Tintin and War Horse are two Spielberg films that have been released in America, within two days of each other. Neither has taken top honors in the box office but the earnings are respectable enough to show that Spielberg still plays to the massive audiences that he helped create forty years ago.
The geographical center of the audience has shifted to somewhere over the Atlantic and he has given Tintin to the Europeans a month before he release it domestically; while he delayed the foreign release of War Horse. Prioritizing the foreign release suggests a willingness to strategize the foreign audience more than us Americans.
I ask myself what these films imply for a book entitled Steven Spielberg’s America. They confirm the end of a Bush era cycle that began with Minority Report (2002) (or perhaps even further back with Saving Private Ryan (1998)) and culminated in Munich (2005). Spielberg portrayed American (and Israeli) anxiety over democratic openness, responsibilities and security in most of the seven films he directed through this cycle.
But the book argues that the director often pulls his punches in his treatment of history. Currently the king of the blockbuster is still willing to take the historical turn.
Both films are set in the first half of the previous century. Tintin is a character created in 1929 by the Belgian cartoonist Herge. War Horse is the story of an English horse conscripted for World War One service and captured by the Germans. But neither refers to a specific historical-political problem.
Yet there is something of the political moment in them if only in the way that an American filmmaker still wants to work with European stories. Is it that the Atlantic cultural divide has evaporated?
However, this is the moment Europe has become the exotic “other” in rightwing American politics, the example of the hell that waits, if we abandon the free market. Therefore in selecting such settings we can suspect Spielberg of being the liberal in the domestic culture wars.
Spielberg always presents himself as an entertaining storyteller, not an engaged liberal. The films’ market plans assume the universal cultural appeal of the wish fulfillment genre. It is this assumption of universalism that triggers the Barthesian analysis of ideology.
The cartoon images and photo-realisms of the two films are determined by the same impulse. Even the central positions of a horse and an ageless teenaged boy respectively in the two stories work against specific identities.
The European settings let the American Spielberg off the hook. He can ignore the Belgian colonialism of the original Tintin and pick the Tintin stories that take him the furthest away from Herge’s own compromised politics. He was once naïve about the colonial ideology of classic Hollywood that he unwittingly quoted in the first two Indiana Jones movies. Now he knows enough to avoid it if not what to offer as an alternative.
There is an analogous ambivalence in Tintin’s style. It may be pioneering a new level of capture motion animation, but it uses animation to improve photo-realism by degrees, not to break with it. For example the code of realism in Tintin lengthens the actor’s ability to suspend gravity, as Tintin tumbles from one hammock to another, but it does not defy natural law. Overall the movie plays as a prequel to the next installment that Peter Jackson will direct.
The director’s heart was more in War Horse. The English writer who created the story, Michael Morpurgo, shares Spielberg’s sentimentalism whereas Herge only shares his visual approach to adventure.
Again the American can ignore the specifics of the Great War in order to tell a universal anti-war story. This is in contrast to Saving Private Ryan where Spielberg’s great concern was to insist that Americans embrace the actual reality of their parents fighting the war.
In that picture he used subjective sound, shaky hand held camera, chaotic framing and de-saturation of color to drive home the point that this “really happened.” In War Horse the images of trench fighting are well known and the filmmaker does little to make them strange or to shock us, except for the central conceit of placing the horse as the primary agent.
Spielberg does not go as far as to tell the story in the horse’s voice (Morpurgo did). But he uses cinematic techniques to restore the central perspective to the horse in contrast to the stage production of War Horse.
Of course, a horse’s perspective transcends politics. It is a continuation of Spielberg’s approach to sentiment that has formed the “auterist” spine of his entire career. I argue that it is indicative of the present state of American realism that discourages storytellers from assigning moral responsibility.
Perhaps the most revealing contrast is not between War Horse and Saving Private Ryan but with Paths of Glory (1957) made by Stanley Kubrick (later to become Spielberg’s friend) that lets nobody off the hook (least of all the viewer) for the great bloody mindedness of the last century.
We await Spielberg’s Lincoln picture to see if he can abandon his universalism and engage his liberalism long enough to teach the hard lesson that Americans have to learn in the current political impasse.
Frederick Wasser is an associate professor at the Department of Television and Radio, Brooklyn College-CUNY.