Hollywood director Steven Spielberg has carved a wide swathe through Hollywood. The guy’s pretty good, I grant you. From Jaws and Jurassic Park to ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he’s managed to transfer a reasonably talented suburban kid’s passion for Saturday afternoon entertainments into bona fide blockbusters.
No harm in that. Those movies that aim for nothing but entertainment are sometimes the best.
It’s when directors of popular film aim a bit higher that their creative wings sometimes melt. Spielberg belongs squarely in this category – especially after going all Joel McCrea-Sullivan’s Travels in Lincoln, his high-handed attempt to make a serious movie about the 16th U.S. president. Sullivan’s Travels, readers may recall, was Preston Sturges’ satire on movie directors who abandon their successes as creators of screwball comedies in order to make films of social significance. As the director John Lloyd Sullivan, McCrea learned the hard way that sometimes laughter (or, in Spielberg’s case, thrills) is the best medicine.
Trouble is, come Oscar nomination time, Spielberg winds up the Academy’s red-headed stepchild. There’s plenty of gold-plated statues for special effects, but nary a one for his actors, costume, and set designers – or for his own direction. So, every once in a while, he attempts to dazzle viewers’ brains and hearts as well as their eyes with films such asSchindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Lincoln.
Oscar-bait each and every one.
The problem is, Spielberg simply doesn’t have the chops to pull off the job completely. Each one of the above-listed “serious” films, for all their presumed gravitas and actual merits, lacks an intellectual center that would lift the film from wannabe cinema classic to the real thing.
Until recently, it was a mystery as to why Spielberg could never successfully pull the trigger on a truly great dramatic picture. Until October that is, when he premiered Lincoln at the New York Film Festival. As it turns out, the reason is quite simple – the guy’s not a deep thinker. A capably talented maker of action-adventure movies (if readers forget Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) to be sure, but someone who daydreamed about reanimated dinosaurs and aliens during history and social studies classes to the detriment of his intellectual development.
Case in point: Spielberg explained his reasons for delaying release of Lincoln until after the election because he thought viewers might interpret it as an endorsement of the Republican Party’s candidates.
“I just said, please don’t release this until the election is over,” Spielberg said. “I didn’t want it to be this political football going back and forth.”
Why? Explained Spielberg: “Because it’s kind of confusing. The parties traded political places over the last 150 years. That in itself is a great story, how the Republican Party went from a progressive party in 1865, and how the Democrats were represented in the picture, to the way it’s just the opposite today. But that’s a whole other story.”
Get it? In Spielberg’s worldview, today’s Democrats represent all that’s well and good in the political arena and yesterday’s Republican repudiation of slavery was an historical anomaly because contemporary Republicans are just so durned opposed to basic human rights.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner doubled down on his director’s clown-shoe pronouncements by comparing Honest Abe to the current occupant of the White House on The Colbert Report. True, both presidents envisioned the U.S. Constitution as a mere speed bump on the path of realizing their respective agendas, but one could argue that ending slavery was a far sight more constitutionally legitimate than forcing the adoption of nationalized healthcare and squandering billions of taxpayer dollars on ill-advised green energy programs and UAW bailouts.
Let’s hope Lincoln is Spielberg’s last foray into “serious” filmmaking. He excels far better at cinematic thrill rides than he does political drama, which is no slight. After all, America could benefit from a little distraction over the course of the next four years.