The Most Underrated Overrated Director Of All Time
Steven Spielberg is really fucking good at his job. He’s so good at his job, in fact, that there are people that blame him and his success for ruining cinema. They blame him for creating the action blockbuster and thus destroying adult dramas. They blame him for being overly sentimental and thus destroying irony. They blame him for pandering and thus destroying nuance.
This is mostly bullshit, of course. It’s the equivalent of blaming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for ruining basketball by dunking so much (a thing that also happened). It’s a thing that only happens to people who are so good at their jobs that they obliterate the expectations and limitations people thought existed in their field.
OK, so it’s not completely bullshit. We’re not saying that Spielberg is without fault. In his 40+ year career, he’s made some clunkers on his way to earning $3.7 billion (personally), and he is partially responsible for ushering in the era of IP and merchandise-driven movie making. His movies are unapologetically made for mass, middle brow tastes. He is deeply, genuinely uncool, and because of that he’s been labelled by the hip as “overrated” for decades.
But let me ask you this: forgetting money, Oscars, and action figures, how many stone cold masterpieces has Steven Spielberg made? This was the topic of a recent Twitter poll, where users were invited to vote on the options of “0”, “1-3”, “4-6”, or “7+.” What’s amazing to me isn’t that the 7+ contingent carried the vote, it’s that I probably would’ve voted for an “11” option, and if you found me in a good mood, you could talk me into 14. That’s insane.
When I think about other directors who are deemed “modern masters” (post-1970s), it’s not that hard to do a quick finger tally of their masterpieces. I can think of a small handful that have gotten to the 4-6 plateau (we’ll get to them in coming months) and a much larger group in the 1-3 range, but there’s no one else who even sniffs double digits.
For me, the list of Spielberg’s untouchable classics is as follows: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Last Crusade, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Bridge of Spies.
What’s weird is that his “almost masterpiece” list is arguably more interesting: AI is a mash-up of Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s wildly-different-but-complementary cinematic approaches, and it has some profoundly fucked up things to say about love, parenthood, and *cough* the human condition *cough*, Temple of Doom is a theme park ride disguised as a movie, which should be fun, but due to his and George Lucas’ respective heartaches at the time, the whole thing ends up serving as supremely dark, insensitive, misogynistic therapy session for its makers. Empire of the Sun takes his whole “David Lean through the eyes of a child” thing to its logical extreme and has maybe the second best Christian Bale performance ever (as a 13-year-old).
And we’re still at the tip of the iceberg. Munich is a better commentary on the war on terror than just about any other piece of popular art. War of the Worlds proved to us that Tom Cruise is an actual alien who can’t throw a baseball. Hell, as part of my research for this I rewatched Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and you know what? That infuriating mess of a movie has some of the most kinetic and inspired action sequences this side of Fury Road.
If any other director had made Bridge of Spies–with those pitch perfect performances, with that level of control and storytelling mastery, with those well-balanced and thoughtful themes–they’d be coronated the new savior of Adult Hollywood. But when Steven Spielberg does it, it’s an also-ran.
Almost everyone has an opinion on Spielberg. He’s the most successful movie director ever, having made three separate movies that held “the biggest movie of all time” crown at the time they were released (Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park). His movies were an indelible part of most of our childhoods, and I think it’s partially because of this that so many “serious” film fans turn on him when they reach their college years. Having discovered irony and postmodernism, they distrust the genuine and earnest feelings they felt towards his movies.
The truth is that no one has ever been as good at making the audience feel what he wants them to feel as Steven Spielberg. Throughout the rest of this month, we’ll dive into how he goes about doing that, what makes him unique, and for good measure why some people still don’t like him.