Much like his films, this Spielberg project just seems to go on and on, doesn’t it? This penultimate installment looks at his “prestige” endeavors.
As I wrote last time around, Spielberg takes a definitive turn toward the serious with Schindler’s List in 1993; however, his exploration of the darker side of humanity can be traced back to his first prestige projects in the mid-80s: The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, both based on literary works. Although Spielberg had already been well rewarded by the Academy with multiple nominations for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, these new films seem to be part of a different agenda.
What’s Your Childhood Trauma?
The Color Purple (1985), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, tells the story of Celie, an African-American girl who has been sexually abused by her father (resulting in two children taken from her after childbirth and presumed dead) and forced to marry a local widower who is interested in her younger sister, Nettie. “Mister” beats her regularly and basically treats her as a slave for him and his kids. Although Nettie runs away from home and stays with Celie for awhile, she is chased away for good by Mister’s advances. Later on, Shug Avery, jazz singer and former mistress of Mister, comes to live with them, which eventually sets Celie on the road to independence.
When I was first reading the novel (just prior to viewing), I couldn’t imagine why or how Spielberg wanted to make this into a film, but when it got to Africa about halfway through, it started to make sense to me. Unfortunately, Spielberg doesn’t really develop the Africa section, which I thought was a real shame. However, he does use it to set up one of the great visual sequences of the film—the parallel recounting of the cutting ceremony and the shaving scene. Yet these moments of visual creativity were few and far between, at least when compared to Spielberg’s earlier films.
Even more problematic is that this is an extremely sanitized version of the novel. While the film contains some good performances, especially from Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, as an adaptation it fails miserably. Spielberg amplifies the character of Shug, but somehow renders her less important. I missed the book’s early set up of Celie’s obsession with Shug and the nuances of their changing relationship. There is also a shift in focus of Shug’s character arc, with an added storyline about reconciling with her father. I failed to see this supposed obsession of Spielberg’s in his earlier works, but at this point I started to understand why people say he has daddy issues.
This was a difficult story to tell and, for such a short novel, hard to condense to even standard Spielberg length (most films here are at least two and a half hours), so I give him props for trying. But it’s not surprising to me that, while the film garnered eleven Oscar nominations,* it is now mostly remembered for not having won any. And Spielberg himself was not even nominated.
Empire of the Sun (1987), the next film in Spielberg’s filmography, is also a tale that revolves around a child’s growing independence and loss of innocence. As such, it fits quite well in this transitionary period to the dark side of storytelling. The film, which recounts the experience of a young English boy under Japanese occupation in China during World War II, was nominated for six Academy Awards (Art Direction, Cinematography, Costumes, Editing, Score, Sound); however, like The Color Purple before it, took home none. And, once again, Spielberg was shut out of the directing category. [Side note: For some reason, I remember well both these shutouts and used to feel quite sorry for Spielberg until I realized how rewarded his earlier films had been.]
While I had remembered liking this film when it came out, and did again, it is also the first evidence of what I think has become Spielberg’s biggest problem—how to end a picture. At this stage in his career, money or directorial clout was not particularly an issue, so I can only put his editorial hesitation down to respect for the fact that this was originally a David Lean project with a strong literary pedigree and so he didn’t want to tinker too much with Tom Stoppard’s script. Later on, I will not give him this benefit of the doubt.
Despite a somewhat muddled script and seeming to lack any real point or message, I think this film is worth seeing for the performances alone, including that of a young Christian Bale in the lead role, and John Malkovich being very John Malkovich. I’m not a huge Bale fan, but if you ever thought kids can’t act, this movie will change your mind.
If I had remembered what a big role planes and airports played in Catch Me If You Can (2002), I would have included this work in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but the movie works here too since it is yet another story that Spielberg completely reworks to focus on the father-son dynamic. Despite this heavy hand with the family drama elements (for the most part invented for the film), this tale of real-life con man Frank Abagnale Jr. is more a light-hearted caper film than anything. This mood is evident from the fantastic opening credits, which hearken back to the 1960s work of Saul Bass.
Catch Me If You Can is an odd film to watch post-Mad Men as I realize how much that show now colors my view of the 60s. This movie has a much brisker tone than Mad Men, which now (to me) seems at odds with a 60s style. However, the briskness was certainly a welcome relief after one too many long, slow Spielberg films. This film is fun to watch and rarely boring. Naturally, Tom Hanks drove me crazy, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Walken do great work. And one can never have too much Nathalie Baye.
Gratuitous train scene: Celie in The Color Purple throwing chocolate coins from the caboose to a young girl running alongside the train she is on. I’m not sure if this scene is supposed to represent her heading to Memphis or returning in style. In any case, it doesn’t make much sense and isn’t in the book.
Sunset moment: There are a number to choose from in Empire of the Sun. The scene above, which ends up with a reciprocal salute between Bale and three Japanese pilots, even seems to have more than one sun (Continuity error or homage to Tatooine? You be the judge.), but I think my choice would be the scene where Jim sings the Welsh lullaby from the opening of the film and the Japanese planes fly off into the setting sun.
The Dogs (and Horses) of War
War and the military come up tangentially quite a bit in Spielberg’s work, from Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws, to the government men in Close Encounters and E.T., to the Nazis scattered throughout the Indiana Jones series. Even Frank Abagnale’s parents in Catch Me If You Can meet in France because of the war. One of Spielberg’s first films, 1941, is entirely about the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Empire of the Sun takes place during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai.
But, with Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg goes straight to the heart of World War II, telling the story of Oskar Schindler, who saved much of his Jewish workforce from Nazi persecution. This is an incredible film, beautifully shot in black & white by Janusz Kaminski, with a haunting score by John Williams, featuring Itzhak Perlman on violin. It won a well-deserved seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I actually think it should have won two more, as Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes lost out on acting awards to Tom Hanks (Philadelphia) and Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive).
Of course, at three hours and fifteen minutes, it is ridiculously long. For most of the film, the story is so compelling I don’t mind the length; however, I do think Spielberg completely undercuts the story’s power by having it devolve into melodramatic sentimentality at the end (brilliantly skewered by Judge Reinhold on the Seinfeld episode “The Raincoats”), not to mention the documentary bookend involving actual Schindler Jews. I understand these choices, but I don’t think they make for a better film, and this may be one reason the film enjoys a much better reputation in the US than in the global film community (something I’ll discuss in my awards post to come at the end of this series).
Another film that suffers from awkward and sentimental bookending is Spielberg’s second foray into the European theater, Saving Private Ryan (1998). I really didn’t like this film when it came out, and pretty much had a stopwatch out while viewing it this time in order to see how much I could mentally edit out of the picture. The shocking answer was: almost nothing. This film runs almost three hours, yet, aside from the horrific present-day bookends, there’s not much I would cut out. Like Schindler’s List, the earnest speech near the end somewhat ruins it for me and I think I would rate both films much higher were Spielberg to have resisted hitting the audience over the head with these sentimental hammers.
Of course, what makes this film is the incredible opening depicting the storming of the Normandy beaches. It is this opening scene, portraying at once the cruelty and bravery of war, that I believe earned Spielberg his second Oscar for Directing. The film also garnered Janusz Kaminski his second Oscar for Cinematography as well as awards for Editing, Sound, and Sound Effects. It was nominated for six others, famously losing out on the big prize to Shakespeare in Love.
Before I go off and direct a movie I always look at four films. They tend to be: Seven Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Searchers.
The other key element of this picture is the ensemble. If I had ever seen it, this is where I might say you can see the influence of Seven Samurai in Spielberg’s work. The cast of characters he brings together is amazing: from Barry Pepper as the sharpshooter to Jeremy Davies as Upham the translator, not to mention Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, and Tom Sizemore. Heck, even Ed Burns (being very Ed Burns) works here. [Side note: I really need to rewatch Band of Brothers.]
Sadly, this camaraderie is mostly absent from War Horse (2011). First off, because it focuses on a horse (duh). However, that is really the least of this film’s problems, because I actually loved the relationship between Joey and Topthorn. The bigger problem is that there’s no real cohesive narrative, or even narrator. And there seemed to be a huge gap between the beginning and end of the war; it’s not clear to me how Joey even makes it through, given that he is assigned to pull artillery, where horses usually last only “two or three months.” I would love to know how this worked as a play because I can’t see it at all. That said, the sequence of Joey in No Man’s Land was masterful, and there are a number of gorgeous shots, such as the British cavalry getting on their horses in the field.
Gratuitous train footage: Even in a film filled with incredibly moving and dramatic sequences involving trains, Spielberg still manages to add a completely superfluous train station quay departure scene between Oskar Schindler and his wife in Schindler’s List.
Sunset moment: If you thought Spielberg had gotten sunsets out of his system, fear not, the final moments of War Horse are a virtual orgy of them.
Lastly, we have what I like to call Spielberg’s morality plays. These seem to be primarily discourses on good and evil, right and wrong—what freedom and justice are and should be.
Amistad (1997) is of so little interest, it’s barely worth discussing. The film, about a mutiny aboard a slave ship and the resulting court case, seems awkward and forced and is easily the worst directorial effort in this bunch. Except for the obvious appeal of certain aspects of the subject matter (given Spielberg’s general interest in the plight of strangers in strange lands), this story makes even less sense to me as a Spielberg film than The Color Purple.
Munich (2005), on the other hand, is an underrated film. It has a well-crafted plot with lots of tension and interesting camerawork. Watching it fairly soon after Saving Private Ryan, I realized they had more in common than I would have guessed: Both portray men on a deadly mission, here a mission of vengeance following the 1972 Munich massacre, and make excellent use of that washed-out look in their cinematography.
Unfortunately, they also both have the fatal flaw of using flashback structures based on people who didn’t witness the events in question. I don’t mind Avner (Eric Bana) having nightmares, but why of the Munich events? Why not his own assassinations? That would make more sense. I think one prologue with the entirety of events at the beginning would have been sufficient set up for the film. And then maybe that whole nasty sex scene could have been avoided.
There’s no sex in Lincoln (2012), thank goodness. I am also thankful that I liked this film a bit better watching it at home than in the theater. For one thing, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field were a lot less annoying on the small screen. Daniel Day-Lewis remained phenomenal in his role as the president, providing a human dimension for someone who it is so easy to view as caricature. The film also seemed tighter to me than I remembered, although personally I would still cut out much of the soldier prologue as well as some of the final fifteen minutes, and certainly everything after the doorway shot.
While many point to The Color Purple or Amistad when speaking of Lincoln, collecting them together under the banner of some sort of African American trilogy, I rather think Spielberg’s interest in the dual narrative of Lincoln can be traced in part back to the 25-minute extended opening of Saving Private Ryan, which closes with General Marshall quoting Lincoln’s letter to a Mrs. Bixby:
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln
Given that it was my negative reaction to initially seeing Lincoln in the theaters that led to this project, which has resulted in a new appreciation of Saving Private Ryan, it was interesting to see these parallels crop up. Ultimately though, I don’t think it is a film that people will be pointing to in twenty years.
Gratuitous train footage: Amistad may represent the most inconsequential use of a train yet: Martin Van Buren’s campaign train. I can’t believe someone paid for that. Of course, there’s a lot of that in Amistad, notably any scene with Anna Paquin as the queen of Spain. Munich also manages to sneak in a key scene at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris.
Sunset moment: None. All of these films have mostly night or indoor scenes and Lincoln uses a very cool blue palette. I guess when you are taking on the weightier questions of good and evil there’s no time for sunsets.
For the complete Spielberg filmography and links to other posts in this series, click here.
*The Color Purple was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Actress (Whoopi Goldberg), Supporting Actresses (Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey), Art Direction, Cinematography (Allen Daviau), Costumes, Makeup, Best Picture, Score (Quincy Jones), Song, and Writing.