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On The Steven Spielberg Bashing and Backlash

There was a time in the eighties when it was actually fashionable, acceptable even, to attack the work of Steven Spielberg, and believe me it was done more often than I care to remember. I never understood it because I have always believed Spielberg to be among our finest filmmakers. These attacks, and the acceptance of Spielberg bashing seemed to fade away after he directed Schindler’s List (1993) and won the Academy Award for Best Film and Best Director. In the subsequent years there was no more daring director in movies, and he gave us such fare as Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998) which won him a second Academy Award for Best Director, A.I.- Artificial Intelligence (2001), perhaps the boldest film of his career, Minority Report (2002) a stunning science fiction thriller, Catch Me If You Can (2002), a frothy adventure based on a true story, the chilling Munich (2005), War Horse (2011), and most recently another masterpiece Lincoln (2012) for which he just win a third Academy Award as Best Director.
Why the hating again?

How does this man, the most nominated director, with eleven, in the history of the Directors Guild of America, winning three times attract such dislike? With seven Academy Award nominations and two wins, one would think he was past these vicious and sometimes childish attacks, yet they keep coming. IS it because his work is popular, becuase his films make money? One of the best kept secrets with Schindler’s List (1993) was that it made a fortune, as did Saving Private Ryan (1998) and more recently Lincoln (2012). I have a theory. Art is not supposed to be popular, at least not to the masses. Films considered works of art once played in rep houses with audiences of five or more, or college campuses, where they were dissected by professors and students. A film that was popular with mainstream audiences would never be considered a work of art, yet Spielberg broke that rule. As well as being popular films with audiences, Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. : The Extraterrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Minority Report (2002), Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) are all cinematic works of art. Some of his popular films, such as Empire of the Sun (1987), A.I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Catch Me If You Can (2002) are also strong works of art, while most of his other films are audience pleasing popcorn films.

Spielberg has never been immune to missteps along the way to being the director he is today, neither has he shied away from discussing those failures. 1941 (1979) was a horrific failure that taught him a valuable lesson about budget, while The Color Purple (1985) was made for all the wrong reasons. Always (1989) was simply not a good project for him because he was so attached to the original film from the forties, and it did not transplant well to the eighties. Hook (1991) is the worst film of his career, just a mess of a movie, while The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) was simply unnecessary, which he discovered too late while making the film. Is there anything left to say about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)? The man has failed, and yet risen phoenix-like from the ashes of those failures to be, arguably the finest director in the history of the cinema.

stevenspielberg_lincoln-press

Yet there are those who hate him with a passion that stuns me, because his crime seems to be loving movies and making movies that both educate and entertain. Is it his fault that his films are massive hits at the box office? Of course not, how could he control that? In fact while making Saving Private Ryan (1998) he did not think the film would make a dime! The arrogance of these writers who attack him because his films are popular staggers me because clearly they have contempt for mainstream audiences and believe them to be less intelligent than themselves.

Rubbish. Audiences like what they like and there is no rhyme or reason for it. One of his greatest films, Empire of the Sun (1987) was a huge disappointment at the box office, yet today is considered among his best work.

Spielberg, has and has always had his finger on the pulse of the world film audience. He knows what they like, he knows what works, because he himself is a movie fan and makes films that he would like to see. Why can a film that is beloved by audiences and critics not be a work of art? Where is the rule that states that? Why is it wrong for a film to be a hit at the box office, to make money?

Lincoln (2012) was the best film I saw this year, a masterpiece, that will be discussed long after which ever film wins Best Picture is forgotten. I liked Argo (2012) truly, but not for a minute do I believe it to be a better film than Lincoln (2012). There has been much made of the lack of visual flourishes in the film, the lack of those famous Spielbergian touches, but he made a very real decision to abandon those for this film and focus on the superb script of Tony Kushner and the performances of his cast.

I do not understand the attacks on him or those on his film. In fact it disgusts me a little bit that some writers who have an audience, as we do, would be so cruel and single minded to attack him because he made another great film.

We are lucky to live in the age of Spielberg.

Come Oscar night, I suspect Argo (2012) will win Best Picture with Spielberg taking Best Director, or things could go crazy and Silver Linings Playbook could pull off a surprise win for film and director. What no one is discussing is 1974, when The Godfather Part II (1974) won no awards leading into the Oscars and then grabbed six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Hopefully we are headed for such a night with Lincoln (2012).

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John Foote

John Foote