was pursuing).

Bold colors (especially purple) punctuate the frame, with golden sunlight and the pastoral setting rendered with a subtle tobacco-sepa tint.  Despite being somewhat of an intimate character drama, Spielberg employs sweeping crane and dolly movements to exaggerate the sense of scale.

This approach gives THE COLOR PURPLE the vibe of an old Hollywood musical in some instances, but the effect is more maudlin than romantic.  The earnestness of Spielberg’s tone and execution also works against him when the narrative gets dark, with the true horror of Celie’s plight swept under the rug and obscured by sunflowers peacefully swaying in the breeze.

THE COLOR PURPLE is the only theatrical feature film in which Spielberg does not retain the services of composer John Williams.  This is easily explained, however, because with Jones—easily more famous for his music—acting as the producer, it’s only logical that he’d want to do the score as well.  Jones proves adept at creating a sweeping, cinematic score.

Lush, romantic strings evoke Williams’ work to the best of their ability, but Jones’ mimicry of the maestro’s style only reminds us that the maestro himself is absent.  Jones’ score is complemented by a small selection of ragtime source cues, Billy Holiday tracks, and even some seasonal Christmas music.

The subject matter of the film allows Spielberg to indulge in both of his most-used thematic conceits.  His fascination with the 1930’s/pre-WW2 time period (most easily seen in 1941 (1979) and the INDIANA JONES films) gets the opportunity to explore a different, understated side of that era: America’s rural south.

His continuing exploration of the absent/negligent father dynamic is manifested in Albert’s character.  While Albert is a prominent figure within the narrative, we don’t really ever see him being a father to his kids.

They’re simply human presences in the house that he has little interaction with, let alone any sort of paternal relationship with.  Several of Spielberg’s technical signatures, like low angle compositions and lens flares, are all present and accounted for.

05_Flatbed_2 OCTOBERTHE COLOR PURPLE is firmly ensconced in Spielberg’s expansive, earnest style—sometimes to the detriment of what the narrative requires.  This is illustrated in the homosexual subplot between Celie and Shug, which Spielberg shies away from at the last second and never comes back to for the remainder of the film.

Essentially, it’s a wimp-out; a caving to mainstream aesthetics and values.  It would have been much bolder and courageous to flesh out and explore Celie’s lesbian relationship, and most certainly would have created a better legacy for the film than the modest one it currently enjoys.

The film was well-received upon its release, securing no less than eleven Oscar nominations—albeit with the curious absence of Spielberg on the Best Director shortlist (a repeat of what happened with JAWS (1974)).   Objectively speaking, it’s impossible to know why this happened, but we can speculate.

Maybe there was a general notion among Academy voters that Spielberg wasn’t a “prestige” director?  That the success of his spectacle films boxed him in?  If so, it would definitely lend support to Spielberg’s motivations for taking the job in the first place.  THE COLOR PURPLE, to my eyes, hasn’t aged terribly well—its overwrought sense of melodrama is the very definition of an “Oscar bait” film.

Regardless, THE COLOR PURPLE is a very important film within Spielberg’s body of work.  It marks the moment when Spielberg proved that he was capable of making films that were more substantial and serious than his already-emotionally-effecting spectacle work.

In many ways, it began the era of Mature Spielberg, brought about by his ascension to the head of his own family (his first son was born during production of THE COLOR PURPLE).  He had bigger responsibilities now, and as such his responsibility to his art demanded a refined, mature touch.

In shooting his first serious social issues film, he proved he didn’t simply want to be a great filmmaker—he wanted to be an important one.


The warm reception of 1985’s THE COLOR PURPLE emboldened director Steven Spielberg to continue down the path of creating serious prestige films instead of his usual blockbuster fare.  Meanwhile, an adaption of J.G. Ballard’s novel Empire Of The Sun had been kicking around Hollywood with one of Spielberg’s key influences, David Lean, attached to direct.

Lean eventually left the project, which opened the slot up for Spielberg (who had been wanting to direct the property himself). Well-respected playwright Tom Stoppard had written the script, and when Spielberg came aboard, the project was infused with a great deal of prestige.

Two years later, EMPIRE OF THE SUN was released, but despite Spielberg’s passion and optimistic expectations, the film was met by an indifferent audience response, disappointing box office returns, and confused critics who found the story muddled and unsure of its message.  Appreciation for the film has only grown over time, and the general consensus today is that EMPIRE OF THE SUN is an underappreciated, overlooked masterwork within Spielberg’s oeuvre.

tumblr_inline_ms05vypldm1qafcizOur story begins in 1941, in Shanghai shortly before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a young boy, a British ex-pat born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a deep fascination with airplanes and flying.  He lives with his parents in a big house outside Shanghai, oblivious to his parents’ growing unease with events on the world stage.

His idyllic life is suddenly upended when the Japanese march on Shanghai, and he’s separated from his parents in the ensuing chaos.  While he searches for them, he joins up with a pair of American con-men: Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), only for the three to be swept up into a Japanese internment camp next to an airfield.

As he languishes in the camp for several years, Jamie learns to survive and forgets all about his past life.  He becomes a contributing member of the makeshift society constructed by the prisoners.  As the events of the Pacific Theater of World War 2 play out beyond the confines of the camp, Jamie experiences an awakening to the wonders of the natural and industrial world, with the cost being his childhood and innocence.

Christian Bale makes his film debut as Jamie, proving his skill in playing rich brats extends all the way back to his boyhood. He captures that unmitigated sense of wonder and fascination that all boys concentrate onto a singular object- in Jamie’s case, airplanes.

He’s always carrying around a toy plane, which becomes the catalyst for him getting separated from his parents.  Even at such an early age, Bale is a striking actor, turning in one of the most convincing child performances I’ve ever seen.

It’s also interesting to watch his performance in light of his later success as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY; the early mansion scenes in Shanghai could have been lifted directly out of the flashbacks of Bruce Wayne’s childhood in BATMAN BEGINS (2005).  Veteran character actor John Malkovich brings a great presence to the film as the cool, collected con-man Basie.

He’s rakish, and almost paternal in away, despite a general untrustworthiness and an “every man for himself” kind of mentality.  Pantoliano plays Frank, Basie’s volatile counterpart.  Its surprising to see Pantoliano so wiry and with a full head of hair, having previously been exposed to the characteristic stockiness and baldness that defined his roles in The Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX (1999).

A young Ben Stiller plays the bit role of Dainty, one of Basie’s wild-eyed, buck-teethed goons, with a grungy appearance and awkward body language that belies his future stardom.  Spielberg brings back cinematographer Allen Daviau, who retains the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, big-budget filmic look that defined most of Spielberg’s 80’s output.

The color palette is warm and natural, with strong reds and oppressive greys.  Spielberg uses bold camera movements like cranes and dollies to give an impressive sense of scale.  While this same approach didn’t necessarily work for his previous THE COLOR PURPLE, it works quite well in EMPIRE OF THE SUN—an appropriate choice since the film was originally supposed to directed by David Lean, king of the sweeping epic genre.

Norman Reynolds serves as the production designer, creating a compelling aesthetic that uses artifacts of wealth and privilege as ironic commentary on the rich’s inability to comprehend the struggle of true daily survival.  Expensive furniture, automobiles, statues, etc. gather dust in a large stadium, unattended to and forgotten about.

They take on the form of clutter and junk, their value summarily dismissed in the chaos and anarchy of war.  Even commerce is rendered useless, symbolized by a battered mural advertising the release of the film GONE WITH THE WIND—sticking out of the ruins of Shanghai like a haunting reminder of our collective innocence after having been ripped away by the ravages of World War 2.

Norman Rockwell has a significant influence on Spielberg’s visual aesthetic, arguably more so in EMPIRE OF THE SUN than his other films.  The early sequences in Shanghai before the invasion are almost blatantly Rockwell-ian, with many frames ripped straight from the artist’s paintings.

This serves to amplify Jamie’s removal from that way of life later on in the film, when he posts Rockwell paintings next to his bunk—yet another haunting reminder of innocence lost.  After a brief absence for THE COLOR PURPLE, John Williams returns to score Spielberg’s films, crafting a moving suite of cues for EMPIRE OF THE SUN.

The music is not as memorable as their most iconic collaborations, but it is affecting and cinematic.  Williams uses a Welsh hymnal as Jamie’s musical motif to great effect, giving the film one of its most poetically sublime moments when he juxtaposes it over a dawn prayer ritual for Japanese kamikaze pilots before their departure.

The effect is an inspired blend of eastern and western ideas of honor and reverence, and makes for one of the best moments in the film.  Perhaps it’s best that Lean didn’t direct the film, since so many aspects of the story are so inherently within Spielberg’s wheelhouse.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN is one of the best instances of Spielberg using the earnest, awe-filled perspective of a child as his way into the story.  While E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL’s Elliott is probably the de facto symbolic avatar of Spielberg’s own childhood, EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s Jamie shows another side of the director as a young boy—the adventurous one fascinated by his father’s stories of air combat from World War 2.

A preoccupation with World War 2 imagery and aviation is a staple of Spielberg’s style, but it all blends together so naturally in EMPIRE OF THE SUN that it becomes his most potent, concise statement on the idea.  His signature awe/wonder shots don’t come from a manufactured obligation to story, but rather from a genuine amazement at the modern miracle of flight that translates organically into the story.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN also contains the first instances of several images that Spielberg would explore later on his career to effects both potent (concentration camps and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and insipid (nuclear bombs and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008).  Spielberg’s continuing on-screen exploration of his strained relationship to his father is somewhat inverted in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which features an involved, loving father who is only absent because he is physically, unwillingly separated from his son.

As I wrote before, critics saw a muddled message in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, befuddled by what they assumed was a simple-minded or naïve narrative.  Twelve years later, a writer named Ernest Rister came up with an interpretation of the film that reconciled many of the problems critics faulted the film with in an insightful essay.

His piece claimed that EMPIRE OF THE SUN was Spielberg’s overlooked masterpiece, and argued that critics simply missed the point of the film.  The general gist of his essay was that Spielberg, for the first time in his career, chose to use a subjective point of view rather than an objective one.

We’re seeing reality through Jamie’s eyes as an unreliable narrator that looks back on his time in the internment camp with rose-tinted glasses, his innocence blinding him to the suffering going on around him.  Rister obviously can explain it better than I can, so I’ll simply direct you here to his thoughtful article.

If this was indeed what Spielberg was trying to capture in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, it’s an uncharacteristically subtle, mature move on his part.  Regardless of what Spielberg was trying to do, the film flew directly over the critics’ and the audience’s heads.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN wasn’t a flop, but it was most definitely a disappointment for a filmmaker whose body of work boasted several of the highest-grossing films of all time.  More importantly, it was a blow to Spielberg’s artistic sensibilities, as his attempts at branching out and becoming a serious filmmaker were met with scorn and indifference.

This began a relatively dark period for him, in which he retreated into the safety of his usual blockbuster work, but his flirtations with greatness now only made him bored and uninspired.  Much like EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s young protagonist, he was feeling grounded—but it was only a matter of time until he took flight again, and when he did, he would soar.


By 1989, Steven Spielberg was in need of a career pick-me-up.  When he made the commitment to direct RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), he did so under the assumption that series creator/producer George Lucas would mandate that he direct an eventual trilogy.

The second Indiana Jones outing, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) was a perceived disappointment, and he’d been burned by an indifferent audience reception to his attempts in making serious dramatic works.  As such, Spielberg decided to finish his Indiana Jones trilogy and retreat into the blockbuster genre he knew he was good at.

The story wasn’t easy to crack- several drafts saw iterations as different as Indy exploring a haunted castle, or searching for the fountain of youth in Africa.  Finally, Spielberg and Lucas settled on something far more epic: the search for the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice that Jesus purportedly drank from during The Last Supper.

The result? INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), generally considered to be the best film of the Indiana Jones series and a return to glory for Spielberg and Lucas.


The film begins with a prologue that shows a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) in his boy scout days.  We see his early love for archaeology, while also seeing how several of his iconic character traits came about: the whip, the hat, the fear of snakes, etc.

Decades later, Indiana (Harrison Ford) receives a battered diary in the mail that belonged to his father, Henry Jones Sr (Sean Connery), and which documents his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail.  Not long after, Indiana discovers that his father has been abducted and decides to venture to Europe to recover him by retracing his father’s latest steps as outlined in the diary.

Accompanying him on the journey are his university confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and a blonde doctor named Elsa Schnieder (Allison Doody); opposing him are the Nazis, who have kidnapped Henry and are after the Grail for their own nefarious purposes.  Once Indiana frees Henry and Elsa is discovered to be a Nazi spy, father and son must race to recover the Grail before the Nazis do and subsequently change the course of history.

Harrison Ford reprises his most iconic role once again, now looking noticeably older as flecks of grey are beginning to pepper into his hair.  Whereas Ford’s Indy was busy establishing himself in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and more or less treading water in TEMPLE OF DOOMTHE LAST CRUSADE allows ample opportunity for Indy to grow in a nuanced way.

The father/son exploration of the film (more on that later) gives us much greater insight into Indiana’s own behavior and conduct, ultimately endearing himself to us in a more intimate way than the cold, aloof archetype he was originally sketched from: James Bond.  Appropriately enough, James Bond himself makes for the perfect father figure to Indy.

Sean Connery was an easy choice to play Henry Jones Sr, but thankfully they subverted his classically suave, sophisticated persona in favor of an esteemed, bookish scholar who was something of a wimp in the physical department.  Connery is responsible for the film’s biggest laughs and lends a tremendous deal of heart to the film in what has become a performance whose legacy rivals even that of a certain British secret agent.

Allison Doody does a fair job as Elsa Schneider, the love interest who stands out mainly because she’s a bad guy.  Other than that, there’s nothing terribly interesting or groundbreaking about the character.

Having previously appeared in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody character is significantly expanded for THE LAST CRUSADE.  Elliott plays Marcus as casually inept, and a secondary source of comedic relief. Jonathan Rhys-Davies also reprises his role from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the jovial ally Sallah.

And then there’s River Phoenix, one of the most notable additions to the cast, who nails Ford’s mannerisms while bringing a headstrong, inquisitive, and slightly awkward physicality that’s believable as the younger form of our favorite hero.  The strength of Phoenix’s section (the opening prologue) eventually led to the creation of THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES TV show—even though Phoenix didn’t reprise the role himself.

Spielberg re-enlists the talents of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who has shot both previous installments of the Indiana Jones series.  THE LAST CRUSADE adheres to the established Indiana Jones template: 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, warm-exotic tones, a swashbuckling scale created by expansive crane and dolly camera movements, etc.

It also has somewhat of a Medieval vibe to it, due to the nature of their quest and the locations, which are both very Europe-centric.  Naturally, John Williams also returns to score the film, with that iconic Indiana Jones theme throwing us right back into the fray like we never left.

By 1989, the theme had become such a part of the American cultural fabric that audiences felt like they had been been cheering on the adventures of Indiana Jones for half a century already.  Much like he did for the Ark of the Covenant in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Williams also adds a special theme for the Grail itself that is appropriately drenched in Old-World/Medieval intrigue.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE contains some of the most overt references to Spielberg’s influences and idols of any of his films.  The opening train chase and Monument Valley vistas are highly reminiscent of John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939).

Another early moment finds Spielberg using Indy’s signature hat as the basis for a match cut spanning a vast amount of time and space, much like Stanley Kubrick had stitched together a bone and a spaceship for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).  And yet another instance finds Spielberg re-employing the VERTIGO (1958) lens zoom technique that Alfred Hitchcock invented and Spielberg himself popularized with JAWS (1974).

As to be expected with the Indiana Jones series, World War 2 imagery is highly prominent, with the setting allowing for the use of Nazis again as the main villains— a visual conceit that reaches its arguable apex when Indiana literally runs into Adolf Hitler in one of the film’s most clever moments.  Planes and the phenomenon of flight are recurring staples of both Spielberg’s work and the Indiana Jones series, and THE LAST CRUSADE is no different.

Interestingly enough, Spielberg is able to fuse this fascination with another—his ongoing exploration of the distant father dynamic—into a compelling character setpiece set aboard a zeppelin.  One could argue that Spielberg’ s veiled exploration of his issues with his own estranged father reaches it apex during this sequence, with a literal reckoning between father and son.

They sit down at a table and take a time out from the narrative at hand to address their beef with each other, with Indiana complaining how Henry was always into his work and never had time for him.  In real life, it was around this time that Spielberg’s estrangement with his father began to wind down.

It’s more literal than metaphor (one can imagine Spielberg’s real-life sitdown with his dad playing out exactly in this fashion), but it still offers remarkable insight into the slow paradigm shift Spielberg was undergoing in his personal life—further compounded by his own entrance into fatherhood with the birth of his first son.

tumblr_inline_ms5sb47b011qafcizINDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE was warmly received upon its release, and is generally considered to be the superior Indiana Jones film.  This is attributed to Spielberg and company placing the emphasis on character instead of action, and the exploration of deep character dynamics that shed further light on Indiana Jones and allowed him to grow instead of becoming stagnant.

An Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing further reinforced the public’s embrace of the film. While most consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to be the quintessential Indiana Jones film, THE LAST CRUSADE arguably has it beat in almost every way.  It’s really saying something about the quality of your franchise when the third film is just as valid a choice for best entry as the first one.

There was also the bittersweet assumption that THE LAST CRUSADE was the last film in the series, and for the better part of twenty years it appeared it was going to stay that way.  That is, until 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL– but that’s a story for another day.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE is as fine as film as Spielberg has ever made.  It’s definitely the best within the series, and maybe even breaks the top five of Spielberg’s overall filmography—albeit that’s an admittedly tough call to make considering so many other films in his body of work can make just as strong a case.

After his brief excursion into the prestige/awards film arena, THE LAST CRUSADE marks Spielberg’s return to the spectacle genre that made his name. More importantly, the lessons he learned on THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) were applied here to great effect—in other words, his “popcorn” work suddenly became much more nourishing and substantial.

ALWAYS (1989)

In 1943, an unassuming melodrama known as A GUY NAMED JOE was written by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and released in cinemas.  The film concerned a fighter pilot who is killed in combat, only to return as a spirit and help his love move on with her life.

It came and went without much of a ripple in the grand scheme of things, but it made a world of an impression on a young boy named Steven Spielberg.  Some distance away, it also profoundly affected another young boy named Richard Dreyfuss.

As these two grew up, met, and began collaborating with each other out of a shared love for the cinematic medium, A GUY NAMED JOE always remained at the back of their thoughts, subtly influencing their art.  What began as casual references tossed back and forth between the two men on the set of JAWS (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) soon grew into a strong desire to re-make the film with a modern spin.

In the same year that INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE debuted, Spielberg and Dreyfuss joined forces for the first time in over a decade to create their take: a romantic drama called ALWAYS (1989).  Pete Sanditch (Dreyfuss) is a daredevil pilot who extinguishes forest fires for a living.

He’s one of the best at what he does, but he’s a reckless flier- much to the chagrin of his lover, Dorinda Durson (Holly Hunter).  Just as she convinces him to finally hang up his hat and go to Colorado and teach firefighting techniques to aspiring pilots, he gets the call to execute one last job.

As any dutiful moviegoer might predict, this “one last job” is the one that kills Pete, sending him to a fiery grave after rescuing his buddy Al Yackey (John Goodman) from a similar fate.  To his surprise, Pete wakes up seemingly alive and well in the middle of a burnt-out forest.

He stumbles upon Hap, an ethereal barber who tells him he is indeed dead and he must go watch over a young pilot before he can enter into heaven.  That person is Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), a rugged dreamer with eyes towards the skies and a heart for Dorinda, the girl that Pete left behind.

Pete must now struggle with the conflict of carrying out his heavenly duties against the heartbreak that comes with seeing Dorinda move on and find happiness without him.  Dreyfuss anchors his third Spielberg film in ALWAYS, and has aged quite a deal in the intervening years since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

He’s good at exemplifying a rakish, jovial personality– somewhat reminiscent of a favorite uncle.  Holly Hunter is every bit his equal as the feisty Dorinda.  She’s a salt-of-the-earth tomboy and a convincing love interest for Dreyfuss that also fits well within the man’s world that Spielberg has established here.

As Pete’s kindly, oafish buddy Al Yackey, John Goodman is basically playing…John Goodman.  Brad Johnson’s Ted Baker is the handsome young hotshot pilot vying for Dorinda’s affections, but he’s so impossibly-good-looking that he’s boring. Audrey Hepburn (making her last film appearance ever) plays the God-like character of Hap.

It was shocking for me to see her as an old woman, considering she’s much better known for her youthful pixie appearance in films like BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) or ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953).  Hepburn’s casting is an inspired one, however, and makes for a great secular substitute for God.

Finally, Roberts Blossom—who previously worked with Spielberg on his AMAZING STORIESepisode “GHOST TRAIN”– has a small cameo that plays to his strengths as the hobo that helps Pete communicate with Ted.In accomplishing ALWAYS’ look, Spielberg works for the first time with Director of Photography Mikael Salomon.

The 1.85:1 aspect ratio makes for a large, expansive frame that, when combined with a mix of dolly, crane, and aerial shots, creates a surprisingly dynamic presentation for a romantic drama.  Spielberg’s color palette is mostly muted and naturalistic, save for a heightened blue light for night sequences and a bright orange/red color when sunsets or fires are present.

This treatment also extends to Spielberg’s non-secular presentation of the afterlife.  Heaven is depicted as a circle of untouched pastoral beauty surrounded by trees scorched black by wildfire.  And later in the film, Pete’s attempts to steer Dorinda to safety as she flies through the center of a wildfire is akin to a descent into hell.

John Williams, as expected, scores the film—but his execution is anything but routine here.  Surprisingly, Williams opts for a subdued, low-key score that’s more tonal than melodic.  It’s peculiar for a Williams score in that it doesn’t really call attention to itself.  Instead, the musicality of ALWAYS relies more on source cues from R&B and doo-wop crooners.

While Williams is to be commended for branching out and trying something new, I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of the type of iconic theme that Williams is so good at might’ve helped elevate the film into more of an emotional and resonant space.  Like EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), ALWAYS takes Spielberg’s love for planes and aviation and puts them front and center in the narrative.

This approach allows for the natural incorporation of his aesthetic quirks: lens flares, low-angle compositions, star fields, and his trademark awe/wonder shot.  Although the film takes place in the 80’s (present day then), Spielberg’s and Production Designer James Bissell’s hearts are firmly rooted in the 1940’s.

When the firefighter pilots aren’t dressed in a manner reminiscent of old WW2 air aces, they’re blatantly expressing their desire to be like them.  Even Dreyfuss gets in on the act by wearing a WW2-era leather bomber jacket for most of the film (a look that Spielberg himself has employed frequently in public).

Eagle-eared audience members will also catch a very sly reference to Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas when Dorinda’s proclamation of “I love you” to Pete is met with a snarky “I know”.

tumblr_inline_ms7ml1dxyf1qafcizALWAYS was a modest flop at the box office, met with an indifferent critical and audience reception.  The lack of love given to the film is apparent in its treatment on home video, which hasn’t seen a decent re-release since the dawn of DVD when films were formatted for obsolete 4:3 displays.

The result is a tiny picture surrounded by a sea of black when watched on a modern HD TV.  Hardly the engrossing experience that Spielberg intended.**Edit 12/13/16** ALWAYS has since been released on high definition Blu Ray disc, recapturing its former glory.

Most can agree that Spielberg’s lofty romance, while interesting in its non-secular exploration of the afterlife, never really takes flight.  This might be because his attention was divided by the simultaneous post-production of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE.

This exercise in attention-splitting soon became a regular occurrence for Spielberg, serving as a neat personality division that enabled him to effectively make a big blockbuster and a thought-provoking drama simultaneously. The combination of ALWAYS and THE LAST CRUSADE isn’t a great case example towards this end, but it was great practice for the one-two punches to follow: JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), THE LOST WORLD and AMISTAD (1977), WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH (2005), etc.

To speak of ALWAYS’ legacy is to make a short and (bitter) sweet statement.  Within Spielberg’s larger filmography, its existence is severely overlooked and hasn’t presented much of a case for reappraisal in recent years.  Despite its surface demerits, however, those who give ALWAYS the time of day will find it to be at least an entertaining, if not absorbing, experience.

HOOK (1991)

Peter Pan is one of those cultural touchstones which tends to have a profound effect in people’s lives.  For many, it’s one of the earliest stories told to them, and the details stick because a child’s mind—untainted by the lifetime of experiences that await it– is like a sponge soaking up every little nuance.  This was certainly the case for me.

The memory of watching Disney’s PETER PAN (1953) on VHS during my fifth birthday party is seared into my brain, not to mention an even earlier memory of seeing the film during my first trip to the movie theatre.  I was six when director Steven Spielberg’s HOOK came out in 1991, and it was the first instance where I became cognizant of movies as a big, commercial thing.

I remember all the merchandising and tie-ins that was released in the wake of the film, especially the Lost Boys gear.  Much like re-watching E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) the other day, watching HOOK again for the first time in nearly twenty years was a visceral experience for me.

I’ve accumulated a lifetime of other memories since then, but watching it again was like returning to that innocent, primal mindset.  It’s a testament to Spielberg’s pure, visceral power as a storyteller that he regularly makes such profound marks on the minds of young children.

Given the subject matter of HOOK, written by James V. Hart, it’s clear that nobody else could’ve made this story.  But over twenty years later, the question still remains: was this a story worth telling?  People my age love HOOK, united by the rose-tinted glasses of childhood and the common refrain of “Rufio! Rufio!  Ru-fee-oooooh!”.

But in the cynical adult world, HOOK was a very different beast altogether.  It was considered an indulgent, sloppy affair with little redeeming value.  Spielberg himself had been long perceived as the live-action Walt Disney due to the whimsical sentimentality he brought to his films, so when it was announced he would tackle the ultimate childhood tale that was Peter Pan, nobody was surprised.

His involvement with the project began with its gestation in 1983, back when Michael Jackson was attached to play Peter Pan (which makes a perverted kind of sense).

tumblr_inline_ms9hbjan4u1qafcizPeter Banning (Robin Williams) is a high-powered attorney and a (increasingly absent) father of two children.  One Christmas, he and his family travel to London to visit an old friend of his: Wendy Darling.  While he, his wife, and Wendy are away at a benefit gala in Wendy’s honor, Peter’s two children are abducted from their beds.

Left alone to his grief and at a loss for what to do, Peter is visited by the feisty fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) who transports Peter against his will to the magical world of Neverland.  Once he arrives, he learns that not only are the stories of Peter Pan true, but that he is Peter Pan—and all grown-up.

He’s been away for so long that he’s forgotten how to fly, fight, and crow.  He soon encounters Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), who is shocked at the sight of the flabby, middle-aged Pan before him.

Peter narrowly escapes with his life and joins up with the Lost Boys, who whip him into shape and help him discover his past and his destiny—just in time to challenge Hook to one last fight to the finish and save his abducted children.  In the process of re-awakening the dormant child inside of him, he also learns to become a better father.’

Admittedly, Robin Williams is an eccentric choice for a grown Peter Pan, but I can’t imagine anyone else who could’ve done it better.  He’s convincing both as the workaholic attorney with bad parental skills, as well as the childish, wide-eyed Pan.

It’s a performance reminiscent of his starring turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s JACK (1996)—except inherently more watchable.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at his normal appearance, but Dustin Hoffman is spot-on casting for Captain James Hook.

He absolutely owns the role– so much that friends to this day still use it as a nickname.  Hoffman infuses Hook with the requisite sophistication and gentlemanly airs that the animated Disney incarnation established.  Quite simply, Hoffman is responsible for any joy felt in watching the film, and he’s the best manifestation of the character that ever has been, or will be.

Julia Roberts brings a 90’s edge to Tinkerbell, as well as pint-sized attitude to the grandiose world of Neverland.  Reportedly, she was nicknamed “Tinkerhell” on set due to people finding her difficult to work with (which may have been brought about by an untreated mental disorder, in her defense).

Bob Hoskins is yet another example of pitch-perfect casting as Smee, Hook’s bumbling and jovial henchman.  He becomes such a perfect representation of the character that he’s since gone on to reprise the role in completely unrelated films.  Dante Basco is Rufio, the punk leader of the Lost Boys, and easily the coolest thing about the movie (he still is, damnit).

For many in my generation, his death was the first major cinematic death we experienced and it TORE US APART.  Maggie Smith plays the elderly Wendy Darling, bringing grace and sophistication to a frail old woman who still hasn’t lost her sense of wonder.

And somehow, Gwyneth Paltrow pops up in quick cameo as teenage Wendy, managing to be just as annoying in two seconds as she is in entire films.  HOOK marks Spielberg’s return to the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is used to convey the sweeping, magical scope of the story.

Working with cinematographer Dean Cundey for the first time, Spielberg adopts a palette of bright, bold colors that help Production Designer Norman Garwood’s strikingly imaginative sets come to life.  These sets are further augmented by Spielberg’s inherent sense of sweeping, epic camera movement, which makes Neverland feel like a real, natural place (despite the picture being shot entirely on soundstages).

The stage-show legacy of Peter Pan is also paid homage in the film’s lighting scheme, which opts for a theatrical approach full of deep shadows, moody lantern lights, and even an ethereal green light during the abduction scene reminiscent of Spielberg’s GHOST TRAIN episode for AMAZING STORIES (1985).

Nowadays, Neverland would be entirely rendered in the computer, but the technology’s infancy necessitated the use of matte paintings, miniatures and other old-school techniques to achieve Spielberg’s vision—which has the added benefit of an appropriate handcrafted, childish vibe.  Spielberg’s realization of Neverland is palpable and tangible, and completely captivated my imagination as a child.

John Williams’ score is one of the earliest examples of film music I can remember.  It’s easily the best thing about the film, and far more transcendent than the story it’s meant to support.  The theme as concocted by Williams is soaring and magical—everything that a Peter Pan adventure should be.

While it’s shamelessly manipulative in the sense that it tells us exactly how to feel at any given moment, it’s appropriate for a film like HOOK, which requires a certain degree of checking out on the audiences’ part to fully suspend our disbelief and transport us to the wonderful world that Spielberg and company have created.

To me, William’s HOOK theme is right up there with his best work for Spielberg.  All my childhood daydreams and imagination-based adventures were accompanied by this very theme, and as such it holds a very special place in my heart.

Like ALWAYS (1989) before it, HOOK allows the chance for Spielberg to use the story as a focal point for his own thematic preoccupations.  Even in the adult sequences, HOOK is told from a child’s point of view.   I don’t know why I’m only realizing this now, but it’s clear that his preference for a child’s perspective is why he frequently places the camera at a low angle looking up: it’s how a child would see the world.

Spielberg’s continued use of this technique is appropriate for HOOK, a film whose message is that just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you have to let go of your childhood.  His fascination with flight and aviation is also creatively realized in HOOK.

The film’s story begins with the ironic notion that a grown-up Peter Pan is terrified of flight, evidenced by his crippling anxiety when his plane to London encounters modest turbulence.  Here, flying is depicted as a cramped, regulated and dangerous form of transport.

But later on in the film, Spielberg shows us the exhilaration of soaring, unencumbered flight as Peter takes to the skies with nothing but his own body.  Flying then becomes freeing, transcendent and enlightening.  It’s a physical representation of pure joy and an unburdened zeal for life and creation.

Like INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), HOOK places the father/son relationship dynamic center stage. Peter Banning is the classical absent dad of the 1990’s: a high-powered businessman attached to his cell phone, too little time for his family and too stern in his discipline.  He’s forgotten how to have fun.

As such, his son Jack is alienated from him, and becomes easily swayed in Captain Hook’s favor when the treacherous villain gives him the attention he craves.  The focal point of the story then becomes the inverting of Spielberg’s “absent father” trope—Peter must fight and risk his life to win his son back, and has to embrace his childhood in order to do so.

Roberts, Spielberg, Williams Watch Dailies on 'Hook' Set, 1991.Any way you slice it, HOOK is a divisive film.  While a lot of people within that perfect 5-10 age range (like me) loved the film when it was released, a huge majority of adults hated it.  Spielberg himself has gone on record to express his displeasure with the finished product.

In my opinion, to cynically dismiss the film as whimsical drivel while not allowing for one’s own childhood experiences to transport him/her into the narrative is to miss the entire point of the film.  Then again, the film was such a magical experience for me as a kid that maybe it’s impossible for me to judge it objectively.

Perhaps the rose-tinted glasses have been permanently welded onto my face.  HOOK made a fair amount of money at the box office, but it was deemed a disappointment in the broad stroke.  Even its several Oscar nominations weren’t enough to improve public perception of the film.

Twenty-two years later, HOOK is an albatross that still hangs over Spielberg’s filmography, quickly glossed over if it’s even mentioned in the first place.  Despite its cheery, optimistic tone, HOOK is representative of a very dark, albeit short, period in Spielberg’s life and career.

On the home front, he was wading through a divorce from his wife Amy Irving, and at work he had retreated to the safety of his spectacle work after he wasn’t taken seriously in the dramatic film arena.  The result was akin to seeing the light but then having to go back into the cave.

Spielberg knew he was capable of so much more, but the constraints and restriction of his bread-and-butter genre now left him uninspired and indifferent.  This indifference is certainly tangible in ALWAYS, but much less so in HOOK.

By 1991 however, things were looking up for Spielberg despite HOOK’s public drubbing.  Spielberg re-married, this time to his INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) star Kate Capshaw.  He also began work on two very promising projects- one about dinosaurs and the other about the Holocaust- that would not only catapult him out of his slump, but throw him headlong into the best days of his career: days that would shake the foundations of cinema forever.


Every kid is fascinated by dinosaurs.  It’s a universal given, at least in America.  The idea of giant monsters stomping around a lush, primordial jungle is the stuff that fuels pint-sized imaginations, and the fact that dinosaurs don’t exist anymore gives them a mythic quality.

Understandably, a big Hollywood film purporting to feature realistic dinosaurs was always going to be a gigantic hit.  So when JURASSIC PARK was released to record-breaking numbers in 1993, nobody was surprised.

I was very young in 1993, around 8 or 9 years old.  I had heard stories of how scary JURASSIC PARK was, and was terrified at the prospect of seeing people eaten alive on-screen.  As such, I stayed away from the theaters, and I didn’t see the film until I could watch it in the safety of my own home on VHS.

In terms of my moviegoing life and sense of participation in cinematic history, not going to see JURASSIC PARK during its initial theatrical run and experiencing it with everyone for the first jaw-dropping time remains one of my biggest regrets. For all you punks who were yet to be born in 1993, it’s hard to quantify in words how big of a cultural phenomenon JURASSIC PARK was.

It just wasn’t one of the biggest movies of all time, it was a watershed moment in our culture.  The advent of computer technology that could convincingly render living, breathing animals that had been extinct for 65 million years meant we had the crossed a line– the cinematic equivalent of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity.

We now had the ability to render, on film, anything we could dream up.  The possibilities were endless.  Unlike CGI-heavy fare nowadays, JURASSIC PARK’s effects stand the test of time due to mixing new technology with old techniques from the early days of cinema: matte paintings, miniatures, animatronics, etc.

As a result, not only is JURASSIC PARK just as visually convincing as it was twenty years, ago, but it remains the benchmark against which all other spectacle films are measured.  JURASSIC PARK began with author Michael Crichton’s own fascination with dinosaurs, which he later adapted into the novel upon which the film is based.

He had casually mentioned the idea to director Steven Spielberg as they worked together on a medical procedural film that would later become the hit television show E.R.  After an intense bidding war that saw four studios bid for the project with their best directors, Spielberg was bestowed the honor out of his desire to do for land what JAWS (1975) did for water.

Spielberg obviously knew he had (yet another) massive hit on his hands, but he most likely had no idea at how big the film would actually become.  A billionaire entrepreneur named John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has established an amusement park on a secret island off the coast of Costa Rica.

The attraction?  Real dinosaurs, cloned from the DNA discovered in prehistoric mosquitos trapped in petrified tree sap.  Hammond wishes to obtain the endorsement of one of the world’s leading paleontologists, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), so he invites him and his colleague/girlfriend Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) for a weekend trip down to the island, where they would preview the park along with a few other members of Hammond’s think tank.

  Also making the journey is chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the anxious lawyer Gennaro and Hammond’s own grandchildren (and target audience for the park), Tim and Lex.  They are shocked and stupefied by their first encounters with the dinosaurs, but their wonder and awe is soon replaced by fear and terror when a tropical storm knocks out the park’s power grid and the dinosaurs escape their paddocks.  Trapped on the island, this ragtag group must fend off Hammond’s vicious creations and restore power to the park if they are to escape with their lives.

Spielberg’s cast is notable in that, despite the film’s supersized production value, there aren’t any superstar names involved. By going with less recognizable faces, he further enhances the believability of his story and its characters.  Sam Neill plays Dr. Alan Grant, the tough rugged paleontologist and our protagonist.

He’s somewhat of a technological luddite, which is perfect for a profession focused on the past.  His unease about the future is also manifested in the fact that he is not fond at all of children.  This was a breakout role for Neill, although he hasn’t really been able to transcend it.

In essence, he fell victim to the same curse that Mark Hamill of STAR WARS (1977) did, whereby an actor becomes so well known for a particular role that it’s difficult for them to stand out in others.  As Grant’s colleague/girlfriend Ellie Satler, Lauren Dern is the archetypical 90’s feminist—just as tough and rugged as the men.

Jeff Goldblum is easily the audience favorite as Ian Malcolm.  Malcolm is a sleazy, yet awesome, womanizer who specializes in mathematics and chaos theory.  His enormous intelligence belies his sardonic wit and slick appearance.  Goldblum is such a gifted character actor, and he’s only gotten better with age.

He was such a hit with fans that he was brought back as the lead character for the sequel, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997).  Always dressed in an immaculately white suit, Richard Attenborough lends a jovial, grandfatherly air to the entrepreneurial showman Hammond.

Spielberg felt a personal connection to the Hammond character due to their shared love of putting on a show.  Attenborough is a director himself—his best-known film is the Academy-Award winning GANDHI (1982)—and his inclusion in the film is the second instance of Spielberg casting a well-known director that has influenced him.

The first, as you may remember, was French New Wave pioneer Francois Truffaut in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977).  Bob Peck plays Robert Muldoon, a South African game hunter who keeps the dinosaurs in check.  He’s my favorite character in the entire film, and he gives a subdued and intense performance throughout.

His character is responsible for the “clever girl” line, which is still widely quoted today.  Martin Ferrero is perfect casting as the nebbish, ineffectual attorney Gennaro.  Spielberg has a habit of messing with lawyers in his films, so his insistence that it’s all in good fun rings a little false to me.

Joseph Mazello plays the talkative, inquisitive Tim, and made something of a short-lived splash as a viable actor shortly after the film’s release.  Unlike a lot of child actors whose careers were ruined by puberty, he has experienced a surprising career renaissance in recent years, even performing for David Fincher in THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).

Ariana Richards, who plays Tim’s vegetarian, “hacker” sister Lex, didn’t fare as well as Mazello did career-wise—but not for lack of a compelling performance.   Like Satler, Lex is also indicative of the 90’s girl-power movement in that she is embraces the typically-male-centric world of computers and technology, and is just as (if not more) proficient at it.

And finally, we have Samuel L. Jackson (a year before his PULP FICTION breakout) and Wayne Knight as Ray Arnold and Dennis Nedry, respectively.  Ray is the surly, chain-smoking IT guy responsible for the film’s other line still in widespread use: “hold on to yo’ butts!”.

SEINFELD cast member Knight gets to indulge his sleazier side as the corporate spy charged with smuggling dinosaur embryos out of the park for a rival company.  Nedry is a slimy, vile cretin of a man and Knight plays him with a great deal of glee, relishing the chance to play such an incompetent villain.

JURASSIC PARK finds Spielberg once again working with HOOK’s (1991) Director of Photography, Dean Cundey.  Filmed primarily in Hawaii, JURASSIC PARK has a lush, tropical look that harkens back to the primordial era of the dinosaurs.

The setting allows for the kind of expansive vistas that Spielberg’s idols John Ford or David Lean might shoot, but Spielberg has the modern advantage of aerial helicopter shots and other expensive toys to create the huge scope.  Rick Carter, who previously worked on AMAZING STORIES (1985) for Spielberg, is brought onboard for his first feature with the director as the Production Designer, charged with creating JURASSIC PARK’s primal world.

Several aspects of Carter’s design—from the King Kong-esque park gates to the driverless Ford Explorer SUV’s—are now unspeakably iconic.  Spielberg’s regular editor Michael Kahn shaped the pacing of film primarily on his own after the near-simultaneous production of SCHINDLER’S LIST that same year required Spielberg to depart and entrust the construction of the film to him.

Of course, no discussion or analysis of JURASSIC PARK worth its salt would neglect to mention the invaluable contributions of the late Stan Winston and Phil Tippet.  One of the industry’s foremost creature creators, Winston was responsible for the dinosaur animatronics, which were cumbersome and prone to technical difficulties (especially when rain was involved).

The experience was not unlike the problems encountered by JAWS’ animatronic shark, which regularly broke down in the ocean. Winston added several subtle effects, such as the infamous shot of the T-Rex’s pupils constricting in light, which made the dinosaurs come alive.

His work was a triumph of his trade, and reinforced the believability of the CGI creations.  Phil Tippet was one of the best stop-motion animators in the business, until his craft suddenly became obsolete with the rise of CGI.  As consolation, he was given the title of Dinosaur Supervisor (you had one job, Phil!), which allowed him to use his extensive animation experience in consultation with the CG team’s efforts.

While you could say this was a tragic story for Tippet, it actually opened up a whole new direction for his career, and he’s still in demand today as one of the industry’s top effects experts.  The contributions of these real-life wizards are unfathomably valuable and directly responsible to JURASSIC PARK’s groundbreaking success.

More importantly, their efforts paved the way for a new generation of films limited only by their makers’ imaginations.  As expected, John Williams is once again on scoring duties, crafting yet another insanely iconic suite of cues that rival his work on STAR WARS, JAWS or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).

Williams adopt a big, soaring orchestral sound as well as primal drums to convey the lofty themes of the film, perfectly capturing Spielberg’s tone and joining in our collective amazement of witnessing dinosaurs walk among us.  One aspect of Spielberg’s work that I never realized before is his propensity for making his protagonists scientists, or teachers– people who are on a quest for knowledge.

JAWS has Hooper the shark expert, Indiana Jones is both an archaeologist and a university professor, and Dr. Alan Grant is a paleontologist.  I suspect this is because Spielberg’s films are about the joy (and alternatively the terror) of discovery, of encountering the unknown.

His protagonists not only help deliver otherwise-clumsy exposition through their characterization, but ground his films in fact and reason.  The nature of a movie that takes on an awed emotion in the presence of dinosaurs automatically assumes a child’s perspective.

Tim and Lex are there to justify it in a literal sense, but even the adult characters experience a child-like amazement at what their creations have wrought.   Additionally, Spielberg’s depiction of the strained father relationship continues with Grant presented as someone with an inherent dislike of children.

The events of the story force him to intervene and save the vulnerable Tim and Lex, and he subsequently develops a paternal bond with them.  By the end, he’s at ease with his patriarchal relationship to them, and his character arc is complete.

This arc continues the inverted trajectory of Spielberg’s own explorations with his father and the softening of their tense relationship in the wake of his own fatherhood.  JURASSIC PARK is the kind of movie that only comes along once in a lifetime.

Even when watching the dailies, Spielberg and company knew they had something really special.  Their predictions were validated when the film became a box office juggernaut, quickly ascending to become the highest-grossing film of all time (reigning for a short period before James Cameron’s TITANIC deposed it four years later).

JURASSIC PARK also received widespread critical and audience acclaim, with the general conclusion being that Spielberg had made a veritable masterpiece.  The film’s stratospheric performance resulted in a new franchise that would birth two more sequels in 1997 and 2001 (with a third in development for 2015).

It also became an unstoppable merchandising force, flooding the marketplace with toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes, video games, Halloween costumes, etc.  The infamous skeleton logo of JURASSIC PARK was inescapable in the summer of 1993.  In 2013, it was converted to 3-D and re-released in cinemas to celebrate its twentieth anniversary.

While I’m always wary of 3D films in general, I wasted no time in getting myself to the theater.  I had missed the boat the first time around, and now I finally had a chance to redeem myself and experience JURASSIC PARK the way I had always wanted to.

The 3-D was meh, but the visceral thrill of seeing those dinosaurs up on the big screen was undeniable.  I can’t stress how significant the year 1993 is in the context of Spielberg’s career.  He directed two features that year—one being the biggest film of all time and the other being a personal masterpiece.

For one director to achieve that in a single year, let alone a lifetime, is a feat that most likely will never be surpassed.  This feat also gave rise to the curious bifurcation of Spielberg’s aesthetic and general approach to filmmaking.

Spielberg is not a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, who can infuse a big-budget spectacle film with a layered thematic subtext and characterization usually reserved for a serious drama. Instead, Spielberg has to parse and divide it out.

That’s not to say his blockbuster work is devoid of serious moments or in-depth characterization—rather, he makes more of a concrete distinction.  This bifurcation tends to occur most blatantly in the years in which he does two films.  Just as he 180’d from the soaring spectacle of JURASSIC PARK to the intimate heartbreak of SCHINDLER’S LIST, so did he pivot from the explosive apocalyptica of WAR OF THE WORLDS to the brooding, controlled anguish of MUNICH in 2005.

No other director, aside from maybe Steven Soderbergh, is able to flip on a dime like this, going from a “movie” to a “film”.

tumblr_inline_msk7g9sgib1qafcizThere’s no understating how much of a cultural transformation JURASSIC PARK brought about.  It recaptured our thirst for discovery and science, unburdened filmmakers of the shortcomings of technology, and redefined humanity’s collective interpretation of dinosaurs.  When we think of dinosaurs, we think of JURASSIC PARK.

The two are inextricably linked now.  For Steven Spielberg, JURASSIC PARK not only assured his legacy as a great filmmaker, it enshrined it.


When I was 10, 11 years old, I acted in little plays at a local theatre in Portland.  One of the instructors there was in the process of making a film—her “directorial debut”—called “The Christmas Menorah”.  One weekend she needed some child extras for the shoot.  I was discovering my love for movies at that time, so I eagerly volunteered my services and looked forward to seeing a real film shoot in action.

So I showed up on the appointed day in an industrial alleyway somewhere in east Portland to a curious sight: a dingy old Bolex on a rusty tripod, pointed at a line of children made up to look like dirty, hungry orphans and a man in a Nazi uniform shepherding them along.  Even at my young age, I realized I was on the set of a movie about the Holocaust.

I still remember the scene well.  It was one of those melodramatic scenes you’d see in an old Hollywood film like CASABLANCA (1942), with a man in a noir-ish fedora hat picking his Jewish lover out of the marching line and stealing one last silver screen kiss before they were wrenched apart, and she was sent off to some terrible fate at the concentration camp.

In other words, it was trivial and clichéd.  I ran into the director sometime after the shoot and asked how the movie was going, and she casually replied that she’d “be a famous Hollywood director in five years”.  Something about the naïve confidence and air of entitlement in her remarks struck me as false, despite being the wide-eyed little boy I was.

  Looking back on it now, I realize how calculating and cynical her motives were, and how disgusting it is when aspiring filmmakers exploit such grave subject matter as the Holocaust solely because they think it will grant them instant prestige and respectability (and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t even Jewish).  For the record, I don’t think she ever finished the film, and Googling her name doesn’t yield a single result, let alone any sort of Hollywood fame.

I mention this little anecdote because it’s relevant to a larger phenomenon that cropped up sometime around the mid-1990s: the clichéd Holocaust/Oscar Bait melodrama.  It’s such a broadly-recognized trope that it’s still used as a comedic shorthand for poking fun at pretentious art films.

Just yesterday I read an article previewing this fall’s awards season lineup, which awarded a spectrum of 1-4 Holocaust Orphans to convey how “artsy” it was anticipated to be.  Callous, insensitive jokes like this persist because, I believe, it is only human nature to respond to unfathomably inhuman evil and cruelty (like genocide) with humor.

Of course, every meme (for lack of a better word) needs a collective inciting event to base itself around, but all of the genre’s clichés and ridicule can’t detract from the heartwrenching power of its source: SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).  SCHINDLER’S LIST is one of the most powerful films ever made, bar none.

It is impossible to get through the film without openly weeping.  It’s not just a great film, but it’s an important document about one of the worst atrocities ever committed upon humanity.  When it was released, it sent shockwaves throughout the industry, stunning fans of director Steven Spielberg with an abrupt dismissal of his signature theatricality and sentimentality in exchange for an unadorned, intimate and heartbreaking verite style of filmmaking.

To many who had followed his life and career, it was an overnight paradigm shift.


For Spielberg himself, it was anything but abrupt.  SCHINDLER’S LIST had been a long-gestating project that he was courting for a decade, and at some points had even tried to pass on the directing duties to Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder because he didn’t feel he had reached the maturity required to tackle it.

However, the birth of Spielberg’s son began a long reckoning with his Jewish heritage and the anti-Semitism he had encountered in his youth.  He channeled these meditations into his most personal film, and the ordeal of making it became an artistic rebirth that rewarded him with the best reception of any of his works, and long-overdue recognition at the Oscars.

SCHINDLER’S LIST is set during World War 2 in Poland, the epicenter of Hitler’s Final Solution that saw millions of Jews relocated in urban ghettoes and subsequently into murderous concentration camps.  Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a wealthy playboy industrialist aligned with the Nazi Party.

Sensing an opportunity for mass profit with minimal expense, he opens a metal goods factory staffed by Jews contacted into indentured servitude.  When the Nazis’ murderous operations begin robbing him of his work force, Schindler fights to get them back, but purely out of capitalistic sentiments.

His close relationship with his business partner and well-respected elder member of the Judenrat, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), soon opens his eyes to the horrible atrocities inflicted upon his employees.  After witnessing firsthand the extent of the Nazis’ inhumanity, he spends his massive fortune bribing SS Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in exchange for extracting his employees to a sub-camp where he can guarantee their safety.

Soon, Schindler and Stern establish a special list, and subsequently, a plan that will spare his workers’ lives and redeem his own shameful association with the Nazi Party.  Neeson paints an atypical vision of a Nazi associate as the sophisticated showman, Schindler.

His performance resulted in a significant boosting of his profile, all the more impressive considering how tough it is to make someone sympathize with a Nazi.  Despite the odds, he pulls it off with effortless class and grace.  On the other end of the spectrum lies Fiennes’ Amon Goeth, a cold-blooded Nazi Lieutenant and the personification of evil.

He uses Jews as target practice, sniping them from his villa atop the mountain ringing the concentration camp, and imposes his sexual will on any camper who captures his fancy.  Fiennes gives an unforgettable performance, adopting a flabby frame that belies the icy focus and discipline he applies to ideological pursuits.

Kingsley disappears into his makeup as Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s confidante and authority figure amongst the Jewish community.  His performance is heartbreaking in his depiction of a man who can only watch as his world is swallowed up around him.

For the rest of the cast, Spielberg wisely used complete unknowns to fill out the key Schindler Jews, further lending to the film’s overall sense of realism and immediacy.  SCHINDLER’S LIST marks the first time that Spielberg works with Janusz Kaminski as his Director of Photography.

This began a long collaboration, in which Kaminski has served as DP for every one of Spielberg’s films since.  Visually, Kaminski’s participation also brought out a distinct change in Spielberg’s aesthetic—harder, gritter, more distinctive.  They didn’t just ease into things, they jumped headlong into the change by choosing to shoot entirely on black and white film.

The change in film format required a drastic change towards a noir-ish lighting style, with Kaminski expertly navigating the grey spaces between his deep, dark shadows and diffused, blooming highlights.  Despite being shot primarily on black and white film stock, punches of color dot SCHINDLER’S LIST in key moments, such as the opening and closing ritual sequences and the infamous Girl In The Red Coat scene.

Spielberg’s camerawork, which is usually preoccupied with elaborate camera movements designed to give a grandiose scale, is appropriately reserved to reflect the somber subject matter.  His coverage is straightforward, often opting for handheld set-ups that establish a simple, unadorned look that’s at once both journalistic and formal.

Simply put, SCHINDLER’S LIST is one of the most visually striking yet stripped-down films to come out of Hollywood in recent memory.  Reinforcing this new aesthetic is editor Michael Kahn, who won an Oscar for his somber construction of Spielberg’s footage.

Several distinct moments—the clearing of the Krakow ghetto, the shipping off of the camp’s children while the parents are oblivious—are indicative of the care and thought that went into every splice.  At over 3 hours, the film is long.  But a film like this needs to be, as every detail needs to be reflected upon, and the full weight of the Nazis’ atrocities need to come to bear for Spielberg’s message to hit home.

Spielberg’s musical maestro John Williams, also returns, winning yet another Oscar from their collaboration together.  Like Spielberg, Williams opts for a reserved approach, crafting a simple suite of cues that takes inspiration from traditional Jewish hymnals.

His elegiac theme acutely captures the heartache and tragedy of the Holocaust as well as the dignity and courage of the people who endured it.  A variety of period music fills out the soundscape, most notably during the glamorous social bashes that Schindler attends.

The somber subject matter of SCHINDLER’S LIST requires an honest, authentic, and serious approach.  Spielberg realizes this, and he foregoes his usual box of tricks in favor of a “back to basics” philosophy that prizes simplicity and the immediacy of documentary in telling his story.  Despite looking so different from every Spielberg film that came before it, SCHINDLER’S LIST is still inherently a Spielberg film.  T

he World War 2 setting continues the director’s exploration of and fascination with that particular time period.  What’s important to note, however, is that the Nazis are no longer the harmless cartoon villains that they were in 1941 (1979) or the INDIANA JONES series.

SCHINDLER’S LIST is a true story, and the Nazis are depicted as they were in real life- vicious, cruel, and ingrained by Hitler’s cult of personality that denied Jews any semblance of humanity and allowed them to carelessly execute Jews in the street like they were putting dogs out of their misery.

Instead of channeling the likes of big-budget influences like David Lean or John Ford, Spielberg draws inspiration from farther-flung idols.  The unadorned black and white cinematography recalls Roberto Rossellini’s Italian Neorealist works.  Several instances of jump cuts suggest the influence of French New Wave vanguard Jean-Luc Godard (who hated SCHINDLER’S LIST, by the way).

A match cut from the smoke of a recently-extinguished candle in the present day to the ashy cloud belching from the stacks of a train in 1939 Poland is obviously expressing his admiration for Stanley Kubrick’s own radical use of match cuts.  There is no child-like perspective on display here, as this film is very much about the loss and rape of innocence that an indiscriminate genocide such as The Holocaust engenders.

Children are present, but all we see through their eyes is fear and confusion.  They have no way of comprehending what is being done to them, no explanation their parents could give to pacify them.  It’s heartbreaking to watch unfold, especially with the knowledge that all of this actually happened.

Spielberg made SCHINDLER’S LIST with every expectation that it would be a massive flop.  And he had every reason to: who would pay to see a black and white film about a depressing subject that was over three hours long?  Thankfully, he was wrong.

The film was released to surprising box office success and a wave of critical praise that led to Oscar statuettes for Spielberg’s key collaborators (writer Steve Zaillian for Best Adapted Screenplay, Kahn for Editing, Kaminski for Cinematography and Williams for Music), as well as personal wins for Best Picture and the Best Director Oscar that had long eluded him since 1975’s JAWS.  His big gamble paid off with some of the highest honors Hollywood could bestow on its own, thereby cementing his status as one of the best American directors working today.

It was so good that even his idol, Stanley Kubrick, felt he couldn’t surpass its quality and subsequently abandoned his own long-gestating Holocaust film, THE ARYAN PAPERS.  SCHINDLER’S LIST’s legacy has only grown, notching an induction in the National Film Registry in 2004 and creating a tidal wave of goodwill with Shoah Foundation, which Spielberg founded in the wake of the film’s success to record the testimonies of those who lived through this horrible atrocity so that it may never happen again.

tumblr_inline_msmmdntk9u1qafcizPersonally speaking, SCHINDLER’S LIST was the most emotionally affecting and exhausting production of his entire career.  Several parts of the film are difficult to watch, so I can only imagine what it was like to actually stage it.  Rumors abounded that Spielberg would openly and privately weep several times throughout the shoot.

The production of the film became a transformative event in his life because for the first time, the public looked upon him as an artist, not just as a director of mainstream, blockbuster studio films.  In the same year, he achieved every filmmaker’s dream (secret or not): having the highest-grossing film of all time in JURASSIC PARK and a critically lauded film that swept the Oscars in SCHINDLER’S LIST.

He was at the apex of his career– the culmination of decades of hard work, passion, and agony.  Since then, his career has seen its up and downs, and he’s even managed to make several films that come close to equaling his efforts on SCHINDLER’S LIST.  However, SCHINDLER’S LIST will remain the film that he is forever remembered for, and the one that will secure his place in the pantheon of Great Directors for all of time.


The year 1993 was such a rewarding and exhausting year for director Steven Spielberg that he needed a fair amount of time to recover.  After taking home the Directing Oscar for SCHINDLER’S LIST, he embarked on a directing hiatus that would last for four years.

During this time, Spielberg was busy shepherding other project as a producer, and the author of the novel “Jurassic Park”, Michael Crichton, had begun working on a sequel novel called “The Lost World”.  Obviously, Spielberg had first crack at the material once Crichton was finished, and he was eager to return to the world of JURASSIC PARK as his follow-up to SCHINDLER’S LIST.

In 1997, he got his wish and after four long years away from the camera, he returned to the set of THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK as Steven Spielberg, Academy-Award Winning Director.

tumblr_inline_msq6hdbjsc1qafcizFour years after the incident on Isla Nublar, control of billionaire entrepreneur and CEO John Hammond’s Ingen Corporation has been wrestled away from him and handed to his own nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard).

In an attempt to staunch the bleeding inflicted by all the wrongful death suits filed by the families of the original film’s victims, Ludlow discloses the existence of Site B—a separate island called Isla Sorna where dinosaurs have been allowed to roam and breed freely.  Ludlow plans to send a crack team of mercenaries to Isla Sorna, capture some of the dinosaurs, and bring them back to San Diego where he can exhibit them in a scaled-down facility.

  Meanwhile, the increasingly-frail Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has sent a team of his own to photograph the animals in their natural habitats for environmental purposes. Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), a survivor of the first incident on Isla Nublar, leads this team with the intention of rescuing his paleontologist girlfriend, Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), who has already been working on the island alone for weeks.

As the two teams butt heads with each other and the dinosaurs inflict catastrophic damage on their operations, they find they must work together if they’re going to get off this island alive.  Reprising his role of Dr. Ian Malcolm from the original JURASSIC PARK, Jeff Goldblum’s trademark sardonic wit is intact, but mellowed out by age.

I initially thought it a strange choice to make Malcolm the lead the second time around and forego Sam Neill’s Alan Grant, but it’s clear that Spielberg was after a very different flavor of adventure here, and Goldblum more than holds his own as a heroic leading man.  Julianne Moore plays his girlfriend Sarah Harding, a woman whose toughness, resilience, and intelligence makes her a great match for Malcolm.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK was the first time I had ever seen Moore in a film, and the same goes with the late, venerable character actor Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo.  Tembo is a layered, inherently likeable antagonist, and fills in the “great white hunter” archetype that Bob Peck’s Robert Muldoon so eloquently established in the original.

And then there’s a young Vince Vaughn, thrust into the big leagues off of the strength of his performance in SWINGERS (1996).  He plays Nick Van Owen, a no-nonsense documentary photographer and environmentalist.  I always liked Vaughn’s character and hoped he would return in future installments, but Vaughn’s too established as a comedy star now to make that a likely proposition.

Also reprising his role from the original JURASSIC PARK is Richard Attenborough as John Hammond.  Four years on, Hammond is sickly, but Attenborough still has that grandfatherly twinkle in his eye.  Vanessa Lee Chester plays Kelly Curtis, Malcolm’s daughter and an aspiring gymnast.

Her performance is fine, but she can’t hold a candle to JURASSIC PARK’s Tim and Lex (both of whom make a brief, pleasant cameo early in the film).  Peter Stormare of FARGO (1996) and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) fame plays Dieter Stark, Roland’s second-hand man.

Dieter is a ruthless mercenary who gets his come-uppance after antagonizing a pack of Compys.  Eddie Schiff, prior to his WEST WING breakout, plays Eddie Carr, the blue-collar equipment specialist of the group.  Spielberg brings back SCHINDLER’S LIST’s cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, to lens THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK– bringing a distinctively darker edge to the JP universe.

Kaminski’s style is very different from cinematographers Spielberg has used in the past, opting for a grittier look that favors dark shadows and blooming highlights.  Kaminski’s lighting is also more theatrical, favoring evocative shafts of light that give off something of an industrial edge.

THE LOST WORLD also sees a return to the David Lean-esque style of filmmaking that Spielberg was known for: big, sweeping camera movements, aerial shots, cranes, etc.  JURASSIC PARK’s Production Designer Rick Carter returns, as does editor Michael Kahn.

There’s significantly more CGI present this time around, as the technology had developed by leaps and bounds in the intervening years.  Unfortunately, this also has the unintended side effect of dating the film more drastically than the original.

Maestro John Williams reprises the iconic JURASSIC PARK theme, modifying it to fit Spielberg’s darker tone with a moodier, dissonant sound.    Williams also uses a variety of drums and horns to add a primal, tribal nature that reflects Isla Sorna’s foreboding, untouched jungle.

THE LOST WORLD is a return to Spielberg’s bread-and-butter, the blockbuster spectacle genre, after the personal artistic renaissance that was SCHINDLER’S LIST.  For the most part, Spielberg falls right back into his comfort zone: low angles, the requisite awe/wonder shots, lens flares, silhouettes, superbly-crafted set pieces (the nail-biting cliffhanging scene), suburban settings (such as when the T-Rex terrorizes a quiet residential street in San Diego), and the estranged father dynamic illustrated by Malcolm’s quarrelling with his daughter Kelly.

However, there’s a palpable edge and darkness that hangs over the proceedings, as if Spielberg had lost his sense of cinematic innocence after SCHINDLER’S LIST.  He’s even said in interviews that he grew increasingly disenchanted with THE LOST WORLD during filming because he began to miss the richness of story that a film like SCHINDLER’S LIST afforded him, that a blockbuster monster movie had no need for.

People noticed Spielberg’s disenchantment when it was projected on the big screen, and it had a profound effect on how the film was ultimately received.  Financially, THE LOST WORLD was a huge hit, breaking several records when it released in the summer of 1997.

However, most critics and audiences considered the film a disappointment.  They were put off by the dark tone, and a story that simply wasn’t as compelling as the first one.  Of course, a sequel to a towering cinematic phenomenon like JURASSIC PARK was always going to have unrealistically sky-high expectations, but even the efforts of a newly-minted Oscar Winner couldn’t measure up.

In the years since, THE LOST WORLD’s image has improved slightly, but only because it status as “Worst Jurassic Park Movie” was usurped by Joe Johnston’s hollow entry, JURASSIC PARK III (2001).

tumblr_inline_msq6ieg2di1qafcizThere’s a well-documented phenomenon concerning Oscar winners: usually, their next project after taking home the gold comes out to be a flop, or a disappointment of some sort.  Why does this continually happen?  Does scoring Oscar gold open filmmakers up to the temptation of indulgence, or even complacency?

In the case of Spielberg, it’s a little easier to discern.  It’s clear that his experience on SCHINDLER’S LIST fundamentally changed who he was as an artist.  He could no longer make the family-friendly popcorn movies that made his name– at least not in the way he had done so in the past.

His disenchantment with the genre is highly evident in THE LOST WORLD’s final product, and what should have been a slam-dunk became an off-tone, half-hearted effort.

AMISTAD (1997)

1997 was shaping up to be a year similar to 1993 for director Steven Spielberg.  Both years had him working on two films simultaneously, one a massive popcorn blockbuster and the other a harrowing historical drama.  But if the one-two punch of twin successes JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST were a career-high for Spielberg, then 1997’s double-feature was something of a letdown.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, while financially successful, was mostly a disappointment.  During its production, Spielberg grew bored with the material and longed to return to the world of serious social drama, a genre that invigorated him and satisfied his creative cravings.  At the same time, he was in full-on Producer mode, establishing an independent studio called Dreamworks with his colleagues David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Meanwhile, David Franzoni (who would later write the Oscar-winning film GLADIATOR (2000)) had written a script called AMISTAD about the mutiny of a slave ship and the ensuing court case over their legal rights as people—a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1841.

Spielberg responded strongly to Franzoni’s script, and despite the poor reception of 1985’s THE COLOR PURPLE with black audiences, he felt compelled to make AMISTAD as his next film, getting right into it after wrapping production on THE LOST WORLD.

The year is 1839, and a slave ship called The Amistad is en route to Cuba.  One night, a captive slave named Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) manages to free himself and his people from their shackles and take over the ship with murderous force.  Without a crew to steer the ship, they are stranded at sea for several days, until an American ship rescues them and, upon discovering their mutiny, promptly throws them into prison in the port city of New Haven, Connecticut.

  Several parties lay claim to the prisoners, ranging from Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin) to a cadre of various property owners asserting their own claims on the captives.  Enter an ambitious young real estate lawyer named Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), who sees not a civil property case, or a criminal case, but a case that gets to the very heart of the American principle of Freedom—and who is entitled to it.

With the help of colleagues Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), Baldwin launches an aggressive campaign to secure the prisoners’ liberty.

The great thing about helming a historical drama is a director like Spielberg gets to surround himself with a host of the finest actors around.  Hounsou has the role of a lifetime as Cinque, the determined slave at the center of the story.

He effectively channels the primal, tribal nature of his character, and his un-tempered ferocity is striking against the sophisticated forces of civilization against him.  McConaughey’s real estate attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin is intellectual and insightful.  McConaughey has been enjoying a career renaissance as of late, turning in several compelling performances for great directors (after a string of insipid, uninspired romantic comedies), but his knack for great characterization is evident even during his relatively early years.

Revered thespian Anthony Hopkins is great casting as John Quincy Adams, who assumes a regal, frail frame possessed with an acerbic wit.  By the time of AMISTAD, he’s already an ex-President, and now serves as a Congressman where he lives out his days aimlessly until he’s re-energized by the Amistad case.

Hopkins turns in a masterful, Oscar-nominated performance that perfectly captures an admittedly evil-looking man with a sense of grace, dignity and righteousness befitting an American president.  Morgan Freeman also gives an expectedly great performance as Theodore Joadson, an ex-slave turned free man/abolitionist who finds himself confronting his own demons in the wake of the Amistad case.

Spielberg fills out his supporting cast with some old faces, as well as some new.  THE LOST WORLD alums Pete Postlethwaite and Arliss Howard were plucked from that film’s production to perform in AMISTAD as New Haven District Attorney Holabird and ex-Vice-President John Calhoun, respectively.

Just as they were in THE LOST WORLD, they are antagonistic towards our heroes’ goals, but here they are much more humanized and richly-layered in their intentions.  Anna Paquin is serviceable as Isabella, the bratty child queen of Spain.  Chiwitel Ejiofer plays the important role of Ensign James Covey, the British translator between McConaughey and Cinque.

His appearance here foreshadows his reportedly compelling, potentially-award-winning performance in Steve McQueen’s upcoming 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Stellan Skarsgard gives a good go at Tappan, a bank owner and McConaughey’s ally, but he’s lost in the clutter of Spielberg’s talented, yet crowded cast.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski returns to lens AMISTAD, bringing his signature aesthetic (deep wells of shadow against diffused, blooming highlights) to bear on Spielberg’s traditionally grandiose, David Lean-esque style.  For a historical drama, the look is surprisingly atmospheric: shafts of light give an impressionistic vibe while an unflinching eye stands steadfast in the face of gore.

Spielberg also uses colors in a meaningful way, with a cobalt blue tinting prison sequences that illustrates the somberness of the slaves’ plight.  Conversely, the courtroom and aristocrat/bureaucrat sequences are rendered in warm, sunny tones to greater convey the contrast between classes.

Spielberg’s camerawork is somewhat reserved, relying chiefly on dolly tracks to add production value while keeping an intimate degree of scale.  Also returning are Production Designer Rick Carter, Editor Michael Kahn, and musical maestro John Williams, all dedicated to subtly reinforcing Spielberg’s aesthetic.

Williams bases his somber, elegiac score off of choral elements and primal drums that convey both the forces of religious Anglo-Saxon-dom and the African slaves.  The effect is at once both harmonious and disharmonious.    AMISTAD’s score is a fairly unmemorable one, but it does a good job of complementing the period trappings and tone of Spielberg’s vision.

There are several visual conceits that give away Spielberg’s hand: lens flares, silhouettes, low angle compositions, star fields, and the awe/wonder shot (manifested most concretely in the “give us free!” sequence).  Spielberg’s continued reverence for and friendship with fellow director Stanley Kubrick is hinted at once again via a jarring match cut that occurs early in the film, whereby we cut from the face of a black prisoner to that of a pristine, white doll in Spain.

While AMISTAD is visually in-line with Spielberg’s past work, it doesn’t retain some of his most consistent thematic preoccupations—there’s the noticeable absence of a child-based, innocent perspective or a strained father/son relationship.  However, AMISTAD does continue Spielberg’s emergent exploration of people in persecution—a thematic conceit that arose with THE COLOR PURPLE and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), and was masterfully depicted in SCHINDLER’S LIST.

The emergence of this theme as a prominent aspect of Spielberg’s filmmaking can be traced back to the alienation he felt as a child due to his Jewish heritage.  While AMISTAD can be counted among Spielberg’s now-populous corner of serious “social issue” works, it didn’t make a splash like its counterparts have.

AMISTAD received mostly positive reviews and moderate box office receipts upon its release, along with a few Oscar nominations (but no wins).  Today, AMISTAD’s legacy is almost negligible compared to the rest of its genre, but on its own, it holds up as a compelling, finely-crafted historical drama.

Within the broad strokes of Spielberg’s career, AMISTAD feels less like a fully formed feature and more like a dress rehearsal for his 2012 opus LINCOLN (both films occur in a similar time period and have similarly bureaucratic storylines and stately tones).  The film’s biggest contribution to Spielberg’s growth as a filmmaker is its existence as one of the first releases of Dreamworks Studios—the culmination of a dream between the director and several industry titans to make big films like the traditional studios, but on their own terms.


The DVD format is significant within the world of cinema, because it really established the idea of a home video “library”—even more so than VHS or Laserdisc before it.  DVDs were (relatively) cheap, so the cost of entry was low, and the inclusion of special features enhanced the sense of value and ownership while creating an unheard-of level of public appreciation for films and the art of making them.

The purchase of our first DVD player was a momentous occasion in the Beyl household.  We bought it as a gift for my dad on Father’s Day, and of course we needed an appropriate DVD to go along with it.  Judging by the hours spent watching old documentaries on the History Channel, my dad was fascinated by World War 2, so SAVING PRIVATE RYAN– a well-respected WW2 film from director Steven Spielberg– was a no-brainer.

I was about thirteen years old at the time, and I had never really been exposed to R-rated films.  As such, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN became my introduction to the R-rated, adult world of cinema, much like how 1982’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL was my introduction to cinema altogether.

Watching SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was a powerful experience—my young mind was unaccustomed to the brutal violence on display.  It was shocking, to say the least.  Yet, it wasn’t disgust, or horror, or even titillation at the sight of the festival of gore that was the film’s opening D-Day sequence.

Rather, the unflinching violence hammered home the horrors of war and provided illumination on the absolute hell confronted by The Greatest Generation.  The trials faced by The Greatest Generation in World War 2 had always shaped director Steven Spielberg’s sensibilities in a profound way.

He has stated in interviews that he considers the war to be the single most important event of the last 100 years; a moment where the fate of the world hinged on the efforts of brave men and women standing up to combat unfathomable evil.  His father, Arnold Spielberg, served in the war, and would regale his children stories of his experiences.

Young Steven was fascinated by these stories, so when he managed to get his hands on a film camera, he made several amateur war films like ESCAPE TO NOWHERE and FIGHTER SQUAD (1961).  These productions, filmed with the help of his friends, enjoyed Arnold’s access to authentic military props, uniforms, and even grounded fighter planes.

Ever since then, the defining conflict of the Twentieth Century has played some role in most of Spielberg’s films, with his very best works taking place directly inside it.

tumblr_inline_mt1fkupndj1qafcizDespite World War 2 being such a prominent fixation in his work, Spielberg had yet to actually make a film that addressed the conflict directly.  In other words, he had yet to make a “war movie”.  When he was presented writer Robert Rodat’s script about a band of brothers risking their lives behind enemy lines to rescue one man, Spielberg was immediately drawn to the concept.

Having been artistically reinvigorated after the production of SCHINDLER’S LIST in 1993, Spielberg started shooting SAVING PRIVATE RYAN almost immediately after production on 1997’s AMISTAD wrapped.  The finished film became a perfect meld of story and Spielberg’s sensibilities, and has come to be regarded as an important masterpiece to rival even SCHINDLER’S LIST.

Additionally, it led directly to Spielberg’s second Directing Oscar, further cementing his legacy as not just one of our greatest directors, but also as a national treasure.

tumblr_inline_mt1fmeiw1u1qafcizSAVING PRIVATE RYAN takes place in 1944, near the end of the European theatre of World War 2.  It begins on D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, that began with one of the most horrific singular slaughters in human history.

Amidst this chaos, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) plays a pivotal role in securing the beach, and for his efforts is rewarded with a mission that comes “straight from the top”.  There is a family of four brothers—the Ryans—and the military has just learned that three of the four have died in battle, with the mother set to receive all three death notifications on the same day.

They have arranged for the surviving brother, Private James Francis Ryan, to be sent home—but the only trouble is he’s gone missing after the botched air assault and parachuting-in of troops that preceded D-Day.  Captain Miller and a ragtag team of soldiers must now traverse the Nazi-occupied French countryside, dodging death and their own misgivings about the mission at every turn.

Spielberg and Tom Hanks go together like peanut butter and jelly—Hanks’ everyman qualities lend themselves quite well to Spielberg’s Frank Capra-influenced sensibilities.  As Captain Miller, Hanks is an unheroic, conflicted protagonist with a form of PTSD that manifests itself in a constantly-trembling hand.

Hanks turns in a great performance, despite not being the type of guy you think of when casting a war film.  He’s a humanized avatar for the Greatest Generation—we think of them as this heroic set of people, full of confidence and valor.  But the truth is they were scared and uncertain, battling their own personal demons and the burden they carried.

It’s at once both a realistic and honest portrayal, as well as a reverential tribute to their sacrifice.  Matt Damon plays the titular Private Ryan, a stubborn, All-American farm boy from Iowa.  When SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was made, Damon was enjoying a mainstream breakout in the midst of winning an Oscar for Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997).

Appearing in a Spielberg film raised his profile significantly, and positioned him to work with some of the very best directors to ever grace the screen.  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s supporting cast is just as fleshed out as its leads, a crucial necessity if we are to care for the wellbeing of this platoon of soldiers.

Tom Sizemore, who apparently is in every war film ever made, plays the gruff, blue-collar Sergeant Horvath.  Fellow director Edward Burns plays Private Reiben, a cynical, hot-tempered Brooklynite and the main voice of rebellion against the mission.  Barry Pepper turns in a memorable performance as Private Jackson, a religious sniper with a southern drawl.

Comedian Adam Goldberg plays Private Mellish, the Jewish member of the squad who is overwhelmed by the Nazis’ slaughter of the Jews and fights to avenge his people.  Vin Diesel finds in the role of Italian brute Private Caparzo his mainstream breakout.  Before SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was a little-known actor and indie director in his own right, and was cast after Spielberg saw his feature debut and wrote in a role specifically for him.

Giovanni Ribisi rounds out the supporting cast as the stubborn and determined medic, Wade, who is constantly risking his life to save others who have fallen in the line of fire.  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN also contains a number of fascinating cameos.  Ted Danson plays the Allied commander in Neuville.

Paul Giamatti plays Danson’s neurotic sergeant, who acts as a guide when Miller’s squad arrives.  A young-looking Bryan Cranston shows up as a one-armed desk jockey Officer who brings the Ryan brothers to the attention of his superiors.  And the late, great Dennis Farina plays Lt. Col. Anderson, the field commander on Utah Beach who gives Miller his fateful assignment.

Spielberg re-teams with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, their second collaboration to net an Oscar for the cameraman.  The first thing to notice about SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s look is the use of the gritty, verite handheld aesthetic during the combat sequences, similar to the style that made SCHINDLER’S LIST so powerful.

This look is employed to great effect, amplified by a 45 degree shutter that makes the action faster and more frenetic, while exaggerating the sense of chaos and disorientation.  It’s almost hyper-real.  The quieter scenes are supplanted by the traditional, sweeping Spielberg style created through the extensive use of crane shots and dolly track moves.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is easily one of Spielberg’s most visually-stylized films, exaggerating the now-trademark Kaminski/Spielberg look (crushed blacks, diffused blooming highlights) with a high contrast, cross-processed look that washes out all the colors and skews the palette towards drab earth tones while increasing the grain structure.  The effect is intended to emulate old color newsreel footage from the period, which wasn’t as glamorous as Technicolor.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s award-winning cinematography proved highly influential.  In embracing chaos and employing a documentary style of filmmaking, Spielberg and Kaminski redefined the cinematic language of the ware genre.  Most, if not all, of the war films that followed in the wake of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s success—BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), THE HURT LOCKER (2008), to name a few—mimicked this shaky, disorienting style to communicate the horror and confusion of modern war.

Michael Kahn’s editing deserves singular praise for stringing together the massive amount of footage in a compelling, visceral manner while keeping our sense of geography and character amidst the cacophonous chaos.  It’s insanely immersive, throwing us headlong into the maelstrom from Frame 1.

Of further note, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was one of the last major motion pictures to be edited during the days of linear flatbed editing’s dominance.   The film’s release coincided with the rise of digital nonlinear editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro, one of the quickest adoptions of a new technology the film industry had ever seen.

Spielberg’s maestro John Williams turns in an elegiac, somber, and reverent score that pays a moving tribute to the heroes of World War 2.  One of Williams’ most accomplished works, the theme evokes the honor of sacrifice with a militaristic sound comprised of horns and snare drums.

Spielberg also uses period music from Edith Piaf during an effective sequence, which has her ghostly voice bouncing off the crumbling ruins of the city where Miller’s squad prepares the last stand against the Germans.  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is unmistakably a Spielberg film, through and through.  His direction is in top form here, inferior only to the quality of SCHINDLER’S LIST.

Spielberg is constantly criticized for his tendency to over-sentimentalize, a valid claim judging by his incorporation of a present-day bookend that finds an elderly James Ryan paying a visit to Miller’s tombstone while a gigantic American flag flaps in the background.  However, while it can be construed as a misstep on Spielberg’s part, the jingoistic sequence’s inclusion is necessary to get to the core of Spielberg’s message and intent.

The film begins and ends with a pair of brutally realistic battle sequences.  The first bravura set piece (the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day) is one of Spielberg’s finest moments as a filmmaker.  However, it is lacking in characterization—the battling hordes are faceless soldiers. Meat for the grinder.

A few faces begin to materialize out of the bloody ether—Hanks, Pepper, Sizmore—but we don’t really know them yet.  We only see their primal reaction in the face of open slaughter.  This dynamic is repeated again in the closing battle, only now Spielberg’s focus is squarely on characterization.

We’ve marched alongside these troops for nearly three hours now, and have come to know them as closely as we would brothers.  As such, each squad member’s fate is meaningful and tragic, and the stakes are so much higher.

Due to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN being a war film, there’s a distinct lack of a child-like perspective, the likes of which have populated many a Spielberg film.  Instead, we get an appropriate variation on that theme, like the fatally wounded soldiers who regress into childhood and scream out for their mothers as they lay dying on the battlefield.

Likewise, Spielberg’s tendency to explore father/son dynamics is subverted, both in the form of Hanks acting as a father towards the men under his command, or the scene with a dying Carpazo pleading to have a letter delivered to his father.  The mildly jingoistic nature of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s story allows him to indulge in several of his favorite visual conceits- silhouettes, Americana settings (in the form of idyllic rural landscapes), lens flares, and aviation.

The presence of planes in the film also corresponds to Spielberg’s (personally speaking) most frustrating story conceit: The Deus Ex Machina.  Deux Ex Machina refers to a miraculous, random occurrence that saves our heroes right at the last moment.  It’s present in several of Spielberg’s works as a way to quickly wrap up his stories (as if he painted his story into a corner), and in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the Deux Ex Machine arrives in the form of a fighter plane descending on the battle and blasting the German tanks away.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was well-received upon its premiere, becoming Dreamworks Studios’ first verifiable hit, and was widely considered to be the best film of 1998.  Many praised Spielberg’s sensitive direction, likening it to his accomplishments on SCHINDLER’S LIST.

It was nominated for several Oscars, resulting in Spielberg’s second win for Best Director, and was the odds-on favorite for Best Picture.  Shockingly, that award went to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) in an upset, but even to this day SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is still considered the superior film. (I also can’t get over how the Academy shows the reclusive fellow nominee Terrence Malick when they announce his nomination for THE THIN RED LINE in the Oscar telecast).

While SAVING PRIVATE RYAN represents another career high for Spielberg, it also marks him going back to his roots for inspiration.  He called upon his father’s stories from the war, as well as the memories of making his own WW2 films in childhood, and channeled them both into an experience that was at once both realistic and reverential.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN established Spielberg as one of our pre-eminent cinematic chroniclers of American history, much like John Ford before him.  The film leaves behind a beautiful legacy for WW2 veterans, coming at a time when many of them are quickly dying out before their stories can be told.

In 2012, the very last veteran of World War 1 died.  Now that WW2 is already almost 80 years in our rearview, we’ll shortly be upon a time where there are no WW2 veterans remaining.  Fortunately, their courage and sacrifice will continue to live on in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN—a moving tribute to those who paid the ultimate price for freedom.


Having won his second Directing Oscar for the deeply American story of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), director Steven Spielberg had positioned himself as something of America’s Filmmaker In Residence—the cinematic ambassador to the world tasked with chronicling America’s legacy and character.  Around this time, the twentieth century—known colloquially as the American Century—was coming to a close, and people were eagerly looking forward to the future.

They were on the precipice of not only a new year, or even a new century, but a new millennium.  Massive celebrations were planned around the country to ring in the year 2000, despite the creeping threat of Y2K, which predicted a computational apocalypse that would throw us back into the Stone Age (and never happened, judging by the fact that I’m typing this on a computer right now).

For a big celebration in Washington DC, Spielberg was commissioned to create a short film celebrating the American spirit, which would accompany a live musical performance conducted and composed by John Williams.  It wasn’t a surprising choice—Spielberg’s work had always dealt with the fabric of American life—but what was surprising was how his twenty-one minute short, THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY (1999), managed to stitch Spielberg himself into that very fabric.

THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY is unlike a traditional short, in that its effectiveness lies in its unconventional presentation.  The most immediate aspect of this was the fact that it was a one-time, live performance.  Spielberg’s main contribution was an edited montage projected onto a large screen, with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra playing the live score.

A pair of speakers accompany the presentation and read aloud a combination of prose, poetry, and famous speeches from influential American identities.   The recorded part of the presentation also employs the voice talents of President Bill Clinton, Edward James Olmos, and Sam Waterston.

In making this film, Spielberg attempts to tell the great story of the twentieth century, starting with the promise of America signified by the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, continuing on to the progress of the early years before reflecting on the difficulty of the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement, and then finishing with the impressive technological and social advances of the latter half.

These events are not necessarily presented in chronological order, but Spielberg instead opts to group things together by theme for added potency.  What results is an earnest, optimistic look at our accomplishments and shortcomings over the last century as we prepare to enter a new one that promises unlimited possibilities.

THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY is packed to the brim with Spielberg’s visual and thematic preoccupations, which is appropriate given the occasion.  The piece starts off with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, foreshadowing Spielberg’s future involvement with LINCOLN (2012), as well as being evidence of his long-held desire to do so.

The inclusion of famous footage from the Civil Rights movement and subsequent rioting is indicative of his sympathies for people in persecution.  His fascination with aviation is also touched upon, with a lengthy sequence depicting the evolution of flight– from the Wright Brothers, to Charles Lindbergh, to commercial jets, and finally to the moon landing and space-bound rockets.

Overall, there’s a child-like optimism to the proceedings, an eagerness directed towards the future alongsidea reverence for what came before.  While an unconventional project of sorts for Spielberg, the subject matter is well within his wheelhouse.

Because it isn’t a feature film or traditional short, THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY’s very existence is suggestive of Spielberg’s desire to give back to the public that has helped to elevate his own stature in American pop culture.  It’s a recognition of the importance of his voice in the American Conversation, as well as the responsibility he bears as an influential artist to chronicle the ongoing American Story while it plays out against this brave new world.


 As a member of the Film Brat generation—that first generation of filmmakers to reap the benefits of academic film schools—director Steven Spielberg was one of the earliest to explicitly reference his influences within his own work.  His early output was littered with riffs on such French New Wave luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but as he established himself within the American studio system, he began to increasingly reference that unassailable icon of cinematic excellence, Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick was well aware of these loving homages, and saw in Spielberg a kindred spirit—despite their very different styles of filmmaking.  The two maintained a close friendship by regularly calling each other long-distance and swapping ideas.

In the mid-80’s, Kubrick looped Spielberg into a long-gestating passion project adapted from Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Super Toys Last All Summer Long”.  He was planning on turning it into big science fiction film called A.I.  Several times, Kubrick implored Spielberg to take the director’s chair, as he saw the project in line with the blockbuster director’s distinct sensibilities.

Spielberg politely passed each time, deferring to the notion that no one could realize the idea as well as Kubrick could himself.  Then, in 1999, Kubrick suddenly passed away, leaving his long-developing story unfinished.  Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, gave the rights to Spielberg, and he finally decided to make A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE in 2001 as a tribute to his late friend and mentor.

A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is set in an unspecified future, where the melting ice caps have flooded the world’s coastal cities and mankind has retreated into the interior of the continents in order to survive.  Humanoid robots have reached a point of maturity and have been integrated into almost every facet of daily life: labor, service, even romance.

A prominent thinker in the field of robotics, Professor Hobby (William Hurt), announces a new endeavor: to create a child-like robot that’s capable of that fundamentally human feeling—love.  Elsewhere, a young married couple has cryogenically frozen their young son in the hopes of finding a cure for the mystery illness that plagues him.

To fill the void, the father brings home the culmination of Professor Hobby’s work: a prototype robot named David (Haley Joel Osment), modeled after Hobby’s own son and programmed to exhibit unconditional love.  The mother, Monica (Frances O’Connor), is initially off-put by what she perceives as an abomination, but soon she warms up to him and becomes emotionally attached.

One day, a cure for their real son’s disease is found, and he is brought back to live with his family as he recovers.  The boy and David try to co-exist, but normal tiffs of sibling rivalry are amplified by David’s programming, which is ill-equipped to deal with subtle variations of emotion and threatens to make him a danger to others around him.

  The parents make the difficult decision to return David to the factory, where he’ll be shut down and recycled.  En route to the factory, however, Monica drops David off in the forest with a robotic teddy bear (appropriately named Teddy) and urges him to flee.

Confused and afraid, David does as he’s told—only to get caught up in a Flesh Fair, a carnival dedicated to the violent and twisted destruction of robots for amusement.  He meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a kindly male pleasure bot, and together they escape with their eyes set towards Manhattan—the ruined city at the edge of the world—where they hope to encounter the Blue Fairy and have David’s wish to be reunited with his mother granted.

A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE boasts one of the most eclectic casts that Spielberg has ever assembled.  Due to his breakout performance in M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), child star Haley Joel Osment was a no-brainer to portray David, the child robot with the capacity for love.

Osment strikes a perfect balance between warm, cuddly intentions and cold, calculated delivery.  He never blinks throughout the film, which is the key to his engrossing performance.  Osment, unfortunately, never really had a big role like this again—he fell victim to the same curse that has struck down many promising child actors: puberty.

For his performance as Gigolo Joe, Jude Law studied Frank Astaire and Gene Kelly as a reference for the theatrical grace in which his character is required to move.  The playboy dynamic is not a stretch for Law, but he also turns in a compelling, nuanced performance despite his character being a robot.

Frances O’Connor gives a heartbreaking performance as David’s mother, Monica, by painting a portrait of a very flawed mother.  David’s unwavering devotion to her only enhances the humanity of her character and the burden her conflicted emotions bear.

Filling out is the supporting cast are Sam Robards as Harry Swinton and William Hurt as Professor Hobby, respectively.  Robards is initially a warm and hospitable father figure—indeed, bringing David into the family is his idea.  But when David proves to be a danger to his real son, Robards grows cold and stern, able to quickly differentiate his emotions towards man and machine.

In contrast, Hurt is a warmer father figure and his stature as a philosopher and robotics visionary makes him something of a God-like figure as well.   A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is also populated by a variety of interesting, sometimes strange cameos.

Brendan Gleeson plays Lord Johnson-Johnson, a robot wrangler for the Flesh Fair and a carnie perversion of the Robert Muldoon character from JURASSIC PARK (1993).  Chris Rock makes a brief appearance as a robotic version of himself.  A pre-ENTOURAGE Adrien Grenier has a small cameo as an eager bro travelling to Rouge City.

Robin Williams voices Dr. Know, a hologram that dispenses advice to David and Gigolo Joe.  Williams’ voicework was purportedly directed by Kubrick himself, well before even Spielberg directed Williams in 1991’s HOOK.  And finally, Ben Kingsley and Meryl Streep lend their vocal chords as the Narrator and the Blue Fairy.

Kingsley’s luscious, Thespian (with a capital T) voice does a great deal in helping Spielberg achieve a fairy-tale feel to the sci-fi story.  Spielberg reprises his collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminksi, continuing the turn towards highly stylized visuals and evocative camerawork that began with 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

Their trademark look consisting of crushed blacks and blooming highlights is retained, along with the incorporation of a cool color palette that favors cobalt blues and steely greys.  The Rouge City sequence also features bursts of colorful neon that convey the seedier side of this increasingly-unfamiliar future.

Despite being entirely under Spielberg’s direction, the specter of Kubrick is strongly felt.  There’s an icy intellectual, distant tone that counteracts the relatively warm domestic sequences.  This tone is complemented by returning art director Rick Carter’s production design, which channels a neo-retro, modernist style comprised of rounded metallic surfaces akin to Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

The level of control attained by the production approached Kubrickian levels, as nearly all of shooting was done on soundstages (with the exception of a few wooded sequences shot in Oregon).  Also notable is the return of producer Kathleen Kennedy to Spielberg’s team after a conspicuous absence.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, John William returns for scoring duty, crafting an intriguing, somewhat muffle suite of cues that deal in a minimal, ambient texture.  It’s a far cry from the brassy, sweeping sound he is typically known for, but it captures the futuristic tone of A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE quite well.

In a further nod to the film’s connection to Kubrick, Spielberg incorporates a variety of classical and choral music cues that the late director might’ve used himself had he lived to tell the story.  Due to the considerable reverence towards Kubrick on display, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE has a strange reputation amongst Spielberg’s larger body of work.

Like the mother who rejected her adopted robot son, repulsed by his inherent inhumanity, audiences rejected A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE for a stylistic presentation that left them uneasy and cold.  Spielberg aims for a hybrid blend of his and Kubrick’s sensibilities, and as a result the film feels uncharacteristically cold and distant for those accustomed to Spielberg’s conventionally warmer, cuddly style.

Because of this, many things that people thought were the result of Spielberg’s involvement were actually Kubrick’s doing, and vice versa.  For example, Spielberg had gained a reputation as something of a live-action Walt Disney– criticized for a perceived maudlin sentimentality—so most people could be forgiven for thinking the narrative’s PINOCCHIO allegories were his doing.

It wasn’t, surprisingly—that story conceit went all the way back to Kubrick’s initial development, as he often referred to the film in casual conversation as PINOCCHIO instead of A.I.  Despite honoring Kubrick’s memory by channeling his style, several moments are indicative of classic Spielberg tropes: low angle compositions, child-based perspectives, father/son tensions, moody shafts of lights, the requisite awe/wonder shot, and depictions of people in persecution—albeit, in this instance, the people aren’t really people at all.

They’re robots, subjected to torture and destruction at the Flesh Fair.  A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE contains several of the most visually arresting images in Spielberg’s filmography—quite a feat, considering a career that boasts living dinosaurs and boys on flying bicycles.

The most captivating sequences are set in Manhattan, which in the context of the film has been rendered uninhabitable after half of the city is submerged by biblical flooding.  All that remains above the surface are the crumbling ruins of only the tallest skyscrapers.  The film encountered a degree of controversy after its release, as it was released prior to 9/11 and prominently featured images of the World Trade Center towers.

By the time the DVD was prepping for release, the Twin Towers had already been destroyed, and Spielberg was faced with the choice of retaining them or erasing them altogether so that his vision of the future would be congruent with our new, sobering reality.   He decided to leave the towers in, at a time when several other filmmakers were in a mad scramble to erase any trace of the towers from their work, and their inclusion adds a further sense of loss to the desolation on display.

Spielberg chose to depict the version of New York that was true to the story and the context in which it was made, at the great risk of immediately dating the film.

tumblr_inline_mtc3zdp6r11qafcizA.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was a middling success, with audience put off by its unfamiliar tone.  Spielberg was further derided for a sentimental epilogue that flashed forward thousands of years into the future and saw a highly-evolved race of robots (not aliens as is commonly thought) rescuing David from deep beneath the ice that buried Manhattan and granting his wish to be finally reunited with his mother, albeit for only one day.  Ironically, this sequence was part of Kubrick’s original vision, not Spielberg’s.

A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is an easy film to deride, but those who are quick to do so are missing the point.  As a tribute to the late Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg meant to make a very cerebral story, with enough ideas about the transience of man and the permanence of our creations to fuel several college-level philosophy classes.

There’s also the intriguing idea of mankind’s folly as creators and God-wannabe’s, trying to reduce such a profound and irrational emotion like love down to a logical, mathematical function.  In the end, Spielberg accomplished what he set out to do- honor his dear friend with a work that was worthy of the late director’s own canon.

Even after the passing of twelve years, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is still considered today to be an albatross around Spielberg’s neck, but let us not forget: Kubrick’s own films were criticized and misunderstood in their time too, and now they’re considered unassailable cornerstones of the cinematic experience.  Perhaps a similar fate awaits A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.


Director Steven Spielberg had been good friends with superstar Tom Cruise ever since they met on the set of 1983’s RISKY BUSINESS.  Throughout the next two decades, they were constantly on the lookout for a project to collaborate on, but could never quite settle on an idea that they both loved.

Enter MINORITY REPORT—an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story that originally began development life as a TOTAL RECALL sequel.  It was a meaty script about a world where murder has been all-but eliminated thanks to a specialized crime division’s ability to predict a murder, resolve the suspect’s identity, and apprehend him or her before the act ever occurs.

Spielberg and Cruise immediately saw the opportunity to meld their blockbuster sensibilities with a heady, interesting story while indulging in futuristic world-building.  As it turned out, MINORITY REPORT was one of the biggest hits of 2002, and stands even now as one of the most compelling, essential films in Spielberg’s entire filmography.

The year is 2054, and Washington DC is on the cusp of voting for a national rollout of an experimental technology called Pre-Crime, which utilizes “Pre-Cogs”—mutated human beings psychologically sensitive to killing who can see into the future—to stop murders before they happen.

Heading up this elite set of future cops is Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the best operative the division has ever seen.  His ability to suss out and identify the hazy, tangential aspects of the PreCogs’ visions is unparalleled.  However, his motivation comes from a dark, secretive place: a desire for catharsis after his young son was abducted from a swimming pool several years ago.

He has thrown himself into his work, forsaking his wife and his health.  As the vote to take Pre-Crime national looms, intense scrutiny of the program arrives in the form of Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a government auditor with extreme reservations about the ethics involved in arresting would-be murderers without them actually committing any crime.

When none other than John Anderton himself shows up as a future murder culprit, the well-respected chief must flee from his former colleagues.  Thinking that Danny has set him up, John abducts one of the Pre-Cogs, Agatha (Samantha Morton) so he can figure out who framed him and clear his name, all the while going against the very system that he spent so much of his work and beliefs fighting for.

tumblr_inline_mtft6mdruy1qafcizAs the publicly virtuous, privately-conflicted pre-crime chief John Anderton, Tom Cruise does what he does best: leading a blockbuster film by running his heart out.  The role is much grungier than the sort Cruise typically goes for, and requires him to go very dark in several instances.

Cruise does a great job with the material, taking what could be a relatively bland protagonist and making him compelling.  Farrell fares just as well as the skeptical bureaucrat Danny Witwer.  He’s a worthy adversary to Anderton, almost a dark mirror image in every way.

This was an early, breakout performance for Farrell, evidenced by the fact that he manages to constantly steal the scenery away from Cruise (no easy feat) with his cocky, gum-smacking delivery.  Samantha Morton gives a haunting performance as Agatha, the most gifted Pre-Cog of the three in existence.

  When submerged in the milky substance that facilitates the reading of her brain signals, Agatha is something like an emotion-less oracle figure, but once freed from her shackles and let out into the real world for the first time, she’s vulnerable, frail and weak.  She reacts like a child, terrified and overwhelmed by the sheer chaos of the outside world.

Notable members of the supporting cast include Max Von Sydow, Neal McDonaugh, and Peter Stormare.  Sydow plays Director Lamar Burgess, the paternal head of Pre-Crime, and mentor to John Anderton.  Sydow’s Lamar Burgess is a compelling character, with one of the more unexpected twists in recent memory.

McDonaugh plays Fletcher, Anderton’s second in command, proving his great range with a conflicted performance that must wrestle between duty to justice and duty to friendship.  Stormare, who previously performed for Spielberg in 1997’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, plays Dr. Solomon Eddie.

Eddie is a grungy, black-market eye surgeon, and Stormare revels in the utter ickiness of the character.  He’s directly responsible for one of the most sickeningly realistic sequences in the film, and an example of where Spielberg’s decision to pursue an “ugly” aesthetic finds validation.

Right off the bat, MINORITY REPORT establishes itself as one of the most visually dynamic films that Spielberg has ever made.  Working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Spielberg employs the bleach-bypass exposure process to create the film’s highly-stylized look.

The effect, in Spielberg’s words, is that the film looks like it was shot on chrome.  The black are super crushed, blown-out highlights flare with wanton abandon, grain is exaggerated, and a steely cobalt hue soaks the image.  The rest of the color spectrum is highly desaturated, save for bold pops of dark red for effect.  The monochromatic look, combined with Kaminski’s signature low-key lighting style, gives the film a futuristic noir-vibe.

Spielberg’s camerawork is down and dirty, in the tradition of 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  A mix of handheld movements, canted angles, and 90 degree shutter speeds are employed to communicate Anderton’s chaotic disorientation.  However, Spielberg isn’t afraid to also use his traditional swooping crane shots to show off the enormous scale of the world he’s created.

This grim and gritty aesthetic is complemented by editor Michael Kahn’s participation, most notably in the opening sequence depicting a fractured vision of a husband murdering his unfaithful wife.  The scene is rendered in an unconventional style that wouldn’t be out of place in the work of experimental vanguard Stan Brakhage.

Despite his relative inexperience in this arena, Spielberg’s embrace of avant-garde techniques is highly indicative of his late-career desire to push the boundaries of his own artistic expression.  MINORITY REPORT’s most potent imagery lies in the incredible production design of Alex McDowell, who previously art directed David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB in 1999.

To conjure up an all-encompassing vision of 2054-era America, Spielberg and McDowell assembled a think tank comprised of the world’s most prominent industrial personalities and futurist thinkers.  Their key approach was different than conventional visions of the future, in that it conservatively extrapolated how technology would evolve fifty years from now, and how it would alter our daily lives.

The result is a world that feels at once both familiar and exotic—a future that we would aspire to live in, despite a pervasive police state.  Product placement is a key part of the story.  While Spielberg has never been shy about including it in his work before, in MINORITY REPORT he places it front and center to illustrate a realistic conceit: advertisers will always take advantage of technology in order to find new ways to shill product.

Just look at your News Feed on Facebook.  The very same eye scanners that allow for widespread police surveillance are also used to project customized ads for Lexus, Coca-Cola and even Gap (a clever little moment in a film pleasantly besieged by them), tailored directly to the individual and their prior history with the brand.

MINORITY REPORT has been more influential than perhaps any other film in its treatment of technology.  Over ten years later, the prescience of Spielberg’s assembled think tank has already become apparent.  Several of the film’s key gadgets, civic infrastructure, and innovations have become realized within our present lives in some capacity—or at the very least, are deep into the research and development phases.

One of the most striking innovations is the gesture-based computer that Anderton uses to virtually examine a crime scene.  Gesture-based computing is now a part of our life, with technology like Xbox Kinect allowing us to interact with software without the aid of traditional user interfaces like a keyboard or mouse.

There’s even a working prototype of the very same interface that Anderton uses, designed by a small tech company that hopes to employ it as the next generation of film editing.  If it ever takes off, I’ll be the first in line to try it out.  I’ve wanted that shit for years.

2002 was a busy year for musical maestro John Williams, which saw him board MINORITY REPORT relatively late in the game due to his commitments on George Lucas’ STAR WARS EPISODE 2: ATTACK OF THE CLONES.  For inspiration, Williams looked to the scores of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborator, the great Bernard Hermann.

Williams’ electronic, dissonant score is appropriately futuristic while still retaining bombastic, brassy orchestrations to drive the story.  Spielberg also continues the musical homage to his late friend and mentor, Stanley Kubrick, that began in 2001’s A.I: ARTIFICAL INTELLIGENCE by incorporating a suite of classical cues to accompany Cruise’s ballet-like maneuvering of virtual crime scenes.

But despite all this futurist imagery on display, Spielberg doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the past plays just as important a part in our daily lives.  Visually, this is signified by the famous, unaltered landmarks of Washington DC, existing in a timeless bubble while surrounded by mega-skyscrapers and gravity-defying transportation infrastructure.

Musically, this conceit is subtly reinforced by the inclusion of recognizable, old-timey tunes, such as a muzak rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” heard in a shopping mall.  On visuals alone, MINORITY REPORT doesn’t look like your typical Spielberg spiel (see what I did there? No?  I’ll show myself out).

Sure, there’s lens flares, low-angle compositions, the requisite awe/wonder shots, etc.—but the overarching style is so drastically different from anything that came before it.  Thematically, it’s highly reflective of the experimental fascinations of Spielberg’s late-era career, as well as his continuing desire to explore mature, socially important subject matter.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same.  His fascination with flight manifests itself in the futuristic choppers of Pre-Crime and the individual jetpacks that its operatives wear.  The broken home/estranged father/son dynamic is also a key part of MINORITY REPORT’s emotional arc, with Anderton unable to move past his grief over the abduction and presumed murder of his son several years ago.

He was a great father when his son was alive, but he is consumed by debilitating guilt over the fact that his son disappeared under his direct supervision.  The specter of Abraham Lincoln continues to haunt Spielberg’s filmography, and it should surprise exactly nobody familiar with his work that he would direct a biopic of the man in 2012’s LINCOLN.

A little reference to the sixteenth President is thrown in towards the beginning of the film, when a young boy cuts eyeholes in a mask of Lincoln’s face.  Spielberg’s tendency to cast other directors in his films, such as Francois Truffaut in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and Richard Attenborough in JURASSIC PARK (1993), gets a brief workout in MINORITY REPORT as well—albeit in the form of small cameos.

They both occur in the subway sequence.  VANILLA SKY (2001) director Cameron Crowe repays the cameo that Spielberg made in that Cruise-starring film by appearing as a suspicious commuter that notices Cruise on the train after his digital newspaper flashes Cruise’s wanted mug across the front page.  Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of another Cruise-starring picture MAGNOLIA (1999) apparently appears in the scene too, but he’s nearly impossible to spot.

After the disappointing reception of A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the runaway success of MINORITY REPORT was a reaffirmation of Spielberg’s dominance of the medium.  It was one of the biggest hits of the year, both critically and financially, and is generally considered to be one of the top films of its decade.

Thanks to its considered approach to the future, MINORITY REPORT also stands a great chance of not aging as badly as similarly futuristic films.  The danger of giving a film a concrete time and date in the future is to immediately date it once the chosen date passes in reality.

This happened with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)—we don’t even have Pan Am anymore, let alone interplanetary space travel—and it will happen to other films, like Ridley Scott’s 2019-set BLADE RUNNER (1982).  Conversely, the somewhat-reserved projections of Spielberg’s think tank stand a chance of actually existing come 2054.

The tech on display is based on concepts we’ve already mastered or are currently on the brink of mastering.  The innovations of scientists, thinkers, and industrialists bring us a little closer each day to the world of MINORITY REPORT.  We can interact with our computers via hand gestures, we have self-driving cars, advertising is tailored to the micro/individual level, etc.

Because the tech seems realistic and achievable, people are inspired to go out and achieve it.  Spielberg’s dystopian vision inspires us to find the utopia within.  This is MINORITY REPORT’s true legacy.  To put it mildly, MINORITY REPORT is another win in Spielberg’s column.

His mastery of big-budget spectacle is almost effortless.  Nobody does it better than him.  His desire to experiment and distinguish himself in darker, more-artistic ways only enriches his popcorn work.  And unlike many of his peers, the sea change that digital technology has brought to filmmaking has not deterred him from staying relevant and exciting.

While his adoption of CGI technology has become more involved with each picture, he hasn’t lost sight of what makes his films truly special: their heart and their soul.


As a young man coming off age in the early 1960’s, Frank Abagnale Jr found himself caught in the middle of his parents during their divorce—a scenario that has become unfortunately ordinary to scores of kids like him.  But Frank wasn’t like most kids, and his response to the scenario was anything but ordinary.

  He ran away home, staying afloat by forging checks and conjuring up fake identities for himself to escape detection.  Frank was a cunning kid, and a master of disguise, which enabled him to con his way across America for the better part of a decade, fooling people into believing that he was everything from a Pan Am pilot to a doctor to a lawyer.

He was caught, of course, but only after accumulating millions of dollars’ worth of damage.  But instead of languishing in a jail cell until old age, he served only a few years before a paroled release turned him over to the custody of the FBI so he could help them bust other fraudsters just like him.

Frank eventually became the leading check fraud expert in the country, and has designed much of the anti-counterfeit measures found on checks today.  Frank’s sensational life story was soon turned into an autobiographical novel called “Catch Me If You Can”, and unsurprisingly, attracted attention from several major studios.

After a revolving door of directors like David Fincher and Gore Verbinski attached themselves to the project, director Steven Spielberg finally took the helm in the same year he shot his gritty sci-fi noir, MINORITY REPORT (2002).  Of all the directors in the mix, Spielberg had the most personal connection to the source material—in his youth, he disguised himself to trick people into thinking he was somebody that he wasn’t.

He wore a suit every day of one college summer and pretended to be a studio executive, which repeatedly allowed him to waltz right into the Universal lot.  Now, forty years later, Spielberg was the studios, and after the dark dramatics of MINORITY REPORT, he desired to make a self-described “cupcake of a film”.

He saw in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN a light-hearted, jet-setting romp through the 1960’s.  But what was meant to be a diversion—a mere mood-lifter—was a smash hit when it debuted, and still stands today as one of Spielberg’s most thoroughly-entertaining films.

tumblr_inline_mtn3j6pxzk1qafcizCATCH ME IF YOU CAN closely follows Abagnale’s life from his first con all the way through to his success as a parolee FBI consultant.  Much like Frank’s life, the truth has been smudged here and there, but it’s hard to complain when the final product is such a breezy, stylish ride.

Spielberg had always wanted to work with Leonardo DiCaprio, and he finally got his wish with a role that was tailor-made for the young star’s talents.  As Frank Abagnale Jr. DiCaprio is charming, resourceful and ambitious.  He’s driven by a desire to reunite his parents– a desire borne from the assumption that money broke his family apart so money will therefore bring them back together.

Despite the flashiness of the film’s surface, however, DiCaprio finds the pathos in Frank Jr and brings it out in a sympathetic, convincing way.  Tom Hanks, in his second starring effort for Spielberg, plays Carl Hanratty as a very unique, interesting antagonist.

Hanratty is an FBI agent obsessed with tracking down Abagnale and bringing him to justice.  In general, he’s got a kindly, determined temperament—and like most establishment officials of the time, he’s a straightlaced, uptight square.  As he tracks Abagnale, they form a strange symbiotic relationship, and before he know sit, he’s become something of a surrogate father figure to the young con artist.

Hanks’ performance benefits from his familiarity with Spielberg’s directing style, easily finding the requisite paternal warmth required from his very unconventional antagonist.  Christopher Walken was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Frank Abagnale Sr, a well-respected community figure and WW2 vet burdened with a secret, debilitating financial debt that forces him to lie in order to save face.

As DiCaprio’s dad, Walken is inspired casting.  He’s a con-man charmer with an affinity for women—it’s easy to see why he would be a hero to a young lad such as Frank Jr.  Venerable character actor Martin Sheen plays Roger Strong, yet another father figure in Frank’s life as well as Brenda Strong’s real father.

His role as a wealthy New Orleans attorney is brief, yet memorable, and Sheen counts it as one of his most rewarding experiences on a set.  He was so intent on working with Spielberg that he secured a leave from THE WEST WING (where he played a little role called The President) when the call finally came.

 James Brolin plays Jack Barnes, the President of the Rotary Club who’s having an affair with Frank’s mother, eventually becoming her new husband after the divorce.  It’s a small role, but Brolin is adept at projecting the seediness underneath his regal, gentlemanly exterior.

The film makes it very clear that Frank Junior, much like his dear old dad, had quite a way with the ladies.  As such, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN boasts a rogue’s gallery of then-burgeoning starlets (most of whom now enjoy significant celebrity status).  Ady Adams plays Brenda Strong, the most emotionally significant woman in Abagnale’s young life.

She’s initially introduced as a dorky hospital nurse with braces, but she slowly reveals a layered, complex character with a troubled history.  Her emotional vulnerability encourages Abagnale to let his guard down, which sets his downfall into motion when he confides his real name and gives up his invented identity to her.

Elizabeth Banks plays Lucy, a bashful southern belle and bank teller who is easily conned by Frank’s charm.  Jennifer Garner plays Cheryl Ann, a sultry, cynical model who smell the money on Frank, and thus, opportunity.  Her scene results in one of the film’s best laughs, when she demands a large sum of money for a night of her company, only to unknowingly accept a fake cashier’s check from him and pay back the overage difference in cash.

After a string of moody-looking pictures, Spielberg and returning cinematographer Janusz Kaminksi go for a distinctly brighter, cheerier, and decidedly mod aesthetic to reflect the jet-setting 1960’s time period.  The black are still crushed and the highlights still bloom, but the color palette is much richer and warmer (save for a heavy blue tint in cold prison sequences).

Spielberg brings back a stylized sense of camera movement, using lots of dolly and crane shots to echo the old-Hollywood glamor they’re aiming to emulate.  Also mixed in are several handheld moments that add complexity and grit to an otherwise confectionary visual style.

Jeanine Claudia Oppenwall’s production design authentically recreates the 60’s without ever feeling like a costume pageant.  Every frame is soaked in the retro aesthetic, all the way down to the truly-great, Saul-Bass inspired opening credits that utilize inventive graphic art.

Returning editor Michael Kahn keeps pace with the breeziness, creating an edit that heartily careens through Abagnale’s decade-long con in a swift way that belies its two and-a-half hour running time.  Spielberg’s maestro John Williams creates a score that departs heavily from their typical collaborations.

To reflect the times in which CATCH ME IF YOU CAN takes place, Williams opts for a distinctly jazzy sound, incorporating beatnik-style finger snaps as a percussive motif.  Spielberg also relies heavily on source cues to further convey the period.

He uses a mix of popular torch and pop songs from the era that serve as inspired and unexpected musical texture.  In a little bit of levity, Spielberg also includes the iconic James Bond theme during a gag wherein Abagnale tears around town in Bond’s Aston Martin after seeing GOLDFINGER (1964).  Remember that Spielberg had always wanted to direct a James Bond film himself—a desire that led to his involvement with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).

After the grim and gritty MINORITY REPORT, Spielberg understandably was looking to take on something more light-hearted as his next project.  As a result, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is one of Spielberg’s most cheery, earnest, and upbeat beats (at least on the surface—the emotions fueling the story are dark and complex).

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, as well as Spielberg’s ensuing film THE TERMINAL (2004), marks the beginning of a somewhat micro-phase in Spielberg’s career, in which he draws heavily from the style of one of his key influences: Frank Capra.

tumblr_inline_mtn3imjzqr1qafcizDespite channeling Capra’ ghost with its upbeat, old-fashioned, everyman/Americana goodness, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN still bears Spielberg’s unmistakable stamp.  His fascination with aviation takes center stage, devoting large chunks of screen time to Abagnale’s adventures posing as a Pan Am pilot.

He ably captures the high-fashion glamor of air travel that defined the jet-set era, an era I frequently find myself wishing for when I’m sharing a cramped coach cabin with a legion of tacky people in velour track suits.  Another key part of the narrative is the relationship between father and son, being the product of a broken home.

Every action that Abagnale takes is in a bid to reunite his parents.  He tries hard to attain his father’s approval, but his success is all built on the same sort of lies that splintered his family apart in the first place.  Despite the 1960’s setting, World War 2’s specter emerges once again, in the subtle form of Walken’s Abagnale Sr being a war vet who plays the sympathy card with it frequently.

Other hallmarks of Spielberg’s visual conceits make their requisite appearance: low angle compositions, shafts of light, lens flares, jump cuts, silhouettes, and even a brief instance of a character breaking the fourth wall.  CATCH ME IF YOU CAN was well-received upon its release, both financially and critically.  It be

came an instant crowd favorite, even giving Spielberg’s other 2002 hit MINORITY REPORT a run for its money as one of the best films of the year.  DiCaprio and Hanks’ performances were universally praised, but it was Walken who was really singled out come awards time.

Ten years later, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is still considered one of Spielberg’s best works, and easily one of his most enjoyable to watch.  His ability to abruptly pivot from cold, gritty drama to warm, upbeat comedy shows how effortless of a storyteller one can be with thirty years’ experience churning out consistently and reliably entertaining works.

To put it simply, when it comes to studio filmmaking, Spielberg is king.  The rest are just imposters.


Every director has that film that holds no interest to you, even the directors you admire.  For director Steven Spielberg, there are a few—but only by virtue of the sheer size of his catalog.  One of those, for me at least, is THE TERMINAL (2004)—Spielberg’s follow-up to 2002’s dual hits MINORITY REPORT and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

I remember that the trailers made THE TERMINAL look almost too Hollywood, like it was a maudlin or trivial experience.  So color me surprised to find that I actually enjoyed the film when I finally sat down to watch it the other day.  The tale of an Eastern European man trapped in the international terminal at JFK proved much more charming and funnier than the trite romantic comedy it was positioned as.

THE TERMINAL works in the same vein as CATCH ME IF YOU CAN—a throwback to well-crafted, old-school Hollywood entertainment.  Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) has travelled to New York City from his homeland of Krakozhia, a fictional country in the former Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe.

While he was in the air, his country exploded into a violent coup, and now that his country doesn’t technically exist anymore, his passport and travel documents are no longer valid.  He is denied entry into the US, instead having to languish in the international terminal at JFK until world events sort themselves out.

He stays for nearly nine months, learning how to survive in the peculiar, contained ecosystem while dodging the attempts of Customs Director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) at tricking him into leaving the terminal.  If he does, he’ll be arrested and therefore no longer be the airport’s responsibility.

Viktor befriends several low-level workers in the terminal, and even manages to fall in love with a beautiful stewardess named Amelia Warren.  All in all, THE TERMINAL is a good-natured comedy about a warm, trusting man who beats the cynical bureaucrats while teaching them a lesson in basic human dignity.

Tom Hanks’ everyman likability lends itself well to Spielberg’s sensibilities, especially in his Frank Capra micro-phase that began with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.  As Viktor Navorski, Hanks ably assumes the affectations of a generically Eastern European man.  He’s initially unable to speak English, so at first brush he comes off as dumb to most Americans.

However, he’s supremely intelligent and surprisingly handy, quickly learning enough English to function and make the most of his situation.  While it’s likely that Hanks’ performance in THE TERMINAL will not be remembered in time, it’s still a reminder of just how good he is and how unexpectedly diverse his range is.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Amelia Warren, the beautiful, elegant stewardess who Viktor pines after.  She’s in the midst of an affair with a married man who won’t leave his wife for her, a scenario that leaves her emotionally vulnerable and open to Viktor’s friendliness.

Somewhere in his good heart, Viktor must know his love for is a doomed love that can never be, but she becomes a beacon of hope and motivation for the displaced foreigner.  As the bespectacled, cynical Customs Director, Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Frank Dixon is unconventionally temperamental for an otherwise conventional antagonist.

At times, he is rather warm towards Viktor’s plight, but then he switches on a dime to cold dismissiveness.  I never quite knew how to read Tucci’s true mood in several scenes, but the well-respected character actor still manages to turn in a consistently surprising performance.

The international terminal at JFK is populated by several smaller characters, each with their own plight and purpose within the narrative.  Diego Luna plays Enrique Cruz, a lowly luggage boy hopelessly in love with Zoe Saldana’s customs officer character.  Saldana, conversely, is straightlaced and by-the-book as Dolores Torres.

She isn’t even aware of Cruz’s love for her, but she harbors a personal secret that he is able to exploit to gain her affection: she is a hidden Trekkie (amusing, considering she would later go on to star in JJ Abrams’ rendition of STAR TREK in 2009).  Wes Anderson mainstay Kumar Pallana plays Gupta Rajan, the terminal’s paranoid janitor.

He’s hiding a secret about his own past that threatens to come to light when Viktor enters the picture.  And Barry Shabaka Henley plays Thurman, a customs security officer and Tucci’s right hand man.  Thurman is far more considerate than Tucci is, and serves as a warm, stoic, authoritative presence.  It’s interesting to see this side to Henley after his cool-as-ice performances in Michael Mann’s movies.

tumblr_inline_mtp03yvplw1qafcizTHE TERMINAL delivers a fairly straightforward visual presentation, using its simplicity for maximum effect.  The signature Janusz Kaminksi/Spielberg look (crushed blacks and blooming highlights) is significantly toned down here.  Their color palette echoes the sleek, modern terminal with a teal, steely hue.

The same goes for the calculated dolly and crane movements that Spielberg employs throughout.  THE TEMRINAL’s biggest visual conceit is the set design of MINORITY REPORT’s art director Alex McDowell.  A full-size airport terminal set was constructed inside a hangar, with fully-functional and operational stores and restaurants.

The effect is an impressive sealed-off bubble for the film to play around in.  John Williams’ regular musical contribution has been considerably toned down in THE TERMINAL.  What little score there is has an Eastern European flair, serving as a motif for Viktor.

Instead, Spielberg opts for lots of muzak, adding to the sterile authenticity of a massive shopping and transit complex.  Jazz also plays an important element within the story, so it’s appropriately woven into the soundtrack as needed.

THE TERMINAL takes place entirely inside an airport, so it’s understandable that Spielberg’s preoccupation with aviation gets a heavy workout.  But rather than revel in the glory of flight, here Spielberg chooses to explore the surrounding infrastructure and sociology of airports.

International terminals are peculiar in that they are contained economies, under the jurisdiction of no particular country.  With their murky legal status, they’re the land equivalent of the High Seas—threatening to trap any one unfortunate enough to fall through the cracks.

Product placement plays a prominent role within the narrative, with Spielberg choosing to depict real brands and food chains as the arbiters of society in place of traditional governmental bodies.  It’s not lost on me that the most financially successful filmmaker of all time has no issue with the presence of corporate logos and branding in his work.

It stands to reason that a “corporate” director would take care of his own.  However, it’s important to note that Spielberg doesn’t include blatant product placement for an easy payday—it’s always in service to the story.  His approach has been consistent, all the way back to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), which postulated that the widespread iconography of corporate logos would be understood by a visiting alien race as a legitimate form of human communication.

Upon its release, THE TERMINAL was met with modest success and mostly positive reviews.  As an engaging and entertaining bit of cinema, it earns points for never trying to be anything more than what it is.  It’s a minor entry in Spielberg’s body of work, to be sure, but THE TERMINAL is a fresh breath of levity before the director would descend back into his gritty aesthetic with his next two projects.


After the runaway success of their first project together (2002’s MINORITY REPORT), director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Cruise were eager to collaborate again soon.  Cruise pitched several ideas, one of which was a modern update to H.G. Wells’ seminal novel, “War Of The Worlds”.

Spielberg immediately responded to the idea, as he was a fan of the property to the extent that he owned an original copy of the script that Orson Welles read from during his infamous “War Of The Worlds” broadcast in 1938.  In doing a new adaptation, he saw an opportunity to tackle the alien genre in a way that he had never done before.

  He’d been profoundly influenced by the events of 9/11, and felt that he could infuse the subtext of the film’s story with several allegories to that fateful day as a way of making the century-old story relevant.  His first alien film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) was all about the awe of discovering that we are not alone in the universe.

His second, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), was about benevolent aliens and their peaceful mission to Earth.  Spielberg had yet to make an alien film that depicted them as unstoppable harbingers of mankind’s doom.  Such an approach would require going back to the grim, gritty aesthetic that marked MINORITY REPORT.

Working once again with his JURASSIC PARK (1993) screenwriter, David Koepp, as well as his regular producer Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg had to shoot WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) on an astonishingly fast timetable for an effects-heavy film.  Shooting only began seven months prior to its release, which even today seems impossible.

Despite its rushed production, WAR OF THE WORLDS was a breakout success and hailed as one of the best films of the year.  I first saw the film in theaters during its initial release.  I was home from college for the summer, and I remember being completely stunned by the experience.

There were so many haunting images that resonated with me, especially the shot of Cruise looking at himself in the mirror, horrified to see that he’s covered in a thick layer of human ash (a familiar sight to anyone who watched 9/11 unfold live on the news).  For a long time, WAR OF THE WORLDS held a spot in my “Favorite Films Of All Time” list, and while time and experience with other films may have dropped its standing by relative comparison, re-watching the film again for The Directors Series was still as visceral and effective an experience as it was the first time.

WAR OF THE WORLDS was produced during the zeitgeist of George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism—a conventional military response against an unconventional enemy in the reeling days after 9/11.  As such, the film asks several salient questions while playing on our uncertainties and sobering realizations that disaster could strike whenever, and wherever, we least expect it.

It could even come from right up underneath our feet.  The story begins with Morgan Freeman’s velvety narration, describing how mankind—certain of their dominance in the universe—spread throughout the earth and erected monuments to themselves.   Meanwhile, an advanced alien race was watching us with envious eyes, biding their time until they invaded our planet and claimed it for their own.

Presented with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline, we zero in on one man in particular—a blue collar dock worker named Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise)—who will be our guide through the destruction to come.  His best days behind him, Ray is content to live in his ramshackle house in Bayonne, New Jersey and share custody of his children with his estranged wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto).

On the fateful day we meet Ray, a freak lightning storm knocks out all the power in his town.  And that’s when the ground starts shaking and buckling, and gigantic tripedal crafts explode up from underfoot, destroying everything and everyone in sight.  Ray escapes the initial attack, collects his children into the only working car in town, and sets off towards Boston to find Mary Ann and keep the family together.

Surprisingly WAR OF THE WORLDS is really an intimate story about the importance of family—it just happens to take place against the backdrop of terrifying alien attacks that threaten to wipe out mankind forever.  Cruise plays Ray as something of a child himself.  He mouths off to his boss, squeals around town in a souped-up hotrod car, and revels in utter aimlessness.

His journey to deliver his kids to safety is part of a greater arc that finds him maturing and becoming the father figure he’s called to be.  It’s compelling to watch his character try so hard to keep it together for the sake of his kids, when he’s just as scared (if not more so) as them.

Cruise slips effortlessly into the cocksure swagger that the role initially requires, almost as if it was his Maverick character from TOP GUN (1986) 20 years later, burnt-out and washed up.  It’s an interesting take on a potentially bland protagonist, besting even his prior performance for Spielberg in MINORITY REPORT.

Much like Haley Joel Osment in 2001’s A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, Dakota Fanning was the go-to, supernaturally talented child performer of the day.  She’s quite believable as Rachel Ferrier, Ray’s daughter.  She more than capably projects the precociousness of the little brat, balanced with wisdom beyond her years.

She’s a source of levity throughout the film, as well as a compelling stakes character for Cruise’s character arc to play out against.  Tim Robbins plays Harlan Ogilvy, a reclusive conspiracy theorist/survivor that Cruise and Fanning encounter.  Ogilvy used to drive ambulances in the city, but now he’s holed up in the basement of a farmhouse—drinking peach schnapps and plotting an ill-equipped retaliation against the aliens.

Robbins delivers a deliciously unhinged performance, which is crucial to sustain the audience’s interest during this section of the film.  Spielberg and Koepp chose to place a substantial chunk of the second act running time in Ogilvy’s basement, which runs the risk of completely derailing the breathtaking pace Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn have established.

Thus, it falls to Robbins to transfer the overt terror of aliens attacking the surface over to the creeping dread of Ogilvy’s increasingly-evident dangerousness.  Spielberg’s supporting cast is rather small, despite the humongous scale that the film plays out against.

Miranda Otto was cast off the strength of her performance in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, and here she plays Cruise’s ex-wife, Mary Ann.  Her performance effectively communicates that she and Cruise came from different worlds, and she simply outgrew him.

However, she continues to harbor a begrudging love for him, an unconditional love that serves as a great source of exasperation when Ray is acting childish.  Justin Chatwin experienced a career breakthrough as Robbie, Ray’s son.  He’s the typical American teen: sullen, rebellious, and impulsive.

He fights with his dad on every little thing, but he’s a lot like him in many ways.  If they were the same age, they’d probably be best friends. WAR OF THE WORLD’s aesthetic is a return to the dark, gritty cinematography that marked MINORITY REPORT, or to a lesser extent SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski utilizes his familiar crushed blacks and blooming highlights to striking effect, while sucking a great deal of color out of the film until a pallid, bluish hue remains.  This becomes all the more effective when pops of red (the blood-infused terraforming vines) sear the screen, or purple and green strobe lights flash from the alien warships like some intergalactic EDM concert.

Spielberg also appropriates some of his aesthetic from 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (handheld camera work and 90 degree shutters) to complement the ground-level sense of chaos.  Spielberg and Kaminski also make the conscious decision to eschew the hallmarks of the disaster genre, like the violent destruction of landmarks.

Instead, the entire film takes on the point of view of Ray’s indirect confrontation with the aliens.  We only see what he sees, and the carnage he witnesses is on a local, more personal level.  There are several virtuoso camera moves that sell the spectacle aspect of the story, like the impossibly continuous take of Cruise and family sorting out their confusion as they weave through dead cars on a crowded highway.

Several other visual signatures of Spielberg’s make appearances: the awe/wonder shot (although this time around it reads as stupefied horror), lens flares, shafts of light, breaking the fourth wall, and low angle compositions.Maestro John Williams creates a pulsing, ominous score to match the aliens’ malicious intent.

He eschews his usual bombastic themes in favor of a percussive, driving sound.  The music plays largely in the background, never fully exerting itself or taking center stage—thus allowing Spielberg’s jaw-dropping visuals to speak for themselves.

In a haunting echo of the scene in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN where Edith Piaf’s voice bounces out among the ruins of a bombed town, Spielberg chooses to blare Frank Sinatra from the loudspeakers of a refugee encampment.  He sees music as a mood-lifter in troubled times, as well as ironic commentary on lost innocence in the wake of incomprehensible destruction.

The tension between Ray (father) and Robbie (son) is the single-most prominent signifier of Spielberg’s authorship.  As a trope that he has continuously explored throughout his filmography, his message has likewise continued to evolve.  His shift is best illustrated by the bookends of Spielberg’s experience with the alien genre, starting with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and ending with WAR OF THE WORLDS.

In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the protagonist leaves his family behind without a second thought—excited beyond all reason at the prospect of exploring the cosmos.  The notion that family can be so casually shrugged aside was indicative of Spielberg’s towards his father at the time: a bitter resentment over his father’s seeming abandonment of him in the wake of his parents’ divorce.

But by WAR OF THE WORLDS, Spielberg has reached the opposite pole of that spectrum.  The protagonist must risk his life to keep his family together as malevolent aliens arrive to destroy mankind.  Spielberg’s estrangement with his father began to ease when he has children of his own and he could see things from his father’s point of view, and his depiction of fathers in his films has evolved accordingly.

Refugees and their encampments are common images in Spielberg’s films, especially in SCHINDLER’S LIST and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987).  These images are part of a larger exploration of the idea of people in persecution.  Spielberg uses this same imagery in WAR OF THE WORLDS to make an astute observation about how a rich nation such as America would respond in the face of widespread destruction.

Throughout the film, we see American refugees (a stunning notion in and of itself), walking alongside the road pushing shopping carts full of useless junk.  There’s a distinct message that, in a crisis, we’d be waiting in the bread lines while our tattered Louis Vuitton overcoats shielded us from the elements.

Spielberg’s spectacle films are structured like rides, so it’s not surprising that many of his films have gone on to become just that.  He uses his mastery of set-pieces to pepper the film with propulsive action that thrills us.  WAR OF THE WORLDS boasts several such set-pieces—like the initial Bayonne attack, or the ferry boat ambush.  Sequences like this are destined to become just as iconic and memorable as his work on JURASSIC PARK or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).

James DevaneyWAR OF THE WORLDS was a box office hit, and was warmly-received by audience and critics alike.  Millions marveled at Spielberg’s pitch-dark vision of a seemingly-unstoppable alien invasion—even if many of those same people rolled their eyes at the deus-ex machine ending in which it’s revealed that the aliens ultimately couldn’t survive the common cold despite their advanced technology.

While Spielberg’s films have a history of these “random hand of God” cop-out endings, most forgot that WAR OF THE WORLDS’ ending was actually pulled directly from H.G. Wells’ book.  There might have been a bigger outcry had he not ended it in that way.

For those traumatized by the events of 9/11, WAR OF THE WORLDS is an emotional outlet, a catharsis, and a fantastical escape that allow them to process the emotions and fears of that fateful day in a safe setting.  After a cuddly, gentle phase that began with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and ended with THE TERMINAL, Spielberg hits back with an unrelentingly dark vision that reminds us of his pure, visceral power as a filmmaker.

MUNICH (2005)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I really began to “read” films.  Sure, I’d watch them, and usually enjoy them- but I didn’t know how to admire the subtle artistry, the nuanced layering of thematic subtext.  I couldn’t effectively articulate why I liked the movies I liked.  Naturally, my paradigm was radically shifted by a few media theory college courses.

Instead of simply taking films at their face value (like your average moviegoer), I realized that there was an entire unseen world between the frames.  You just had to have the presence of mind to recognize and engage with it.

2005 was a watershed year for me in that regard, especially when it came to the work of director Steven Spielberg.  I’d always liked his work, but I never saw him as anything more than a blockbuster popcorn filmmaker.  It hadn’t occurred to me that he was capable of the same kind of layered subtext that defined the types of films that gripped me at the time, films made by auteurs like PT Anderson or Michael Mann.

 WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) was the first of Spielberg’s works to truly hit me in the gut in that way.  Even for a run-of-the-mill summer disaster flick, it dealt in potent 9/11 allegories that resonated inside of me.  I couldn’t shake it out of my head for months afterward.

In the winter of 2005, I was again home from college for the holidays, and went with some friends to see Spielberg’s other film that year: MUNICH.  For the ensuing three hours, my eyes were glued to the screen.  I was absolutely riveted by this film that was unspooling before me.  It’s hard to describe the visceral thrill of realizing that you’re watching an absolute masterpiece for the first time.

Here Spielberg was taking his decades of experience and expertise, and blending it all together into an effortlessly moving, dramatically potent film about controversial, relevant subject matter.  He was using the past to illustrate very relevant issues about our present.  As I sat, stunned, watching the credits roll, I knew that I had just seen what was one of my favorite films of all time, and just maybe the most important of my time (or at least, its decade).


Much like 1993, 1997, or even 2002, the year 2005 marked the production of twin films for Spielberg and the flexing of both his spectacle and prestige muscles.  This meant an incredibly accelerated production schedule for both WAR OF THE WORLDS as well as MUNICH.  He started shooting the latter the day that the former was released in theaters, having it finished only 5-6 months later.

The fact he did this for both films is absolutely astonishing.  MUNICH was a return to the kind of social message film that netted him the Oscar for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  However, MUNICH is an altogether different animal—unlike the aforementioned films, this wasn’t a heartbreaking take on objective subject matter.

Spielberg is traditionally a very risk-averse kind of filmmaker, in that he never does anything to intentionally alienate his audience, but by taking on a controversial story with multiple, conflicting perspectives, he is also taking on the biggest risk of his career.  He embraces these contradictions by presenting a film about a team of globetrotting assassins exacting vengeance as a soulful cinematic prayer for peace.

Similar to WAR OF THE WORLDS, MUNICH was released in the zeitgeist of our long War on Terror, but instead of appropriating the genre to make evocative 9/11 allegories, Spielberg uses the questions MUNICH raises to directly engage the ethical conundrum of terrorism.  It aims to dig deep into the psychological roots of ideological conflict, and figure out why an in-kind response only muddies the moral waters and makes the reactors no better than the perpetrators.

Despite being set in the 1970’s, MUNICH places its thematic focus squarely on the issues facing the world stage during the first decade of the Twentieth Century- a decade whose initial promise of technological wonders and human advancement was shattered on one clear September morning.  The film asks us to look long and hard at our tendency of choosing vengeance over reflection on what it was about ourselves that compelled the terrorists to act in the first place.

MUNICH also addresses the other key issue in the War On Terror: the inability to clearly distinguish between ally and enemy.  There are no uniforms, no national boundaries to rally around.  The War on Terror is fought blindly on city streets, in our own backyards, against an enemy we’ll never seen coming.

It’s why the Iraq War drew to a flaccid, stumbling close: even the most highly-trained and well-equipped military in the world is no match for an enemy that can strike without warning, blend right back into the crowd, and is ultimately eager to die for his cause.

During the 1972 Munich Olympics, a terrorist group known as Black September broke into the athletic residential compounds and took the Israeli team hostage, ultimately murdering them all in a horrifying airport massacre captured live by speechless news crews.  Israel was still a new country—barely 30 years old at the time—and they were absolutely devastated by the attack.

Like 9/11 for Americans, it was a national tragedy that shattered the Israelis’ sense of innocence and optimism about the future.  In the wake of the attacks, Prime Minister Golda Meir assembled a secret Mossad team to track down those responsible and execute them.  In doing so, Meir wanted to send a message to the world that Israel was a strong, righteous country, and they were not—to put it bluntly—to be fucked with.

So it falls to a young Mossad agent and new father named Avner (Eric Bana) to lead this team as they stalk their prey across Europe and the Mediterranean.  Avner hooks up with a shady French informant named Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who provides them information about their targets for a hefty fee, but his allegiance is questioned when it’s revealed that he might also be selling information about Avner and his team right back to their targets in Black September.

As the weight of their murderous deeds take their toll on the team’s souls, as well as their lives, Avner begins to question his loyalty to his own country.  Are they any better than the terrorists they’ve been ordered to kill, or are they instead making the world a worse place for their children by perpetuating vengeance?

Bana anchors the film as Avner, the conflicted yet righteous Mossad leader. He’s burdened by the state secrets he carries, wondering if it’s all at the expense of his soul.  Avner is a warm-hearted family man, which belies the cold-blooded nature in which he must dispatch his mission’s targets.  Bana turns in perhaps the best performance of his career, his soulful eyes clearly communicating his profound inner wrestling.

Spielberg casts a gallery of eclectic international actors to support Avner’s efforts.  A pre-James Bond Daniel Craig plays Steve, who—as a blonde South African—does not look like a conventional Jew.  He’s hotheaded and hopped up on a cocksure swagger, advocating for fighting dirty with the terrorists as the only way to beat them.  Ciaran Hinds plays Carl, one of the dapper, elder gentlemen of the team.

He’s the cleanup crew, erasing the murder scenes of any Mossad culpability.  The classy, well-dressed character comes naturally to Hinds, who enjoyed something of a career renaissance in the late 2000’s, working for other directing luminaries like PT Anderson and Michael Mann.  Matthieu Kassovitz plays Robert, the anxious toymaker who has to adapt his skills towards making bombs.

Robert is the most open with his misgivings about the operation, manifest in the fact that he constantly messes up with explosives because his training was actually in dismantling bombs, not making them.  Kassovitz’s presence in MUNICH continues Spielberg’s affinity for casting other directors in his work, like Francois Truffaut in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) or Richard Attenborough in JURASSIC PARK.

Kassovitz was (“was” being the key term here) a well-respected French filmmaker and the helmer of arthouse masterpiece LA HAINE (1995)—until he allegedly went nuts and began directing poorly-received drivel like GOTHIKA (2003) and BABYLON AD (2008).

Geoffrey Rush plays Ephraim, the case officer for the Mossad crew and Avner’s only point of contact with Israeli officials.  Rush is fatherly and jovial, but his dedication to Israel above all else quickly becomes an antagonizing aspect when Avner feels his loyalty wavering.  The assassins are helped by a French family of independent anarchists cum informants, headed by the GODFATHER-like Papa (Michael Lonsdale).

But it is Louis (Almaric), Papa’s tempestuous son that is Avner’s main source.  Almaric fits well into the archetype of an affluent French aristocrat with a disdain for authority.  He looks dignified in his reserved suits, but they only mask the simmering political rage boiling underneath.

Spielberg’s core roster of collaborators had been established for more than decade by this point—Kathleen Kennedy (producer), Rick Carter (production designer), Michael Kahn (editor), John Williams (music), and Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer).  Of all these people, Kaminski has had the most overt influence on Spielberg’s late-career style.

MUNICH retains their signature collaborative look—crushed blacks with blooming highlights— while imbuing the film with an aesthetic all its own.  Colors are generally desaturated and favor the colder spectrum, but each locale gets its own distinct color palette.  This palette is carried over into Rick Carter’s production design, which gives the film a soft period look: unmistakably seventies, but authentically reserved and low-key.  There’s no polyester disco suits to be found here.

The camerawork of MUNICH plays a huge role in determining the aesthetic.  Its presence is immediately apparent, injecting a great deal of energy and Hitchcock-ian suspense into the story (a fact all the more striking considering that Spielberg eschewed storyboards on set and made it all up as he went along).  Complementing the usual crane, handheld, and dolly camera movements is the distinctively copious use of period-appropriate zoom-ins.

Spielberg and Kaminski also use reflections and foreground prisms (like glass windows) as a compositional motif, echoing the murky moral dilemmas the story raises and the overall idea that nothing is quite what it seems.  Despite all these fluid camera movements and parallel action, we thankfully never lose our orientation due to Michael Kahn’s masterful editing.  It’s a perfectly paced film; even though it runs nearly three hours, the story zips breathlessly along.

Spielberg also incorporates a lot of news footage, blending it seamlessly alongside his recreation of true events (especially in one chilling shot where a TV in the foreground depicts a masked terrorist stepping out on the balcony, while in the background we see that same terrorist from behind as he steps out of the room).

Spielberg has always relied on convenient news broadcasts as an easy source of exposition, a habit that stretches all the way back to his debut in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974).  But in MUNICH, he weaves the news directly into the narrative.  History is literally in the making.

Despite one of his busiest years in memory (2005 also saw him working on George Lucas’ STAR WARS: EPISODE THREE and Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS), maestro John Williams turns in a masterful, inspired score for MUNICH.  He bases it off the Israeli national anthem—a soulful march that when played slowly with string instruments, becomes a mournful prayer for peace.

He also uses full-throated female vocals to convey the fundamental humanity on display, suggesting that the act of killing is the dividing line between civilization and nature.  During suspenseful sequences, he adopts a pulsing percussion motif that gets our blood pumping and our stomachs fluttering.

Spielberg fills out the 70’s setting with an eclectic mix of American R&B tracks (Bill Withers, All Green) and old-fashioned European torch songs (Edith Piaf—a recurring artist within Spielberg’s filmography).  This makes for an interesting juxtaposition, especially in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean locales where it speaks to the increasing Westernization of these ancient Eastern cultures (which itself is a primal contention point that religious extremists use to justify their aggression).

MUNICH showcases Spielberg at the absolute height of his game, and is one of the most powerful and clear examples of Directing (with a capital D) that I’ve ever witnessed.  His mastery of elaborate camerawork is used to full effect here, with nary a shot wasted or indulged in.  His visual conceits—light shafts, silhouettes, and low angle compositions—are made even more potent by his sober approach to the material.

The theme of fatherhood also poses strong questions throughout the story.  How can you raise a family when you don’t have a country to belong to?  What are we doing to ensure a better future for our children—and at what cost to our own souls?  Avner’s personal journey is vintage Spielberg in its exploration of a son grappling with his father and the idea of legacy; only in MUNICH, the father figure is his homeland of Israel (itself ironically lead by the maternal Golda Meir).

MUNICH might also be the closest that Spielberg has come to an outright James Bond film, seeing as he had always wanted to direct one himself.  It’s not just the globetrotting exploits in exotic European locales, or even the cloak and dagger theatrics.  It’s also the fact that it stars both James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his nemesis from Marc Forster’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), Mathieu Amalric.  And don’t forget that Michael Lonsdale was once a Bond villain himself in 1979’s MOONRAKER.

MUNICH excels the most in its quiet moments.  In the middle of all the bloodshed and spy games, Spielberg takes a time out for a frank conversation between Avner and a Palestinian rebel, a conversation that digs right into the heart of the conflict.  Avner can’t understand why Palestinians would sacrifice so much for their own state on a “worthless slice of land in the desert”.

The Palestinian responds by explaining such thinking is missing the point—the whole idea is that their people would finally have a place they can call “home”.  They would finally have a place on Earth; the irony here being that the same sentiment is espoused by Golda Meir earlier in the film, indeed by Israel itself.  This chilling, quiet scene calls for listening, empathy and understanding, and is where Spielberg’s approach resonates the strongest.

However, this self-conscious air of importance leads to some missteps on Spielberg’s part.  At the climax of the film, he chooses to juxtapose a recreation of the Munich massacre against Avner making love to his wife.  I understand the intent was to illustrate the polar extremes of love and hate, using the act of destruction to say something about the act of creation.

The scene is meant to show how the events of Munich and Israel’s murderous response have penetrated the most private corner of Avner’s psyche, a perfectly valid story conceit.  In execution, however, the final effect is more laughable than impressionable.  It’s just too weird, with mechanical thrusting and strangely sweaty slow motion shots accompanied by gunfire blasts and orgasmic screaming.

Granted, it’s arguably Spielberg’s one misstep in the entire film, but it’s an especially catastrophic one considering the scene is the apotheosis of Avner’s entire character arc.  Thankfully, it doesn’t derail the film, but it comes close.  MUNICH was a controversial film from the start, and it’s very rare that such a film ever lights the box office on fire (Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) being an exception).

However, Spielberg’s name and reputation ensured a strong financial performance, with the marketing touting MUNICH as the successor to his other “important” films like SCHINDLER’S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Reviews were mixed, but they were charged with strong emotions.  People either loved it, or hated it, and there were very good reasons for both reactions.

Overall, impressions of the film largely adhered to how one came down on the political spectrum.  As a work of art, however, MUNICH was better acknowledged.  It was nominated for several Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture, only to win none.  However, this was also the year that Paul Haggis won for CRASH, so to say the Academy’s judgment is suspect would be to make quite the understatement.

Removed from the immediate heat of America’s War on Terrorism, however, MUNICH’s message fares much better.  It asks the hardest, most fundamental dilemma of its era: what good is cutting off a snake’s head only to have two more sprout up in its place?  Where does it all end?

MUNICH is highly indicative of Spielberg’s evolving relationship with his Jewish heritage, whereby he strengthens his faith by asking hard questions about core values.  We’re taught to take religious teaching as unimpeachable truths, but I would argue that the truly faithful are the ones who grapple with core conceits and let their beliefs evolve and resolve themselves within the modern world.

Some saw Spielberg’s questioning of Israel’s motives as blasphemous slander, but Spielberg shows true righteousness in finding empathy for both sides of the conflict, thereby proving his dedication to Jewish ideals.  As far as his directing goes, I personally believe MUNICH is Spielberg’s finest moment, at times even besting his efforts on SCHINDLER’S LIST.

Spielberg had long felt that it was his patriotic duty to act as America’s filmmaker-in-residence, a cinematic chronicler of our nation’s shared experience.  While MUNICH sees Spielberg stepping out onto the world stage, the narrative’s implications for American interests helps to form his approach.  MUNICH’s ultimate connection to the American experience is made clear in his subtly-devastating final shot.

It finds Avner standing on the banks of the Hudson, looking out on the skyscrapers of Manhattan after his homeland of Israel (personified by Ephraim) has abandoned him.  As John Williams’ score swells to its denouement, the camera pans down the skyline to find the World Trade Centers, their monolithic silhouettes hanging in the distant mist like twin specters.

They stand stoic and new, symbols of a brighter future ahead—but of course, we know the end of that story.  And it’s in this one image that Spielberg hammers home the central truth behind the film and his reasons for making it: the roots of 9/11 reach back much farther than Al Qaeda.

This is only the latest salvo in a war that’s been raging ever since we invented civilization and displaced whole swaths of people in the process.  Spielberg has often been criticized for the way he ends his films, but MUNICH’s conclusion is elegant, understated, and heartbreaking.  You know you’ve got a master filmmaker on your hands when they can say more in a single frame than you could ever write inside of a 7 page essay.


When Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset at the end of 1989’s INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, creator/producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg considered the series over and done with (despite a studio contract that originally required five films).  The two friends parted ways professionally for the ensuing two decades, but they stayed close personally and would casually talk about Indy’s next adventure whenever they got together.

  The idea started picking up steam as a serious venture around 2000 when Spielberg’s son began to ask his father why a fourth film hadn’t been made yet, especially since all the key players (Spielberg, Lucas, and star Harrison Ford) were game to return.  Spielberg then became fascinated by the possibilities of a new adventure, and the interesting ways they could take the series by acknowledging Ford’s aging.

Several drafts were commissioned, including one by Frank Darabont, but Lucas in particular was very picky about what the fourth film would entail.  Despite Spielberg’s initial reluctance, he and Lucas settled on crystal skulls in the South American jungle as their maguffin, and used it as a launching pad to tell an intriguing story about ancient Native American secrets and the possibility of their civilization’s advancement being fueled by a superior race of inter-dimensional aliens.

So come 2008, Ford once again stepped in front of camera wearing the iconic hat and whip for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL.  There was an epic level of excitement surrounding Indy’s big return to the silver screen, fating the film to be one of the biggest hits of 2008 before a single frame was even shot.

By not making any attempts to hide Ford’s age, the filmmakers’ approach dictated that the story’s timeline had to be set forward appropriately—namely, the 1950’s.  The decade saw the downfall of the Nazis as well as the transition of the ruff-and-tumble Roosevelt Americans into patriarchs of domesticated nuclear families.

As the earlier films took a cue from the eras they were set in, they naturally resembled the serial, swashbuckling style of the 30’s and 40’s.  Thus, Lucas and Spielberg had the logical line of thinking that CRYSTAL SKULL should resemble something of a 1950’s B-movie/sci-fi film—the type of which was popular in reaction to our mastery of nuclear power.

Of all the questionable decisions made for this film (more on that later), this is one that I actually support—albeit in theory, not necessarily in execution.  After all, this line of thinking was the basis for the filmmakers’ approach to the previous three films, so this way they can stay consistent within the spirit of the series while still showing us something new.

Besides, aliens aren’t exactly out of place in the Indy universe—we saw similarly fantastical things like ghosts in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and phenomena like eternal life in THE LAST CRUSADE.

tumblr_inline_mu2e8epwow1qafcizWe’re reintroduced to Indiana Jones—now well into his fifties and quite the cantankerous grump—as he’s dragged out of the trunk of a truck driven out into the middle of the Nevada desert by Russians masquerading as American soldiers.  Their leader, the stern Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) forces Indy at gunpoint to enter the warehouse we saw the Ark Of the Covenant stored in at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—now revealed to be Area 51.

They track down a box containing the remains of a dead alien that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.  As Spalko starts to leave with it, Indy escapes his captors and returns home, where it’s revealed he’s living a lonely existence after losing both his father, Henry Sr, and close friend, Marcus Brody.

An investigation by the FBI into his Communist sympathies prompts Indy’s dismissal from his teaching post at Marshall College.  As he’s leaving town, Indy is tracked down by a cocky young greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who needs his help in finding a mutual friend of theirs: fellow archeologist and teacher named Professor Oxley (John Hurt).

Their search takes them to the jungles of Peru, where not only do they find Oxley has been kidnapped and pressed into the services of Spalko, but so has Indy’s former lover and Mutt’s mother Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).  At this point, Indy discovers he is a father, and Mutt is his son.  But there’s no time for family reunions- the search party must seek to retrieve the coveted crystal skulls before the Russians find them and use them for world domination.

After being away from the role for nearly twenty years, Harrison Ford slips effortlessly back into the fedora.  However, he changes his temperament to reflect an older, wiser, and more stubborn version of his iconic character.  He’s now a decorated war hero, having risen up to the rank of Colonel after his service in World War 2.

Despite being in his mid-60’s, Ford is in incredible shape, and he very quickly regains his mojo as the Indy we all know and love.  Ford famously didn’t want to hide his aging with hair dye, makeup, stunt doubles, etc.  The end result is noticeably creakier than previous installments, but it does add a particular geriatric charm that suits the character.

Cate Blanchett plays the rare villainous role as the stern, cold Soviet Irina Spalko.  As the first female antagonist in the series that isn’t also a love interest, Blanchett turns in a somewhat cartoonish performance with a stereotypical Russian accent.

Shia LaBeouf has a lot of his dad’s stubbornness in the highly controversial role of Matt Williams.  LaBeouf received a lot of flack when he was cast, and rightfully so—a lot of people straight up just don’t like LaBeef.  I wouldn’t say his casting was “inspired, since he already had a high profile in Spielberg’s universe thanks to his role in the Spielberg-produced DISTURBIA and TRANSFORMERS (2007).

However, his casting might have been the right choice at that specific moment in time, given his (albeit pudgier) semblance to Ford and his rising star in the industry.  LaBeouf portrays Mutt as a stereotypical greaser ripped straight from THE WILD ONE (1953), as its only natural that Indy’s son would rebel against the style of his dad like Indy himself rebelled against bookish Henry Sr.

Karen Allen reprises the role of Marion Ravenwood from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but she’s older here, and not as feisty or independent as she was before.  Besides serving as Indy’s love interest, she doesn’t necessarily need to be in the film.  I think her inclusion, while welcome, owes more to nostalgia than an actual story need for her presence.

Her participation is also incongruent with the series’ notion that Indy would have a different love interest for each film.  Sure, one would argue he’d want to settle down in his old age, but is settling down truly in Indy’s nature?  Ray Winstone plays Marc, Indy’s Ernest Hemingway-esque companion and war buddy with an Australian accent.

He’s duplicitous, constantly double crossing his friends and enemies.  Winstone does a great job playing a despicable character that values money more than friendship.  And finally, John Hurt plays the frail sage and Indy’s old friend, Professor Oxley.  He’s a little bit batty with dementia, but he achieves clarity when his friends need him the most at the end of the film.

Hurt turns in a serviceable, entertaining performance for a serviceably entertaining film.  CRYSTAL SKULL adheres to the established aesthetic of the Indiana Jones in that it was shot on 35mm film, but it doesn’t have the same texture and patina that its predecessors had.  It feels noticeably glossier and digital, most likely due to the heavy implementation of CGI techniques.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski found himself in the unenviable position of having to emulate prior series DP Douglas Slocombe’s aesthetic, right down to the broad lighting style and sepia-hued, earth-toned color palette.  Spielberg was initially adamant about utilizing old production techniques as much as possible, but he quickly realized it would be easier and cheaper to go digital in several instances.

However, this approach hurts the very reason we like Indy in the first place: the fact that the action was dangerous and exciting, and never looked fake.  Indy’s globetrotting exploits to exotic locales suddenly don’t have quite the same impact when you can tell it was shot on a studio backlot or rendered in a computer.

A perfect example is the creepy crawlies aspect of the series—previous entries did it for real, heaping thousands upon thousands of snakes, rats, and bugs on our heroes.  The fear on their faces was palpable and real.  But in CRYSTAL SKULL, their tormentors are killer ants rendered digitally, and it all looks so fake that the end result is hollow and disaffecting.

Maestro John Williams proves the most adept at slipping right back into the iconic Indy style.  It’s exciting to hear that theme once again blare through theater speakers after a twenty-year absence.  He doesn’t really evolve the music or explore its potential, but then again he doesn’t really need to.  He’s giving us exactly what we came to hear.

He even manages to have a little bit of fun with in-jokes, like a brief reprisal of the Ark theme from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when the destructive action inside the Area 51 warehouse exposes the Ark’s hiding place.  Spielberg uses source music to show the passage of time in Indy’s world, incorporating a little Elvis in the opening hot rod sequence as not only a nod to the 1950’s, but also to Lucas’ Eisenhower-era set film AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973).

Spielberg has stated in interviews that returning to the world of Indiana Jones meant a swallowing of pride on his part.  He had to emulate his directing style from the 1980’s, which was considerably less mature than in his post-SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) days.  As a result, CRYSTAL SKULL channels the swashbuckling approach of the pure, old-school Spielberg we saw in earlier Indy films.

It’s visually consistent with his previous work, featuring silhouettes, low angle compositions, lens flares, and the requisite awe/wonder shot (a trope that’s particularly well-suited to the series).  The narrative also allows Spielberg to indulge in his fascination with aviation and Americana/suburban imagery.

The fake town constructed for the atom bomb test is a perfect representation of the suburban dream of toaster ovens and white picket fences that characterized the 1950’s.  The exploration of the father/son dynamics that were so well realized in THE LAST CRUSADE are expanded upon in CRYSTAL SKULL while having their polarity flipped.  Indy is now the stern father trying to reign in his rebellious son.

It’s a touching way to acknowledge Sean Connery’s mark on the series when Indy calls on him for patience and strength in dealing with his own son.  This subplot culminates in Indy feeling comfortable calling Mutt “Junior”, just as his father did to him.

CRYSTAL SKULL’s legacy is very much like George Lucas’ STAR WARS prequels, in that an enormous tidal wave of impossible expectations were met with rage and disappointment upon arrival of the final product.  Make no mistake, the film was a box office hit, but the critics and audiences alike were quick to cry foul.

A lot of the ire centered on preconceived notions about LeBeouf’s legitimacy as an actor, as well as the perceived over-use of CGI effects.   Vitriol was thrown at the cartoonish gophers that open the film, the infamous monkey-swinging treevine sequence, and to a lesser extent, the presence of aliens in the narrative entirely.

But what made the critics really sharpen their daggers was the sequence in which Indy survives a nuclear explosion by locking himself in a lead-lined refrigerator.  Even for a character as fantastical and bigger-than-life as Indiana Jones, the scenario was well outside the boundaries of suspending disbelief.

Some were so riled up over its inclusion the film that they claimed Indiana Jones had officially “jumped the shark”.  Indeed, “nuking the fridge” has now become just as popular a derogatory term to describe when a popular TV show or movie crosses over into the realm of irrelevance, un-believability, or self-parody.

After the combined disappointment of CRYSTAL SKULL and the STAR WARS prequels, frothy-mouthed fanboys understandably felt betrayed by Spielberg and Lucas.  They were disillusioned to see their former idols show fallibility in their old age.  The sentiment was best captured in the notorious SOUTH PARK episode “THE CHINA PROBREM”, where dastardly cartoonish depictions of Lucas and Spielberg literally rape Indiana Jones, DELIVERANCE-style.


For Spielberg, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL marked his first high-profile disappointment in over ten years.  It hurts more, because it was for the series that helped to make his name, not some unknown property that he took a gamble on.

He had intended to make the film as a gift for those who propelled him to his success in the first place, but they burned him for the effort.  For all its faults, CRYSTAL SKULL is still an enjoyable entry in the franchise.  Will I rush to watch it again?  No.  Am I okay with its existence?

Sure.  It is, in effect, the act of two aging men letting their nostalgia get the better of them in a bid to recapture the glory days of their youth.  Looking at Indy’s journey in this film as a reflection of his two creators taking stock of their legacy adds an intriguing angle—but not intriguing enough to reappraise its quality.

Ultimately, CRYSTAL SKULL is a story that didn’t really need to be told.  Riding off into the sunset at the end of THE LAST CRUSADE was about as satisfying an end to the Indy series that we could ask for.


The year 2008 was an important year in American history.  It saw the lows of the Great Recession, as well as the highs of electing Barack Obama, our first black President, into office.  To quote Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times.  Like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton before him, Obama’s popularity among voters was bolstered by widespread celebrity support.

One of these celebrities was director Steven Spielberg, who didn’t pull any punches in singing Obama’s praises and helping him raise campaign funds.  Long considered the preeminent chronicler of American history in cinema, Spielberg had carved out a comfortable little niche for himself as our “resident filmmaker”.

His natural patriotism made working with him for political gains quite the beneficial endeavor.  For the 2008 Democratic Convention, Spielberg was commissioned to make a short documentary titled A TIMELESS CALL.  It was to focus on the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, at the time engaged in the quagmire of the Iraq War.

Cynics could see this as a calculated move meant to placate the critics slandering Obama for his lack of military service and overt desire to end the Iraq War.  The result of Spielberg’s work is an inspiring piece of propaganda (well-intentioned propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless) that paints our troops in a reverent, heroic light.

Since it was commissioned for a convention hall screen and not a movie theater, Spielberg shoots in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio to better fit the dimensions of a squarer screen.  As to whether he shot on film, it’s hard to tell, as by this point in time it was near-impossible for the average moviegoer to distinguish between film and digital.

However, knowing Spielberg’s aesthetic tendencies, I’d wager he shot on film.  He follows the conventional documentary format, featuring talking head testimonies from members of the military as well as their families.  These snippets form the emotional through-line of the piece, and are mixed in with still photographs and battle footage and wrapped up in a nice little package hosted by Spielberg’s patriotic avatar, Tom Hanks.

Right off the bat, the influence of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) is immediately felt—even down to the reverent horns and strings score by John Williams.  While A TIMELESS CALL focuses squarely on the current conflict in which we were engaged, Spielberg can’t help but draw back the tradition of military sacrifice to World War 2 (his favorite historical period).

There’s even a passing reference to the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day.  Thankfully, Spielberg opts out of including any actual footage from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, whereas lesser directors might have found the temptation too great.  Like 1999’s THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY, Spielberg uses the short documentary format to embrace his position as “America’s Filmmaker”, just like his patriotic forebears and influences, Frank Capra or John Ford.

Spielberg’s participation with A TIMELESS CALL ensures his legacy as a national treasure.  As his profile diversified from filmmaking to include philanthropic pursuits and political support interests, he’s done more than his share of helping our nation get its first black President elected.  He wasn’t just only recreating history inside of his art, now he was actively making it.


When RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was released all the way back in 1981, some reviews compared the swashbuckling, grave-robbing exploits of Indiana Jones to a relatively obscure European cartoon named THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN.  Curiously enough, the cartoon’s author, Herge, had pegged director Steven Spielberg as the only filmmaker he felt could do his creation justice on the big screen.

Spielberg himself was drawn to Tintin’s adventures after the Indy reviews piqued his curiosity, and this mutual lovefest eventually resulted in Spielberg buying the rights to the property in the early 1980’s.  Active development on a film version began as early as 1984, but Spielberg’s other, more immediate projects pushed it out of his mind.

In the late 2000’s, Spielberg was inspired by what filmmaking colleague Robert Zemeckis had done with motion-capture animation for his film THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004).  What initially began as a technical inquiry about the technology with LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY director Peter Jackson unexpectedly blossomed into a full partnership on the project.

The two men struck an agreement that they would both produce, with Spielberg directing the first film and Jackson directing a planned sequel.  They settled on the motion-capture animation concept, and set to work realizing the iconic Tintin character for a new generation of moviegoers.

  Spielberg’s first foray into animation and 3D technology was relatively painless, as he shot the motion-capture elements in as little as 31 days while Jackson supervised via webcam.  The finished product, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, was released in the winter of 2011 to modest box office performance (the character wasn’t as popular domestically as he was overseas), strong critical reviews, and lots of praise from the audiences that bothered to go see it in cinemas.

Spielberg had another crowdpleasing winner on his hands, which must have felt like a relief after the public shaming of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008).

tumblr_inline_mu5ts2ulat1qafcizThe time and location of THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN isn’t specified, because it’s not the point.  It’s supposed to be old-fashioned and modern at the same time.  The effect is truly timeless, which a movie such as this needs to be in order to work.  The film concerns the adventures of Tintin (Jamie Bell), a boyish European journalist, who buys a model replica of a Victorian-era warship named The Unicorn.

For unknown reasons, he finds that several outside forces desire that same replica after he comes home to find his apartment ransacked and the model stolen.  As he cleans up, he finds a hidden scroll (that fell out of the model and rolled under the dresser)– a scroll that contains clues to the location of a hidden treasure.

As he follows the clues, he comes into contact with the nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who is in pursuit of the same treasure.  He’s stolen a freight ship and kidnapped its’ captain, a boorish drunkard named Haddock (Andy Serkis), who TinTin encounters after stowing away.  They escape, and the race is on to find the treasure.

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN boasts an impressive cast, but since this is animation, we don’t get to see their faces.  Spielberg instead adapts Herges’ distinctive caricatures into a photorealistic setting, giving them wrinkles and even individual hairs while still retaining their cartoonish features.

Jamie Bell voices Tintin, having been recommended by Peter Jackson after their work together on the remake of KING KONG (2005).  He ably projects the boyish, determined, and friendly demeanor required of the role, like a European, family-friendlier version of Indiana Jones.Andy Serkis was also recommended by Jackson for Captain Haddock, the drunk Irish sea captain with a noble ancestry.  Serkis is a pioneer of motion capture performance, having provided his services as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY as well as Caesar the ape in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011).

His character of Haddock resembles Peter Jackson, especially when we flashback to his ancestor, the proud captain of The Unicorn.  Daniel Craig plays the snobby, serpentine villain Sakharine in his second performance for Spielberg.  Like Haddock resembling Jackson, Sakharine resembles a cartoonish Spielberg, which is amusing to watch as the film plays out.

Having two key characters resemble the two directors involved with the project can’t be a coincidence… it has to be a fun little in-joke they tossed into the mix.  Right?  Am I the only one that noticed this?

British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were enjoying a career breakout on the heels of SHAUN OF THE DEAD’s (2004) success, so it makes some sense that they were recruited for a mainstream project with European sensibilities.  They play a pair of bumbling Scotland Yard detectives named Thompson and Thomson.  Diminutive character actor Toby Jones rounds out the cast as Silk, an anxious pickpot.

Because THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is a computer-animated film with no need for traditionally-photographed elements, Spielberg has to (out of necessity) embrace digital filmmaking for the first time in his career.  Instead of serving as director of photography, Janusz Kaminski was brought on as a lighting consultant to help the animators achieve a noir-influenced visual style.

The digital/virtual environment allows Spielberg to really go hogwild with camera movement.  He can swoop in, out and through elements with reckless abandon since there’s nothing to physically block his way.  For a film that’s entirely computer-generated, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is startlingly photo-realistic.

And it’s not just the static set textures, it’s the organic elements such as hair and skin that show a marked improvement over previous “mo-cap” films like THE POLAR EXPRESS or BEOWULF (2007).  The telltale vacant look in the eyes of computerized characters isn’t as noticeable in this film, mostly because Spielberg and company fully embrace the cartoonish aspects of their aesthetic.

I almost had to pause and catch my breath in a few instances—we’ve come so far since the heady days of JURASSIC PARK (2003), when we found we could convincingly realize dinosaurs licking spoons.  John Williams is once again on music duties, riffing with a jazzy, midcentury Euro sound.

It’s not an entirely standout score amongst Williams’ work, but it’s effective for the narrative’s purposes.  The music has hint of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) flavor to it, a conceit that’s echoed in the Saul Bass-inspired, graphic art-animated opening sequence that calls back to a similarly-executed title sequence in the jet-set con-man comedy.

Despite being a radical departure from traditional Spielberg films by its nature as an animated work, he’s able to artificially implement several of his signature conceits into THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN.  There’s low angle/child’s eye perspectives, lens flares, the awe/wonder shot, and even the return of the shooting star trope that marked his first few features.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film without a sequence involving aviation.  TINTIN is no different, featuring a high-flying airplane battle over the high seas.  Some tropes, like the estranged father/son dynamic, are almost entirely absent—but then again, the nature of his collaboration with Peter Jackson means that Spielberg can’t claim total authorship with the film.

tumblr_inline_mu5tvm7x3n1qafcizTHE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN affords Spielberg several opportunities to branch out and acquire new skills.  This is the first film that Spielberg and frequent editor Michael Kahn ever assembled together with the nonlinear Avid editing system, and not the traditional flatbed setup that they so fervently adhered to in the past.

This is also the first time that Spielberg has worked in the 3D format.  When composing shots for his previous works, he’d look at the scene with one eye closed to approximate the flattening perspective inherent in film.  However, here he is able to keep both eyes wide open as he composes for three dimensions.

The utilization of 3D in TINTIN benefits from Spielberg’s direction, as he uses it as a vital storytelling tool and not just some marketing gimmick.  Granted, I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I can imagine what the experience must’ve been like.  Animated films are better suited to the format and often make for highly entertaining experiences.

I have no reason to believe TINTIN was any different.  I don’t know if Spielberg’s experience with 3D was transformational enough for him to adopt the format again, but it’s clear that his unfamiliarity with it didn’t hinder his natural talents as a storyteller.

I initially stayed away from THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN when it was released.  Going off the marketing materials, it simply didn’t appeal to me.  But sometimes I can be a pretentious bastard.  I was pleasantly surprised by the film, with “surprise” being a ridiculous reaction considering the overall quality of Spielberg’s filmography.

It’s modest performance and strong critical appraisal bodes well for a future franchise, but for now we have one more rollicking, albeit minor, entry in Spielberg’s body of work.

LINCOLN (2012)

You might not think that a biopic about our sixteenth President bringing the Civil War to a close is relevant in our modern day and age.  But watching director Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film LINCOLN on the eve of the recent government shutdown, I was struck by just how exceedingly relevant and important this film is right now.

Many comparisons to Abraham Lincoln were made when President Barack Obama swept into office in 2008—both were from Illinois, both were highly controversial when they assumed office, both were met with extreme venom from southern bureaucrats, and both were charged with uniting a highly divided nation.

  Obama used Lincoln as the model for his administration, assembling his Cabinet with several of his political opponents– just as Honest Abe had done.  It’s obviously not as bad now as it was during the Civil War, but it’s hard to think of another recent time when members of Congress were so openly hostile towards each other.

Everyone is doubling down on the extreme end of their ideology, at great risk to the progress of the American people.  Watching LINCOLN in this context only further highlights the absolute absurdity of our current situation.  In the film, Congress is battling over whether or not to end slavery, but our current government has a fringe faction so rabidly against universal healthcare that it’s willing to turn the lights off on Congress entirely.

I’ll stop before I go into full-on political argument mode, but the irony here wasn’t lost on me:  then, politicians came together despite extreme opposition for an honorable cause that advanced human rights, but now, politicians are using government as collateral bargaining chips to advance their selfish, misguided and short-sighed interests.

This is why LINCOLN needed to be made, to remind us how great we can all be when we all come together to work out our differences, and our leaders encourage us to be the best version of ourselves.  Obama may be no Lincoln, but damn it if he isn’t trying.

LINCOLN marks the culmination of decades in development and the realization of a lifelong dream of Spielberg’s to make a film about our sixteenth President.  His reverence and affinity for the man is present throughout his entire body of work.  His films throw in little nods towards Lincoln, but it’s also in how Spielberg adopts a reverential tone when depicting American history.

It’s the kind of reverence that Lincoln embodied; an optimism that believes in the greater good and potential of the people.  When Spielberg learned about the publication of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals”—a nonfiction tome on Lincoln’s unorthodox cabinet—he immediately bought the rights to use as the basis for a biopic.

He commissioned his MUNICH (2005) screenwriter, Tony Kushner, to craft the screenplay and recruited his SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) star Liam Neeson to play Lincoln.  When Kushner turned in an insanely long script based off Goodwin’s book, Spielberg knew he would have to apply dramatically more judicious focus on which period of Lincoln’s life to portray.

He decided on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency (and life), wherein he passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and ended the Civil War.  LINCOLN languished briefly in development, and due to the delay, Neeson bowed out of the film by reasoning he was now too old to play the part.

Spielberg then turned to Daniel Day Lewis, who had previously won the Oscar in 2007 for his performance as ruthless oil baron Daniel Plainview in PT Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  Day Lewis initially passed, but Spielberg’s CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) star Leonardo DiCaprio allegedly convinced Day Lewis to reconsider.

It turned out to be a wise decision, as it netted the already-legendary actor his second Oscar statue when the film was released during the 2013 holiday season.  LINCOLN performed well at the box office and garnered strong critical acclaim, with most reviews singling out Day Lewis’ performance and Spielberg’s restraint in crafting what amounts to a parlor drama and foregoing the tropes of the biopic genre.

  But beyond being just another Oscar winning film in Spielberg’s oeuvre, LINCOLN proved to be something altogether more important: an excellent historical document about an important period of American history, a document that will inevitably be shown in classrooms across the country for decades to come.

LINCOLN is set in Washington DC in January of 1865.  The Civil War is in its dying throes, Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and a struggling Confederacy is beginning to show symptoms of surrender and a desire to be reintegrated into the Union.

Lincoln sees his re-election as a mandate for bold legislation that would uphold the central tenet of our nation: that all men are created equal.  This meant the immediate and total abolition of slavery, put forward in the chambers of Congress as the Thirteenth Amendment.  Lincoln employs his supreme intellect and political cunning to manipulate members of Congress as pawns to get the needed votes from a deeply-divided caucus.

As the film unfolds, we see Lincoln not as a saintly caricature, but as a flesh and blood man with fallibility and regrets.  LINCOLN is a moving tribute to one of our greatest Presidents, allowing us to really know the man who’s stern visage graces our currency.

Daniel Day Lewis, notorious for the choosiness with which he accepts roles, won his second Oscar because he basically resurrected the late President.  He looks exactly like Honest Abe, right down to the facial bone structure and gangly physicality.  Lewis goes against typical portrayals of Lincoln as a booming orator, giving him a higher vocal inflection that most historians agree is close to how Lincoln would have really sounded.

Day Lewis conveys the weary, quiet righteousness of this hallowed American icon, showing exactly why Lincoln is such an influential figure in our history.  He prepared meticulously for the role, going so far as to never break character on or off set.  He even sent text messages in character to members of the cast!

Day Lewis is directly supported by several incredible character actors.  Sally Field is great as Mary Todd Lincoln, the combative, yet supportive First Lady.  Field gives real depth to a figure whom historians have written off as a legitimately crazy person.  David Strathairn plays William Seward, the educated, worldly Secretary of State and Lincoln’s right hand man.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Robert Lincoln, a debonair idealist that wants to fight for the Union despite his father’s wishes.  As a stubborn, passionate young man, Gordon-Levitt is able to show us another side of his personality in the same year that also gave us his memorable performances in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and Rian Johnson’s LOOPER.

Tommy Lee Jones also gives an incredible performance as Thaddeus Stevens, the grumpy congressman who was instrumental in swaying the needed votes for ratification.  LINCOLN also boasts the participation of several world-class character actors that weave in and out as part of a larger narrative.  James Spader plays W.N. Bilbo, an eccentric, jester-like lobbyist.

Tim Blake Nelson makes his second appearance for Spielberg after 2002’s MINORITY REPORT as another lobbyist, Richard Schell.  One of my favorite actors, John Hawkes, plays a third lobbyist named Robert Latham.  I had the pleasure of directing Hawkes in a small project a few weeks ago– a career highlight for me personally—so it was quite interesting to watch him under Spielberg’s direction.

Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair, a doggish, elder statesman who helps to kickstart peace talks with the Confederacy.  Jackie Earle Haley plays Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens as a stubborn, yet honorable politician.  Michael Mann-mainstay Bruce McGill plays Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s supremely bearded Secretary of War.

Jared Harris of MAD MEN fame plays Ulysses S. Grant, the gruff, cigar-chomping Union general that won the war and would eventually become President himself.  LINCOLN also has a few cameos featuring younger up-and-comers, such as Dane Dehaan and Lukas Haas as two Union soldiers, and Adam Driver as a telegram operator.

LINCOLN finds Spielberg working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, harnessing the 2.35:1 35mm film image to create crushed blacks and blooming highlights that take on a cream-colored hue.  LINCOLN’s overall color palette is greatly de-saturated, leaning heavily towards the colder blue end of the spectrum.

Kaminski creates a low key lighting setup not unlike stage theater to light the dark parlors of a pre-electricity White House, and Spielberg utilizes dollies and cranes to add a Ford-ian level of scale to the story.  He also chooses to include a curious nightmare sequence—distinguished by a stylized, billowy, grainy look—that is off-tone with the rest of LINCOLN’s straightforward presentation.

The fact that it only happens once in the film is further disconcerting to me—it would have made more sense if it were a recurring motif.  Returning Production Designer Rick Carter won an Oscar for his recreation of 1865-era Washington DC.  Granted unfettered access to some of Richmond, Virginia’s oldest government buildings, Carter was able to faithfully recreate the period in full fashion.

His best work on the film belongs to his treatment of the White House as a gloomy, haunted mansion that has somewhat fallen into disarray in our nation’s darkest days.  What’s most immediately striking about the White House sets is the wallpaper that covers every wall from head to toe.

Graphic wallpaper is not something one typically thinks of when imagining the White House, but Carter conducted meticulous research so that he could really fill out a sense of the time with little visual details.  John Williams returns to provide the music, as expected.

He creates a regal, sweeping score, with horn and string arrangements giving a reverential vibe not unlike his work on 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  His score is anchored by a moving theme that, while not his most memorable composition, pays fitting tribute to Lincoln’s legacy.  Spielberg also incorporates a series of period-accurate ballads and folk songs like “The Union Forever” to further convey a time very much removed yet similar to our own.

Of all of Spielberg’s works to come before it, LINCOLN is most similar to 1997’s AMISTAD in that both are 19th century political dramas concerning the rights of African Americans.  They both tie into Spielberg’s larger exploration of people in persecution.

Father/son tensions manifest themselves in the form of Lincoln squabbling with his son Robert over the latter wanting to go off and join the Union army, a subplot very similar to Tom Cruise and Justin Chatwin’s dynamic in WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).  Other Spielberg-ian visual conceits (shafts of lights, silhouettes, lens flares, child’s eye level compositions) are all present and accounted for, bringing LINCOLN’s aesthetic right in line with our auteur’s previous work.

tumblr_inline_mubq3huxwp1qafcizWhen I first heard Spielberg was doing a film about Abraham Lincoln, a sicker part of my personality immediately became curious how he’d show the assassination.  After all, you can’t make a film without Lincoln without the assassination at Ford’s Theatre, right?  As I watched LINCOLN in theatres, I had a growing pit in my stomach.

I knew it was coming, but I didn’t want it to anymore—seeing how reverent a tone Spielberg had struck, suddenly it seemed to me that including his murder would be crass and out of line with the story.  So imagine my relief when Spielberg chose to depict the event off-camera, letting a lingering look of his long, gangly walk down a White House hallway to the carriage that will whisk him away to his inevitable death serve as the graceful, dignified exit that the real-life Lincoln deserved.

While Spielberg chose to indulge his sentimental tendencies and end the film with Lincoln delivering his second Inaugural speech, it was the long, quiet walk away from us—cutting that iconic figure in his stovepipe hat—that should have been the final shot.  LINCOLN was released to the expected financial performance and critical acclaim that has come to define the wake of a new Spielberg film.

It was nominated for all the major Oscars, and was even considered to be the odds-on favorite for Best Picture and what would be Spielberg’s third Directing statue.  While Ben Affleck’s ARGO pulled out a surprise win in the end, LINCOLN’s long-term legacy is assured.  It is one of Spielberg’s most relevant films, using the past to teach us an important lesson about our present.

It will be remembered long after ARGO has had its day in the sun.  As of this writing, LINCOLN is Spielberg’s latest work, which puts a temporary end to the examination of his career for The Director’s Series.  Spielberg’s filmography holds many lessons for every aspiring filmmaker, regardless of personal taste or aesthetic.

You don’t need family connections or wealth to become the most successful filmmaker in the world, you just need the insatiable desire to tell great stories.  In studying Spielberg, I’ve learned that it’s also important to be well-versed in the business side of the art form.

A lot of Spielberg’s influence (and affluence) comes not from his directorial efforts, but his business/producing ventures.  He’s the world’s highest-profile filmmaker, and his influence will be felt on the medium long after he’s gone.


But he’s not done yet.  As he enters his twilight years, Spielberg is just beginning the third act to his career.  After inventing the modern blockbuster, only to reinvent himself as an auteur of important social issue works, Spielberg has become the Abraham Lincoln of filmmaking.  In other words, he uses his gifts to inspire us to pursue the best possible versions of ourselves.

Having risen from the first generation of filmmakers to openly acknowledge their influences and the mastery of their cinematic forebears, Spielberg has gone on to eclipse his idols, and in the process, fundamentally and repeatedly change the art form.


More so than any other historical era, World War II has sculpted the filmography of director Steven Spielberg.  Whether he’s examining the conflict directly in films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) or SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), or the ensuing cultural fallout in MUNICH (2005) and even CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), this particular era courses through the DNA of a substantial portion of Spielberg’s twenty-seven theatrical features.

 BRIDGE OF SPIES, released in the fall of 2015, follows in this tradition in its retelling of an American lawyer’s struggle to negotiate a trade of political prisoners in divided Berlin during the height of the Cold War.  While he didn’t conceive the idea for the film or author its screenplay, the real-life story of James Donovan has, in a sense, been with Spielberg for almost all of his life.

 As a boy, his father, Arnold, had often regaled him with stories about his service overseas in Europe during the war, and one of those episodes had been glimpsing the actual wreckage of the U2 spy plane piloted by captured pilot Francis Gary Powers.  The prisoner exchange had been a mere footnote in a biography of President John F. Kennedy, but yet it was potent enough to stir the imagination of British playwright and screenwriter Matt Charman as the basis for a feature film adaptation.

 After Charman had developed a few drafts at Dreamworks and attracted Spielberg’s interest as a directing vehicle, no less than the beloved writing/directing team of Joel & Ethan Coen came aboard to infuse the script with a concentrated dose of character.  This creative momentum translated to logistical momentum, and soon Spielberg and his co-producers Kristie Macosko Krueger and Marc Platt had worked out a $40 million production budget financed by Dreamworks, Twentieth Century Fox, and Participant Media.

Arriving in theaters three years after his previous effort, LINCOLN, the impeccably-crafted BRIDGE OF SPIES marks a high watermark in Spielberg’s reverential chronicles of important events in America’s sociopolitical history.

In his fourth collaboration with Spielberg, Tom Hanks anchors the story as James Donovan, the idealistic and altruistic lawyer charged with defending a suspected Russian spy at a time when the tensions between the two countries have never been higher. BRIDGE OF SPIES sees Hanks working in full-on Jimmy Stewart mode, effortlessly putting midcentury American ideals like patriotism and religious faith into action even as he contends with the internal conflict of defending the most-hated man in the country.

With his reputation stained by association, Donovan’s job nevertheless requires tremendous compassion for his charge, Rudolf Abel.  Played by Mark Rylance in a breakout, Oscar-winning performance, Abel doesn’t look the part of a Soviet spy– he presents himself as a quiet painter living out of a grungy Brooklyn studio, wryly musing on his imminent fate with a droll, unflappable quality that is arguably the film’s most visible evidence of Joel and Ethan Coen’s literary participation.

 The first half of the film details Donovan’s defense of Abel and the ensuing strain it puts on both him and his family, anchored by his supportive yet strong-willed wife, Mary (Amy Ryan).  The more involved Donovan gets with the case, the more convinced he becomes of the constitutional righteousness of Abel’s defense, risking conflict with his own boss, Thomas Walters (Alan Alda), in his argument that the American justice system should assert its ethical superiority over the Soviet Union’s by trying him under the same God-given rights afforded of any naturalized citizen.

The second half of BRIDGE OF SPIES abruptly pivots to East Berlin in 1960, where a dashing American pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) has been taken prisoner after his top-secret U2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet airspace.  Having chickened out in his directive to commit suicide before capture, Powers represents an urgent intelligence risk and must be recovered.

Donovan once again answers the call of duty, making a secret journey to divided Berlin in the hopes of negotiating a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers.  As he ventures further into this foreign world of cloak-and-dagger diplomacy, Donovan also angles for the release of a captured American exchange student named Frederic Pryor in addition to Powers.  It’s a huge risk that threatens the success of his original mission, but for Donovan, the risk is worth the reward if that means he can liberate as many Americans as he can from the grips of the Soviet Union.

Visually-speaking, BRIDGE OF SPIES plays like a convergence of the shadowy cinematography of MUNICH and the stately aesthetic of LINCOLN, resulting in a stylish, moody look consistent with Spielberg’s late-career work.  Familiar, well-established collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn share the credits roll with new creative partners like production designer Adam Stockhausen and composer Thomas Newman.

Kaminski is so entwined with Spielberg’s recent body of work that their individual aesthetics are nearly synonymous, and with BRIDGE OF SPIES, the celebrated cinematographer continues to deliver some of the most compelling images in modern studio filmmaking.  Shot on 35mm celluloid film, BRIDGE OF SPIES plays out within the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, taking on the desaturated, high-contrast look that we’ve come to expect from Spielberg’s social justice pictures.

A cold blue cast dominates the film’s color palette, bathing highlights and shadows in cobalt and cerulean hues.  Bursts of yellow and red complement this scheme, with the latter almost exclusively used to signify Soviet influence.  Spielberg and Kaminski adopt a classical approach to their camerawork and lighting setups, reinforcing their stately tone with fluid, elegant movements and a theatrical luminescence marked by the pair’s signature lens flares and blooming practicals.

Editor Michael Kahn, one of Spielberg’s longest-serving collaborators, has a gift for creating powerful, affecting edits that don’t call attention to themselves.  BRIDGE OF SPIES is consistent with this established approach, putting an emphasis on seamless transitions that hinge on the shared elements of any two adjacent scenes to keep the pace brisk and propulsive.

The aforementioned new collaborator — Stockhausen and Newman — inject fresh blood into the proceedings with their efforts, with Stockhausen striking nary a false note in his impeccable period reconstruction of postwar Berlin and Newman further asserting his unique musical voice with a stately score comprised of swelling strings, a male choir, and his signature arrangement of light piano chords that sound as ii they were hanging in the air or falling softly to the ground like snow.

Newman’s participation is particularly noteworthy because of Spielberg’s long and storied partnership with John Williams, who had to break a successive string of collaborations stretching back to 1985’s A COLOR PURPLE due to a minor health issue.  The challenge Newman faced was understandably daunting– how could anyone ever hope to deliver a suite of cues that lived up that kind of legacy?

Thankfully, this proved not to be a problem; Newman was sought out by Spielberg precisely because of his own artistic character, and was encouraged to follow his own inspiration and tastes without regard for Williams’ influence.  The result is an atmospheric and reverential score that nonetheless favors a subdued approach, perhaps out of respectful deference to Williams’ legacy.

As mentioned before, BRIDGE OF SPIES follows in the tradition of Spielberg’s previous social justice pictures like SCHINDLER’S LIST, AMISTAD (1997), or LINCOLN in its depiction of the protagonist’s righteous quest to deliver a subset of people from persecution.  Here, that subset consists of prisoners of war– military and civilian alike.

The fragile peace that emerged out of the devastation of World War II resulted in the proliferation of spycraft between the USA and the USSR.  The Berlin Wall served as something of a flashpoint in this regard– a literal embodiment of the divide between two starkly different world views.  As one of the few capable of traversing the Wall freely, James is duty-bound to help those who find themselves trapped on the wrong side of it.

His righteousness in this regard drives him to push for the release of an additional prisoner beyond Powers (the aforementioned Pryor)– even when it angers his superiors and risks the success of the entire mission.  He doesn’t care about political expediency or “the optics”; he cares only about the souls he can deliver to safety, and delivering as many souls as he can.

Spielberg further alludes to this quality of Donovan’s during the epilogue, superimposing text that briefly details a future mission to Cuba where he arranged for the freedom of over 9000 souls.  BRIDGE OF SPIES possesses several additional qualities consistent with Spielberg’s artistic character, with the subplot about the U2 spy-plane reinforcing his cinematic fascination with flight and aviation in the detail he lavishes upon the plane’s shape, function, and ultimate destruction thousands of feet up in the air.

Family and the complex nature of domestic relationships, a staple of Spielberg’s signature since at least JAWS (1975) if not earlier, also plays a prominent part in BRIDGE OF SPIES’ narrative, complicating Donovan’s efforts by positioning the sentiments of his own family in quietly contention to them.  His kids, who understandably possess a more simplistic view of US/USSR relations (“us good, them bad”), regard his attempts to spare a Soviet spy the death penalty with wariness if not outright hostility.

Donovan’s attempts to negotiate the freedom of a downed Air Force pilot, then, becomes a personal quest for redemption in the eyes of his children.

Spielberg has crafted BRIDGE OF SPIES with a profound earnestness that is characteristic of his prior work– and decidedly out of fashion with contemporary filmmaking.  This only makes Spielberg’s earnestness more prominent and visible.  Critics may dismiss his formalistic reverence as “outdated”, but in so doing they betray their confusion of “timeliness” for “timelessness”.

Yes, Spielberg’s saccharine sentimentality might seem out of step with our cynical age, but that’s only because he’s more interested in creating work that resounds through all ages.  Thankfully, most critics were as reverential of Spielberg as the filmmaker was of his material, empowering BRIDGE OF SPIES with near-universal acclaim.

Audiences followed suit, driving the film to $165 million in worldwide box office receipts.  As the latest work from an elder statesman of American cinema, BRIDGE OF SPIES’ high profile at the Academy Awards was a foregone conclusion, earning nominations for its score, production design, sound mix, original screenplay, as well as the coveted Best Picture category and an actual win for Rylance’s performance.

While it may not have reached the monumental heights enjoyed by Spielberg’s previous social justice pictures, BRIDGE OF SPIES proudly follows in their footsteps while carving out a new niche of twentieth century history for the venerated filmmaker to explore.

THE BFG (2016)

Roald Dahl’s iconic novel “The BFG” holds a special place in almost every child’s heart as a hallmark in his or her early literary development, much as director Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL does for a child’s burgeoning appreciation for cinema.  It was perhaps inevitable, then, that these two giants of pop culture would come together at some point.

The convergence happened in 2016, with Spielberg delivering his adaptation of Dahl’s novel to cinemas after gestating for nearly 30 years in development hell.  THE BFG’s production history extends back all the way to the 1990’s, when Spielberg’s frequent producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall obtained the film rights and tried to crack a version that would have featured the late Robin Williams in the title role.

Following a reportedly disastrous table read of this early draft, the project fell into turnaround until the rights reverted back to the Dahl estate, only to be subsequently picked up by Spielberg’s company, Dreamworks, in 2011.

Melissa Mathison, who had previously collaborated with Spielberg on E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, delivered a screenplay that convinced Spielberg to direct in addition to producing alongside Marshall and Sam Mercer.  The reunion of Spielberg and Mathison (and the ensuing creative energy that previously drove E.T. to dizzying heights of success) proved to be the key development that finally got the project before cameras in the spring of 2015.

THE BFG marks Spielberg’s thirtieth theatrical feature (and his first for Walt Disney Pictures), benefitting from his extensive experience in capturing the magic of childhood despite its chilly reception from an audience that had little use for it.


Spielberg’s film faithfully adapts the major beats of Dahl’s novel, which details the friendship between a young orphan girl named Sophie and the titular friendly giant.  The adventure begins in London, when the precocious Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) glimpses the sight of a giant roaming the streets for supplies in the middle of the night.

Having been sighted, the giant has no choice but to snatch the young girl from the window of her orphanage and steal her away to Giant Country, a wondrous fantasy land inhabited by giant folk.  Mark Rylance, cast by Spielberg during the production of BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), delivers a whimsical (and slightly grumpy) motion-capture performance as the Big Friendly Giant.

Funnily enough, he’s the runt of his bigger giant brethren– thinner, shorter, and endlessly bullied by the likes of alpha-giants like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler (imbued with the vocal talents of Jermaine Clement and Bill Hader, respectively).  As Sophie develops a relationship with her benevolent captor, BFG shows her his extensive dream collection, visually manifested as brilliantly-colored lights trapped in glass jars.

These jars allow him to manipulate the dreams of others– an ability that comes in handy when they hatch a plan to rid Giant Country of its abrasive bullies by planting the idea in the dreams of none other than the Queen (Penelope Wilton).  A thinly-veiled fictionalization of Queen Elizabeth II (complete with a detail of corgis at her heels), the Queen wakes from her dream ready to accept the existence of the BGF when he and Sophie make themselves known to her and her daughter Mary (played by Rebecca Hall in the vein of Kate Middleton).

Together, they launch a coordinated offensive to rid Giant Country of Fleshlumpeater and his ilk once and for all.

THE BFG distinguishes itself amongst Spielberg’s deep filmography as the director’s first feature to be shot digitally– a move made necessary by the sheer amount of CGI required to realize the whimsical sheen he brings to his 2.35:1 image.  Indeed, the film plays like a living storybook, not unlike the visual style of his animated co-venture with director Peter Jackson, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011).

THE BFG was always going to be a challenging prospect from a visual effects perspective, and in this regard, its long gestating period actually works out in its favor.  The astronomic advances made in digital technology since the film’s development began in the 1990’s empowers THE BFG to fully realize itself.  Just look at the insanely-detailed and lifelike skin textures on the all-CG giant characters– not even five years ago, that skin would have appeared noticeably more waxy and smooth.

 The enormous logistical challenge of shooting a film where the characters have such a dramatic size discrepancy meant that Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski would have to turn to unconventional methods.  Towards this end, they utilized the Simulcam process developed by director James Cameron during the making of 2009’s AVATAR— a technology that allowed actors to interact with digital sets and CG characters via advanced motion-capture techniques in real time.

Even under all this CG scaffolding, THE BFG still manages to visually assert itself as an identifiably Spielbergian work, digitally recreating the lens flares and blooming lights sources that have become such a staple of the director’s late-career aesthetic.

His intuitive ability to compose a frame that sears itself into our unconscious memories finds endless opportunity in THE BFG’s narrative, and he exploits this opportunity at almost every turn by shooting most of the film in the wide so as to better communicate its scale and the aforementioned size discrepancy between its two leads.  Simply put, an all-digital environment allows Spielberg’s imagination to run free, allowing him to execute complicated camera movements that would be extraordinarily difficult — impossible, even — to achieve in reality.

THE BFG marks Spielberg’s reunion with several other longtime collaborators who, for one reason or another, sat out BRIDGE OF SPIES.  Longtime production designer Rick Carter teams up with co-designer Robert Stromberg to create an enchanting digital environment for Barnhill and Spielberg’s CG creations to inhabit.

Carter and Stromberg cultivate a blue/orange palette that, by virtue of its chromatic restraint, makes the saturated rainbow colors of the BFG’s dream jars all the more brilliant and magical.  The city of London is realized as a fictional recreation outside of time, full of various anachronisms that place the audience in a vaguely modern timeframe without being able to pinpoint an exact year.

A handmade sensibility reminiscent of Spielberg’s HOOK (1991) directs the design of Giant Country, a fantastical wonderland where giants use beaten-down cars as roller skates.  After missing out on BRIDGE OF SPIES due to health concerns, composer John Williams returns to Spielberg’s fold with a subdued orchestral score that complements the wonder and intrigue of the film’s visuals without ever claiming the spotlight for its own.

Roald Dahl’s literary universe proves an apt playground for Spielberg to explore his particular set of longtime thematic fascinations.  Spielberg’s films about childhood adventure — films like E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), HOOK, and to a certain extent, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001) — often adopt a pint-sized perspective that regards the world around them with wonder and awe.

With its pre-pubescent protagonist, THE BFG naturally defaults to this particular perspective, complete with framing that literally looks up to see the actions of giants working overhead.  Sophie’s background as an orphan finds added poignancy by virtue of Spielberg’s experience with depicting strained family dynamics onscreen; her lack of a family emphasized by her isolation even within a large orphanage, she finds in The BFG not only a companion, but the father figure she’s been longing for.

Spielberg even indulges his love for aviation in the film’s soaring climax, which finds a fleet of military helicopters sent to Giant Country to trap the evil giants and drop them onto an isolated island in the middle of the ocean.  Spielberg’s reverence towards Dahl’s classic novel is palpable, never letting his own directorial signatures get in the way of a faithful adaptation.

The release of THE BFG in 2016 was a bittersweet affair– the film’s positive reviews and modest box office take were tempered by the sadness of writer Melissa Mathison’s cancer diagnosis and untimely passing during production.  Mathison had been a tremendously influential voice in the early stages of Spielberg’s cinematic development, helping him find his signature style with E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL’s story about a young boy’s friendship with a benevolent alien.

It’s apt, then, that their last collaboration together would cover similar territory.  After premiering out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, THE BFG found a generally warm reception from critics.  The audience reception was a different story, with the film managing to garner only a tepid interest despite the widespread familiarity of Dahl’s book or the mainstream pedigree of Spielberg’s name.

Analysts decried its lackluster performance at the box office on opening weekend, and its eventual profit of $40 million in worldwide receipts over a $140 million budget would cement THE BFG as one of the lowest grossing films of Spielberg’s long and celebrated career.  All things considered, this wasn’t the worst of all possible fates for a project that spent decades in development hell.

I’ll be updating all of Spielberg’s recent films in the coming months.

Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

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