The pensive faces looking out with trepidation or determination are a crutch—as is the glowing backlighting and the bombastic music. You could do a similar video essay on Spielberg’s rolling approach shots of folks turning to stand up and look defiant or make a pronouncement or—as in the tediously repeated shots of Emily Watson in War Horse—looking tough-but-concerned. Great filmmakers take eerie stories from the past and pattern their movies against them to give them depth and resonance. Think about the upending Lynch did to the cherchez la femme noir in Mulholland Dr., or the complex ways Baz Luhrmann wove the threads of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz into the underappreciated Australia.
When Spielberg plays with such things—Pinocchio in A.I., Peter Pan in Hook—the resonances are one-note. (E.g., will the robot become a real boy?) He takes images and archetypes he knows will work—because they have in the past—and presents them without additional nuance or complication. (His partisans will say that they are nonetheless effective. Fine; the artistry remains second-rate.)
This big-picture repetitiveness is paralleled by Spielberg’s little touches, which are presented with a similar sameyness. In a Steven Spielberg movie, if a character goes outside, there must be clotheslines in that backyard and in every backyard on the block. A high wind will invariably start up, putting the sheets and clothes parallel to the ground. At night, there will always be a dog barking in the background. If the scene is a city, a character will inevitably run into the street and a car will screech to a halt in front of him. (I was happy to see that one dragged out again in Tintin.) In a Steven Spielberg movie, flashlights are always poking around in forests. (E.T., A.I., etc.; this Jurassic Park scene may be an in-joke.)
Rather than examining Spielberg’s close-ups, it’s more revealing to consider his crowd scenes, which not only betray his excessive reliance on familiar cinematic tropes, but also his increasing weakness for spectacle and his diminishing interest in narrative logic. Rewatching his oeuvre, I lost count of how many times crowds magically appeared and disappeared. In War of the Worlds, one moment there’s a suffocating crush of people; then Tom Cruise’s daughter can just go walking off; then the crush reappears. The same thing happens to the Christian Bale character in Empire of the Sun when he gets separated from his parents. In A.I. the Flesh Fair is set up as a sort of heavy metal concert cum monster truck show. One minute Ministry is playing—metal will apparently always be with us, even after a big flood—with a crowd cheering as robots are chewed up. The next the audience is docile and silent.
And no matter how chaotic the public scene, the film’s hero is always given enormous leeway to set the agenda, take control of meetings, exhibit unexpected rhetorical skills, and so forth. Spielberg’s use of this trope is extreme. Rowdy crowds go silent immediately when his protagonists start talking, their arbitrary logic greeted with serious nods of agreement.
(His work with crowds—arbitrary, forced, confusing—is in keeping with a lot of his plots. Over and over again I was wrenched out of the narrative flow of the films by actions that simply made no sense. He takes his characters and shoves them through various scenarios with little regard for logic or common sense. For a detailed account of some of Spielberg’s most egregious jumps in narrative logic, click here.)
These are all dimly remembered tropes from those movies he (and we) grew up with and loved. Indeed, much of the comfort and pleasure of early Spielberg films is that his understanding of how film works paralleled our own. He spoke to us then in a language we all shared. But rewatching his movies, especially the more recent ones, the scares, the drama, the emotional ups and downs feel hackneyed and even mannered. Look at the tropes in War Horse. Gruff landlord? Check! Stern but loving mother? Check! Farmer with a heart of gold? Check! It is a war epic drawn with a crayon.
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This reliance on what is comforting and communal becomes most problematic in Spielberg’s issue pictures: The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, and, arguably, Saving Private Ryan. Each of these movies has its virtues; one would have to be a crueler person than I to dismiss out of hand the sober artfulness of much of Schindler’s, the concussive technique displayed in parts of Ryan, and the noble and humanist worldview informing all of those films.
But that noble and humanist worldview starts to feel thin when you watch all those movies in a row. In each of his issue films, Spielberg presents a bleak world, then finds a ray of hope within it. Often, that contrast between light and despair is rendered visually, and not always comfortably so. In Ryan, the gray, grainy, skittery feel of the invasion of Normandy clashes with the gauzy shots of the aged Matt Damon at the grave sites. In Amistad, the awful portrayal of the Atlantic Passage jars against the scenes in which John Quincy Adams, like a character in a play, stands off from the people he’s speaking with to declaim his lines into the distance. Spielberg is sacrificing aesthetics in his intense desire to sequester the harsh material cinematically. He never commits to a worldview that doesn’t ultimately have a sunny patina.
Like a good liberal, he’s done two essays on race. I think the black actors in both The Color Purple and Amistad are directed dreadfully. The Color Purple is an embarrassingly constructed, acted, and edited film. When Shug and her new husband make a surprise visit to Mister and Cele, the latter pair—Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg—don’t exhibit coherent human emotions. They simply stand on the porch silently, looking like boys who won’t eat their spinach. Shug’s husband doesn’t seem to notice, not even when Cele elaborately wipes his kiss off her cheek right in front of him. If you recall Alice Walker’s story, Mister is hiding letters to Cele from her sister. In the film, to have this revealed, Shug has to announce that she’s going to go check the couple’s mail. (In what universe does a visitor to someone’s house go check their mail?) Meanwhile, inside, Mister and Shug’s husband are literally rubbing food on each others’ faces.
In Amistad, particularly at the beginning, the hulking black actors are portrayed bumping their chests into each other, uncomfortably like apes. Once out of captivity their rippling, muscled bodies bear no relation to what captives left to rot in a hold would look like after weeks at sea. While I’m not sure I agree, it should be noted that Spielberg was also criticized for the comeliness of the women’s bodies in the naked shower scene in Schindler’s.