In this article, originally posted on From Director Steven Spielberg, I take a look at Spielberg’s complex portrait of America, which strives for hope but expresses a deep sense of anxiety at corruption, masculinity, and political process gone wrong.
Steven Spielberg delivers one of his most damning indictments of the American psyche in his anarchic Second World War comedy 1941. The film, which depicts the chaos of an anticipated Japanese attack on Hollywood in the wake of Pearl Harbor, is a mess of wild set pieces, juvenile jokes, and teenage bawdiness that only occasionally rises its head of the parapet of brilliance. But when it does, it homes in on an anxiety around the American identity that Spielberg repeatedly returns to and which rings true as clearly today as it did at the end of a decade shattered by Watergate and Vietnam.
One such moment is, typically for a film of cartoonish insanity, a song and dance scene (1941, it should be noted, is not a musical). Taking place at a dance competition, the sequence finds our hero Wally attempting to dance with the girl of his dreams, Betty. He’s been practicising for weeks, aiming to impress Betty with his moves and win her heart. Trouble is, he has a rival. Military jerk Stretch also has his eye on Betty, and he and Wally come to blows in a balletic sequence that features some stunning choreography and beautifully fluid, energetic camerawork. It would go on to inspire the more famous Anything Goes sequence that opens Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and remains one of the most expressive scenes of Spielberg’s career.
But at the centre of this display of grace and beauty is a tale of American bullying, the betrayal of the little guy, and the destruction of the American Dream. Wally has pulled himself up by his bootlaces by learning to dance.. There’s creation there, a sense that he’s made something of himself through hard work and endeavour. With Stretch, however, there’s only destruction and a sense of entitlement. He’s strong and masculine. He’s in the army. He deserves Betty and should simply be given her heart, not have to win it. This attitude finally catches up with Wally by the sequence’s close where, having been thoroughly humiliated, Stretch traps Wally, winds up a punch and knocks him out. Underlining his political point, Spielberg uses a point of view shot from Wally’s perspective and frames Stretch against a neon-lit American flag as he delivers the blow.
Arrogance and brutality. This is the America of Spielberg’s early career: the little guy is crushed and authority figures bully their way to success. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even E.T. follow suit. Think of authority figures in these films: the mayor in Jaws, the government officials of Close Encounters and Raiders, the hazmat suited goons trampling through Elliott’s home in E.T.. Spielberg either turns these characters into the bad guys, or depicts them as being as morally duplicitous as the bad guys. The “top men” we’re told about at the end of Raiders are unlikely to be as bad as Belloq and co., but can they truly be trusted with the Ark? Are they really going to keep that source of unspeakable power safe?
Spielberg’s uncertainty with figures of American authority stems (as much of his thematic make-up does) from childhood. As a kid, he grew up an isolated outsider: the victim of anti-Semitic abuse and general bullying. America was a land that promised much, a country his grandparents spoke of with reverence where, in the allegorical words of the Amblin-produced An American Tail, there were “no cats”. Yet the reality was very different. In his Spielberg biography, Joseph McBride writes:
“Spielberg has recalled that he was tormented in high school by a bully who ‘made anti-Semitic slurs’ and enjoyed pushing him around. The bully would shove his face into the drinking fountain between classes and bloody his nose during football games in physical education. The most frightening incident came with the boy tossed a cherry bomb at Steven while he was sitting on the toilet in the school lavatory; Steven barely escaped injury.” (McBride, 96).
If the films of the 70s and early 80s were essentially bully films, Spielberg’s range expanded as his career developed. We still get some American bullies (Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but as the 80s turned into the 90s, there’s something more complex about Spielberg’s authority figures. 1987’s Empire of the Sun and the 1993 duo of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List delivered compelling and ambiguous characters in the shape of Basie, John Hammond and Oskar Schindler. While only Basie is actually American, all three characters represent American values: Capitalism gone awry and the pursuit of money unchecked by responsibility. They’re all charismatic presences and they all commit great acts of evil as well as acts of good. Basie stands apart from Hammond and Schindler as he ends Empire of the Sun by killing a child, while Hammond and Schindler see the error of their ways. But neither can be described as heroic, neither truly escape the shadow of their dubious earlier actions.
This approach informs even those characters who Spielberg clearly marks as heroes. Saving Private Ryan’s Captain Miller, for example, is undoubtedly a good man, treating his troops with respect and going about his task with dignity and honour. He’s a classic Spielberg/Tom Hanks American Everyman, but the war brings him into conflict with his morality. He has to make tough calls and negotiate situations where there’s no ‘right answer’. Against this backdrop, Spielberg asks what we can do to stay good and maintain our morality. “Earn it,” Miller tells Ryan with his dying breath. By living good lives, the film says, we can honour the literal and moral sacrifice of those like Miller who ultimately couldn’t. But as the film closes on the sight of an American flag, fluttering in the breeze and faded against the light of a piercing white sun, Spielberg suggests we’re failing. America isn’t ‘earning it’.
Such darkness continued into the first decade of the new Millennium. The focus remains on what good people can do in bad times, but the films that constitute Spielberg’s Noughties output represents some of the most ambiguous, and – in the opinion of this writer – best work of his career. The vision of America Spielberg projects in these films is riddled with anxiety as good men do terrible things, authority figures abuse their power and human life is discarded like trash. Dr Hobby of A.I. and John Anderton of Minority Report wilfully play God, Frank Dixon in The Terminal treats Viktor like an animal in order to win a promotion, and Ray Ferrier kills a man in order to protect his child in War of the Worlds. It’s telling that in this period, Spielberg cast Tom Cruise twice, and turned this icon of American manhood into a monster, once emotionally (in War of the Worlds), once literally by literally mutilating his face (in Minority Report).
His own American icon – Indiana Jones – didn’t get out of this dark decade unscathed either. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy’s out of touch with a world torn apart by paranoia. In one of the film’s most fascinating sequences he’s questioned by the FBI and openly accused of colluding with Soviet forces. His war record and the incredible heroism of his past are barely considered: the very concepts of heroism and goodness have lost their currency in a paranoid world where authority figures suspect everyone. The question that permeates the film is: how can one do the right thing when the right thing doesn’t seem to exist any more? By having the extradimensional beings – who the film builds as a metaphor for knowledge – depart at the end, Spielberg brings his decade of darkness to a close by lamenting the loss of wisdom and the virtue that brings.
Such moments lend a sense of sadness and regret to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that’s continued through to Spielberg’s most recent films. His first movie to deal directly with the machinery of politics, Lincoln finds Spielberg zeroing in on one of the greatest Americans to have ever lived, but shows him having to bend the system and essentially commit illegal acts to bring in laws that ensure fundamental human rights. Made in the middle of the Obama era, it’s aware of the unending need for progress and the things that stand in the way of it, and asks how morality can win when certain figures of authority stand in its way.
Bridge of Spies acts as a sister film to Lincoln and finds another great America, James Donovan, repeating the President’s actions: bending the law, going rogue, and employing “lawyers dodges” in order to secure basic human rights. Both films were criticised for being too idealistic; old-fashioned throwbacks that painted complex subject matter with broad strokes and a limited palette. Whether you agree with that or not, the ultimate moral of these films hardly waves the flag for justice in the States. American democracy is fundamentally broken, they tell us, and the only way to fix it is to work outside of its strictures and essentially break it all over again.
Is that morality? Does the end justify the means? Spielberg’s great success with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies is to show American justice as a living organism, always changing – both for good and bad. And with one of the final shots of the latter, he shows just how delicate the balance is. Donovan rides home on the train, his job done after recovering Francis Gary Powers from the Soviets. He looks out of the window, seeing boys in their gardens climbing over the fences. It reminds him (and us) of East Berlin, where innocent people risked their lives trying to climb the Wall and secure their freedom. It’s a beautifully Spielbergian image – innocence and darkness combined to make an ambiguous and unsettling point: that America, like all democracies, is always just a breath away from falling into corruption.
Spielberg has evolved from an angry young man railing at the bullies of America to an introspective middle-aged father wondering about his place in the system and finally become an elder statesman, looking back and telling stories about the triumphs of America’s past. As he finds hope in history, he also expresses an anxiety about the future. What will happen when the Lincolns and the Donovans fade, he asks. What will happen when someone arrives to bend the law for his own good rather than the common good? We may be about to find out…