In Danse Macabre, Stephen King expressed the opinion that those who create fantasy fiction for a living—he specifically meant writers, but we’re going to broaden the scope for a minute—always have something childlike to their appearance. As if they have never quite let go of childhood, and that has left its mark on their faces. I don’t entirely agree with his opinion; for one thing, he himself has always looked old to me, and he’s in the same category as some of the names he mentioned. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg is a data point in his favour, as Spielberg has always looked about twelve, no matter how grey and balding and scruffy he’s gotten.
Orson Welles is said to have referred to the movies as the best toy train set a boy ever had; it is therefore not really surprising that Spielberg’s first movie was actually filming a train crash with his actual toy train. (He was inspired to do it by The Greatest Show on Earth; I’ve seen that movie, and I’d give you decent odds that, even given he was twelve at the time, his train crash was better and more realistic.) He was hooked; the movies had gotten him. He has credits in forty-four categories on IMDb, if you include each genre as separate and also include “thanks.” I would in fact argue that few people have had as much influence on the shape of modern film as Steven Spielberg.
As it happens, I also really like his movies. Lincoln was, in my opinion, the best movie of 2012 and one of the best historical films ever made. I’ve loved the various Indiana Jones movies since I was four years old and watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in my parents’ Volkswagen van at the drive-in. Spielberg movies have made me laugh and weep and jump in my seat and cringe away from the screen. They have made me feel both proud and ashamed of my nation’s history, of humanity in general.
And let’s not forget, beyond the movies he’s written and directed, the vast numbers he’s produced. Oh, they’re not all winners; I remain one of the only people of my generation unmoved by The Goonies, and it’s hard to stand up for his continued participation as a producer of Transformers. On the other hand, Joe Versus the Volcano. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. And, seriously, Animaniacs and Freakzoid!
If I were to choose an aspect of Spielberg’s style that improves his films, it would be first and foremost that he chooses people he thinks he can work well with and continues to work with them. We’ve talked about John Williams here before, but a thing that’s long amused me when a Spielberg movie is up for a lot of Oscars is looking at the clips of various behind-the-scenes people at work on the new movie and how many of them are wearing Jurassic Park hats. He’s worked with Tom Hanks in one way or another many times—how many is hard to get IMDb to tell you, since it lists all those Oscar and Golden Globe and what have you telecasts—going back to 1986, when Spielberg was an executive producer on The Money Pit. Spielberg chooses people well and sticks to them.
I also think he tends to capture something about us that we may not recognize about ourselves. Yes, obviously, there are all those neglectful fathers and so forth; Spielberg is as shaped by his own past as anyone else. But I think he feeds into something of the American psyche, something he is in turn fed by. His America is not all happiness. Abraham Lincoln is fed by inner torment and cannot connect to his wife. But at the same time, he is able to take a minute and share a joke with the telegraph operators and deal patiently with a couple of fanboys. There is good and bad there, and the issue is not letting the bad win.
I realize Spielberg isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I believe that few directors working today have as many great and good movies to their names, and if not all of them fit that level of praise, well, that’s understandable. No one’s perfect. And even if they were, I wouldn’t start by claiming Steven Spielberg was. He’s still a fine director and producer, an excellent judge of work. Even if he’s a bit of an obstructionist Cook County Assessor’s Office clerk.