I like Steven Spielberg. I like writing. I like writing about Steven Spielberg.
I like dogs too, but that’s beside the point. Here’s another of the posts I’ve written for my other site From Director Steven Spielberg, probably, like, the
third fourth best Spielberg site on the internet.
If I were to ask you to list the defining elements of Steven Spielberg’s film-making, the chances are you’d home in on his technical craft first. The shot selection, the thrilling set pieces, the beautiful cinematography, the use of music… All of these are likely to come to mind before anything else and understandably so: Spielberg excels in these areas. But we spend so long marvelling at the technical aspects of his cinema that his ability with actors, his talent for casting smartly and drawing out the very best from his players, often goes unheralded – by critics, by filmgoers, and by the Academy, who have only given two acting Oscars to Spielberg films (Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies).
With that in mind, I wanted to look at Spielberg’s leading men, and explore what they bring to the films they’re in. But not just any leading men. We all know Spielberg’s has a particular kind of hero – the “Mr. Everyday Regular Fella” who struggles to get by in life and has to overcome a great emotional crisis to succeed. We see this in Martin Brody of Jaws (who has to conquer his fear of water to save Amity), Elliot from E.T. (who has to mature enough to let his alien friend go home), and Alan Grant from Jurassic Park (who has to grow up enough to become a defender of Lex and Tim). Even when the stakes are raised to historical levels, the likes of Oskar Schindler and War Horse’s Albert remain everymen struggling to find the courage to do what’s right against the odds.
As compelling as these characters are, the actors playing them have never returned to work with Spielberg for a second time. This is a privilege reserved for only a handful of the biggest names: Tom Hanks (four films), Harrison Ford (four films), Richard Dreyfuss (three films), and Tom Cruise (two films). Mark Rylance, star of Bridge of Spies and The BFG, will join Ford and Hanks on four films when he adds The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and Ready Player One to his Spielberg slate. However, as his Spielberg identity is still under construction, I won’t touch on his work much in this article.
Each actor plays a variation on the Spielberg leading man, but Spielberg uses their persona in different ways. Sometimes he plays it straight, tapping into their public image to heighten certain elements of their characters; sometimes, he subverts their reputations, going against the grain of what audiences expect of them to make the character more ambiguous, and the themes of the film they’re in richer. Speaking broadly, Spielberg’s core four can be broken down into these categories: The Everyman (Richard Dreyfuss), The American (Tom Hanks), The Action Hero (Tom Cruise), and The Adventurer (Harrison Ford). In this article, I’ll explore each one.
The Everyman (Richard Dreyfuss): Dreyfuss is essentially the young Spielberg’s cinematic avatar, and you can see that in the three films they’ve made together. The bullying Hooper faces at the hands of Quint in Jaws reflects the bullying Spielberg endured growing up; the childish wonder Neary has in Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflects Spielberg’s own sense of wonder; and Pete in Always echoes the drive for maturity Spielberg was undergoing at the end of the 80s.
There’s little subversion in the first two films, but as Spielberg’s career developed so too did his vision of himself. When that process began exactly is difficult to tell. You can see self-criticism in the ‘fortune and glory’ depiction of Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom, and there’s certainly a lot of Spielberg in Empire of the Sun’s Jim, whose journey from ignorance to enlightenment anticipates those of Peter Banning, Alan Grant, and Oskar Schindler. However, I’d say it began in earnest with Always, and that’s for two reasons: 1) the casting of Dreyfuss in the lead role and 2) Spielberg’s childhood affection for the film it remakes: 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe.
Always is something of a fork in the road for Spielberg. By casting an elder Dreyfuss in a film he held dear as a child, he’s essentially subverting the the Peter Pan image that had been constructed around him. When we watch Always, we see a man-child refusing responsibility and fleeing into the world of airborne fantasies that eventually cause his death. It’s a light film, and at times a very silly and sentimental one, but the ultimate message is surprisingly dark: mature or die. After Always, Spielberg emphatically chose the former.
The American (Tom Hanks): Hanks is Spielberg’s embodiment of America, his Jimmy Stewart, and he uses him to question American values. It’s easy to look at Saving Private Ryan and Bridge of Spies and see only flag-waving patriotism, but both project not a single image, but a split one: what America is and what America should be.
In Saving Private Ryan, Hanks represents the purity of the American everyman, but his morality is fractured. Miller’s job is to make impossible life-and-death decisions, be that sending his troops out on a mission to save just one man or leaving a little girl behind because his team can’t afford the responsibility of taking her with them. His dying remark that Ryan should “earn” his death asks a question: can we and have we? The pale American flag fluttering in the film’s final shot suggests there’s no clear answer, underlining Spielberg’s anxiety over where America is headed.
Bridge of Spies is no less incisive when it comes to American morality; in fact, it’s probably more brutal. James Donovan acts as an Atticus Finch figure, noble in his pursuit of justice. Yet to achieve that justice, he has to bend the rules a little, employ lawyers’ dodges to ensure his client is getting the rights he deserves. Though that doesn’t tarnish Donovan’s image (he is, after all, doing it for good reasons), it shows how crooked the American system has become, and one of the film’s closing images – the boys vaulting fences like East Berliners tried to vault the Wall – underlines how little it takes for a crooked system to become a totally corrupt one.
Hanks’s other two Spielberg collaborations are lighter, with his role in Catch Me If You Can being particularly frothy: a parody of the government agent that he and Spielberg clearly enjoy sending up. There’s substance and subversion there, but much of it revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale, so instead it’s Hanks’s turn in The Terminal that’s the more interesting of the two.
By casting the great American everyman as an immigrant, Spielberg not only makes us question our attitude to migrants, but twists the view of America as a land of opportunity. As he makes a life for himself in the airport, Viktor shows more grace, sincerity, hard work, and ambition than many of the Americans in the film. While he has embraced the American Dream, they’ve abandoned it, and there’s a sense of bitter melancholy in the final shot of a wintery Times Square, which Spielberg lingers on as Viktor asks to be taken home. Home may be a fractured country in the throes of revolution, but at least it’s better than modern America.
The Action Hero (Tom Cruise): When Spielberg and Tom Cruise first worked together on Minority Report, much was made of the time it took for Hollywood’s biggest director and its biggest action hero to join forces. There’d been some near misses (most notably Rain Man, which Spielberg had to drop out of to fulfil his Indiana Jones commitments), but 2002 marked their first of only two collaborations. Why so long and why so few? It’s not really surprising because Spielberg simply doesn’t do action heroes.
A Spielbergian action film tends to involve an everyman (like Brody), an intellect (like Alan Grant or Tintin) or Indiana Jones (who I’ll return to shortly). So why cast Cruise in Minority Report and War of the Worlds? Simple: these are two of the darker blockbusters of Spielberg’s career – indeed two of the darkest films he’s ever made beyond the likes of Schindler’s List and Munich – and Spielberg casts Cruise to muddy him up, undermine his image, and ultimately subvert what he (and what a modern action hero) is.
Look, for example, at War of the Worlds, where Ray Ferrier starts the film as a thoroughly loathsome human being. Hateful towards his children to the point where he hurls a baseball at one of them after an argument, he slowly comes to be a better father during the course of the film, but only after undertaking some morally dubious actions (including murder). The finale finds him reuniting his family, but he remains physically apart from them, Spielberg showing that even blockbuster heroics can’t heal a broken home.
Minority Report takes the concept even further, not only undermining Cruise’s action hero integrity but also physically mutating him. Spielberg has John Anderton replace his eyeballs and painfully distort his face in order to evade capture, and even then, he still ends gets locked away. The film ends on a superficially happy note as Anderton and his wife are reunited and the Pre-Cogs are set free, but as in War of the Worlds, ambiguity lingers. Crime is now a reality again and the fate of Andertons’ son is still a mystery. For Spielberg, the Cruise model of action hero doesn’t succeed, not totally. He simply survives.
The Adventurer (Harrison Ford): This approach also informs the way Spielberg tackled Indiana Jones. While George Lucas has spoken of how he’d pick Indy if he could choose to be any of his characters, Spielberg seems more distant. At points in all four of the Indiana Jones films, but especially in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom, Spielberg portrays Indy as a dark, morally ambiguous figure who, in the words of Belloq, would turn to darker ways with nothing more than a nudge. Indeed, during Temple of Doom, he does fall, becoming completely consumed by the Black Sleep of the Kalli while captured by the Thugee cult.
Indy’s a fascinating hero for American cinema because along with that sense of darkness, he’s actually a pretty inactive. The Big Bang Theory has made Indy’s lack of consequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s finale common knowledge, but while the show criticises him for that, it’s actually the film’s (and the series’) point. Indy either loses or destroys the MacGuffin every time and instead learns the value of respect: for higher powers in Raiders, for community in Temple of Doom, for his father in Last Crusade, and for knowledge in Crystal Skull. Indy’s a good person, but a pretty rotten action man.
Indeed, while the hardbody heroes of 80s American cinema were seizing power, shooting villains, showing authority to be wholly ineffective and ultimately espousing the individualism of the Reagan era, Spielberg was interested in showing a character who was fundamentally human. Indy’s flawed and out of his depth, having to use his intellect – not just a weapon – to negotiate his way out of danger. He may have been created by Lucas, but he’s a key Spielberg character because he blends elements of all the director’s leading men into one: the everyman humour of Dreyfuss, the American nobility of Hanks, and the darker heroics of Cruise.
It’s interesting then that Spielberg closed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in a similar way to Minority Report and War of the Worlds. Like Anderton and Ferrier, Indy is reunited with his family at the film’s close, but melancholy lingers. The interdimensional beings have departed, taking with them the wisdom and knowledge they’re symbolic of. Linking the close of the film to its beginning at Doom Town, Spielberg rhymes two shots – those of Indy framed against the nuke’s mushroom cloud and Indy framed against the departing flying saucer – to make a devastating point about Indy’s importance – or rather lack thereof – in a world consumed with paranoia and war. Is there room anymore for a human hero?
Spielberg’s leading men have evolved as the director himself has, and it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s now turning to a gentle elder statesman like Mark Rylance as he approaches his 70th birthday. During the last decade, Spielberg’s films have expressed a weariness at the way the world is going, a desire to change things mixed with an anxiety over how to actually do that.
In both Bridge of Spies and The BFG, Rylance has captured that sadness perfectly, continuing his director’s fascinating, ambiguous use of his leading men. Spielbergian heroes are not blood and thunder winners; they’re flawed dreamers, displaced patriots, and dark heroes, Most of all, just as Spielberg himself was as a child, they’re lost boys all struggling to find their place in a world they don’t quite feel a part of.