In one corner we have Amistad, Bridge of Spies, and Munich; in the opposing corner, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, War of the Worlds, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Kitty-corner there’s Catch Me if You Can, Sugarland Express, and The Terminal facing-off against Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Jaws – and their eventual progeny. All made by the same filmmaker. That is about as diverse as one can get, and who would have thought that the director who made the thoughtful Lincoln and emotional The Color Purple had the likes of 1941 or The BFG in his pocket.
I’m old enough to vividly remember his appearance on the scene and young enough to have appreciated the shot of adrenaline he provided filmmakers in search of that El Dorado that is the blockbuster hit. Steven Spielberg, along with generational colleagues that included, among others, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, sprouted in a time when new Hollywood was edging away from the old movie factory production line. A dearth of independent filmmakers, having taken their cue from the changing social attitudes and international influences (such as the French New Wave) from the Sixties, were making films more economically yet reaping large box office results.
These four were at the right place at the right time. Coppola hit the big-time first – after stints at screenwriting (Patton), along came The Godfather. George Lucas followed right behind with American Graffiti and began planning his space opera while Scorsese took an edgier path with the likes of Mean Streets. Following some TV work, Spielberg had a tidy but modest chase film under his belt (Sugarland Express), but nobody expected the impact his next film would have.
His first big studio flick, based on a bestselling throwaway of a beach book, turned into a filming nightmare that would have done-in lesser, more seasoned directors, and one has to wonder what kind of director Spielberg might have become had the damn mechanical shark worked properly. As it was, the neophyte had to come up with numerous solutions to accommodate “Bruce”, the shark, and this was where he reached into his bag of tricks, film buff experience, and an amazing sense of how to play an audience. To be sure, he had ample help from his mentors, film editor, Verna Fields, and score composer, John Williams, but it was his deep instinct for timing – down to the millisecond – that resulted in a classic and the biggest smash since Gone With the Wind, eventually overtaking The Sound of Music and Godfather.
Hollywood was tits-up in love. A savior had arrived in the form of wunderkind youthful director of considerable skill who could fill theatres for months, not just a weekend. The blockbuster was born and, for better or worse, American cinema headed in the direction where we find it today. Personally, although I’m not a diehard fan, I’m in awe of the man. When he’s on his game, like he was for Schindler’s List and the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, nobody is better. Nobody even comes close. I can forgive (most of the time) his cloying penchant for manipulative sentimentality, such as in War Horse, just as long as he gives us the occasional Lincoln or, by all accounts so far, The Post, the only film of his I haven’t seen.
Spielberg’s genius is not so much in the realm of technical innovation or creative thought as it is in his uncanny understanding of audience wants and needs. Once in awhile he flops, but then turns around and dazzles everyone, such as 1993. Hook had tanked both critically and at the wicket, so what does he give us next but two films, one that garnered him his highest critical acclaim plus, in a double-whammy, his third all-time box office champion. Talk about a dolly-zoom of a situation.
Undoubtedly, Steven Spielberg is the best-loved Hollywood director of all time for both his escapism and his humanism. That mantel alone attracts naysayers and contrarians, but put on your Capra cap for a minute and imagine where Hollywood would be if he hadn’t happened along. He’s the wizard, the journeyman filmmaker who still has a direct line to his boyish heart, and he’s been entertaining us for over four decades. For that alone, I don’t regret having to stand in line for 1½ showings to see Jaws.