Is Steven Spielberg a better political filmmaker than his peers?
Steven Spielberg has managed to show that the most successful film director in the history of popular culture is capable of engaging history – but not quite as he pleases. He has done so to a greater degree than his fellow film entertainers. Scorsese, the “thoughtful” American director, has not been as political as Spielberg, nor has Soderbergh or Coppola or other “auteurish” directors. Because Spielberg is the great mass entertainer his engagement is richer than more overtly committed filmmakers. His sincerity brings the audience along but the blockbuster apparatus of distracting visual thrillsleads to contradictions.
Spielberg has made a great deal out of his balancing act between serious and “popcorn” (entertaining) movies. In 1993 he shot the serious Schindler’s List while finishing up on the popcorn Jurassic Park. Other pairs include Lost World(popcorn) and Amistad (serious); Munich (serious) was released within the same year as War of the Worlds (popcorn). But to present this as a balancing act between two opposing poles is deliberately misleading. The “serious” films are not that different from the entertaining ones. He does not switch crews, cameras, and distributors when going from one to the other (he barely scales back the budget). This fact alone shows Spielberg believes the blockbuster style is capable of engaging politics and history.
The critics have not accepted this and from the mid-1970s both academics and journalists have bemoaned the rise of the blockbuster and the corresponding decline of more artistic and, by implication, political filmmaking. Many have written some version of this critique of the blockbuster. Pauline Kael’s take on it was perhaps the most intriguing, since she praised his filmmaking skills in his first feature film but nonetheless came to bemoan the overwhelming dominance of the Spielbergian vision in the film industry of the 1980s. It was a vision limited to the American suburbs, the family, and the eternal wish-fulfillment of popular culture.
Spielberg and his fellow blockbuster creator George Lucas drew such negative reactions because their films reversed the direction all thoughtful people were hoping that American filmmaking was going before Jaws broke box office records in 1975. The previous direction has been labeled “new Hollywood” and was ushered in with the release of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. It reached a high-water mark when Midnight Cowboy won the1969 Academy Award for best picture. These films emulated the various foreign films that emphasized artistic autonomy. They were not overtly political but everyone understood how their themes of alienation and dissatisfaction resonated with the political strugglesto implement a new era of civil rights and limit the U.S. imperial project.
This personal-expression trend faded whenthe studios realized that the thrills and spills of Jaws and StarWars had revitalized a formula for attracting the huge audience. As artistic autonomy faded so did any kind of political overtones in the movie plotlines themselves. Indeed, part of the blockbuster formula for attracting a huge audience was to paper over the cultural and political divisions of the 1960s. Lucas had stumbled upon it in American Graffiti and Spielberg came to it in Jaws after the relative disappointment of The Sugarland Express. The blockbusters flattered the “hipness” of one side of the cultural wars while giving the other side old-time movie thrills.
This papering over of the political divisions coincided with the Reagan turn in American politics. The 1960s leftwingers were often anti-government because government was not doing enough to fulfill New Deal promises of social justice. The Reaganites took over the anti-government ideology and attracted many former countercultural adherents. On both sides of the Atlantic neo-liberals worked to delegitimize all domestic government activities and knocked out the props supporting labor unions. Instead they established the idea that the marketplace could deliver public benefits more efficiently than the government. Few places in the cultural sphere, certainly not the Hollywood blockbuster, resisted this rapid ideological transition.
American filmmakers are not deep political thinkers, which is perhaps why the best political films are those that are not the product of overt reasoning, but in their naiveté reflect the contradictions of American politics itself. The most fruitful contradiction comes from sincerity. All too often there is cynicism either from the right (Milius, the various makers of the Rambo series and vigilante films) or the left (Oliver Stone) that reduces the story in order to eliminate contradiction. From the beginning, Spielberg’s sincerity stood in contrast to his fellow directors. He loves American popular culture and he unashamedly wants to please all audiences. He emphasizes giving the viewers not only a story but an experience. The narratives of Close Encounters and E.T. do allude to bitter social isolation but watching these films overwhelms the viewer with the pleasurable experience of sentimental fulfillment.
This desire to please is at odds with the desire to engage history as politics. Yet unlike other filmmakers of his generation, Spielberg has been drawn to history and politics. Increasingly,in the last decade with Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and Munich, but starting even earlier with Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, audiences can find a politically liberal motivation behind Spielberg’s choice of scripts. Given the original blockbuster formula of papering over political divisions, this motivation should alienate parts of the blockbuster audience. The American audience rarely gives a Spielberg film its profits anymore. For example, Amistad was a box office failure and prominent American pundits attacked Munich. In compensation the foreign audience has made several Spielberg political movies successes, such as Munich and Minority Report. Why does such an inveterate crowd-pleaser jeopardize his domestic audience to embrace these libera lthemes? Perhaps because his artistic soul is reacting to the darkening American climate today and on a more conscious level he wants to share the populism of classic Hollywood with his various global audiences.
The 1930s Hollywood populism, however, was never dominant and like a regressive gene shows up as a contradiction in Spielberg. This is perhaps most evident in Saving Private Ryan, which is not a hawkish call to arms but an examination of the paradoxical duties of the citizen-soldier (something that became so paradoxical that the United States eliminated the citizen army as it used volunteer soldiers to pursue police actions around the world after the loss of the Vietnam war). During the Bush years Spielberg kept leading his audiences back to old-fashioned issues of trust, community and law versus security. Yet both he and the audience share a disdain for public life that works against old-fashioned populist resolutions. Sometimes he distracts the audience from the contradiction with “you are there” camera work. Other times he retreats behind the claim of being merely an entertainer. At all times his work at pleasing international audiences reveals political dilemmas that tell us more about our collective selves than does the work of other more cerebral filmmakers.