Steven Spielberg has had an amazing career as a director; he has made a string of hit movies and has unquestionably changed filmmaking (for better or for worse, I won’t argue which). But do you realize his last truly great movie was released over thirteen years ago?
I kid you not, for the last thirteen years while he has made good movies and many movies that will go down as being “classics”, his last truly great movie, Jurassic Park, came out thirteen years ago. From that time to now, Spielberg has directed ten movies, most are very good and some are just fine, but not one of them is truly great. They are, in chronological order: Schindler’s List, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Artificial Intelligence: A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, and Munich.
Okay, so what makes a movie great? After viewing it you need to ask yourself a series of questions. Did it take you somewhere you hadn’t been before, show you something you hadn’t seen? Did it leave you with a sense of wonder and awe? Did it make you think? Was it good, was it fun, did it show you the world in a whole new light? What about the characters, plot, and storytelling? Were you intrigued and enthralled, engrossed and enraptured?
A group of Spielberg’s films from Jurassic Park to now are what I will refer to as the historical epics (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich, and to a lesser extent but it still fits the category, Amistad) are all good movies, but none actually approaches greatness. Every time Spielberg makes one of these epics there is a certain tangible feel to them, they all feel a little desperate. Spielberg may be the greatest popcorn filmmaker ever, but his attempts at more serious, dramatic fare are lacking. Each time he goes and makes one of these historical epics one cannot help but watch and feel as though Spielberg is desperately trying to earn a place as a serious filmmaker, a filmmaker that has changed not just the way movies are made but the way people see the world.
Schindler’s List is certainly the strongest of these historical epics, the one with the most gravitas, and yet even Schindler’s List is discussed in critical circles more for its representation of the Holocaust and whether or not the depiction is well constructed. One of the arguments against this film is that to tell the story of what happened to six million Jewish people, Spielberg chose to deify a Nazi; it is less the story of what happened to the Jewish people and what they did to save themselves and each other than it is about how a Nazi came to their aid. Granted, Spielberg depicted atrocities with a brutal honesty and unflinching eye, but these horrifying depictions do not make for a great movie.