What Makes Spielberg Great?
For our first pick in this new series on great directors, I made what I believe to be the obvious choice. I took Steven Allan Spielberg number #1 overall, and backed it up with some general statements about his greatness, but now I’d like to dive deeper into why he’s regarded as such an effective filmmaker.
So what makes Steven Spielberg great?
1. He keeps things moving
Having watched or re-watched most of Spielberg’s filmography in recent weeks, what’s stuck out to me most is the way he moves his characters and the way he moves his camera. Years ago, I came across this video essay explaining “The Spielberg Oner,” and it’s one of those things that you can’t stop seeing once you’ve started paying attention. You should really just watch it, too:
Like the creator of that video, I have a love/hate relationship with the use of long takes. They can be thrilling and effective, sure, but they can also be showy, and more often than not they feel shoehorned into scenes just to be on trend rather than serving any sort of storytelling purpose.
In Spielberg movies, it’s clear that the characters’ blocking and the story beats of a scene come first, and the camera movement is prescribed to best fit those elements. Most often, the camera’s movement is motivated by the interplay between the characters and their environment. It pushes in to heighten emotion, pans to catch a reaction, pulls out to reveal additional information, etc. It’s not always physically moving, but it is always moving the story along. It’s unbelievably economical and effective, and while I’ve heard actors express uneasiness in the way Spielberg directs them, it makes sense when you know the care he takes in planning the movement of his characters.
2. He’s the master of intentionality
To be honest, I’m not 100% sure I’m using the word “intentionality” correctly here, but for our purposes let’s agree that its definition is “the ability to convey your intentions on screen.” I’ve said it before (and I’m not the first to do so), but Spielberg’s super power is his ability to make the audience feel the way he wants them to feel. He has total control over the tools of his trade and he uses them to telegraph his intentions on screen.
Again, a video probably shows this better than I can explain it, so take a look at how he uses sound design to focus and amplify the tension of Munich:
But like any super power, Spielberg’s intentionality is also his greatest weakness–his telegraphed intentions often don’t leave much room for ambiguity, a key quality in most “serious” art. Ambiguity is well and good when it’s the intended effect of a filmmaker, but more often it seems that it’s a byproduct of muddled intentions. That’s never an issue with Spielberg. He knows what he wants. He knows what he wants you to feel. He knows what needs to be on screen and in your ears to make you feel that way. You know you’re in good hands.
3. His action scenes follow the laws of cause and effect
What’s the biggest difference between Spielberg’s action sequences and his many action/adventure director copycats? Spielberg’s scenes are rooted in storytelling and causality, whereas nearly everyone else’s are rooted in spectacle.
For evidence, look no further than the bar fight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Look at the way every action causes a reaction which sets a future obstacle in motion. Look at the way the medallion is passed through the scene, the way fire is established as a danger in the beginning and the way its threat grows through characters’ actions, the way liquor flows and is subsequently lit ablaze, serving both as Indy’s immediate threat and salvation. It’s a goddamn Rube Goldberg machine of a scene.
Now watch a Michael Bay action scene (or don’t). I just watched it, and I’ve already lost all memory of it except for the faint recollection of gears moving.
4. He’s got touch
Finally, I believe that the thing that makes Spielberg’s movie so memorable, so firmly entrenched in our lives and collective sense of nostalgia, are the little moments that endear us to his characters. He makes big, personal movies. That’s his whole schtick. The early ones are ostensibly about aliens and sharks, but they’re actually about broken homes and accepting responsibility. The later ones tackle everything from war to race to the importance of the free press, but they’re nearly all grounded in the personal stories of fundamentally decent human beings making hard choices, whether it be Oskar Schindler or Katharine Graham.
And contrary to his reputation, the way he goes about endearing us to these characters couldn’t be more nuanced. In this respect, his touch is a deft as they come. For our final clip of this post, take a look at the dinner table scene from Jaws and tell me you don’t immediately understand the dynamics of this family and feel the weight of a father’s love and sense of duty.
To do all that, in a scene that’s that small, with those few words, in a movie that’s as spectacle-driven as Jaws– That’s what makes Spielberg great.