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.
Saving Private Ryan suffers from this problem as well. Spielberg was able to recreate D-Day and some of the horrors of war with an unflinching brutality and a realism not heretofore put on screen, but that does not make for a great movie. There is, as with Schindler’s List, an undeniable import attached to the film, and it is a good movie, but outside of the war scenes, the movie did not fire on all cylinders. The plot was certainly lacking, and almost seemed as though it were completely an excuse to make the movie so that he could accomplish his true goal of creating the battle footage.
As for the two other historical epics, while they are both good, both worth watching, and will both teach you a little about American history (not every detail is correct), neither is arguably great. That just leaves us with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, and War of the Worlds.
Two of these are easily dismissed. The Lost World is but a hollow sequel, a mere shadow of the original film. From the thinnest of thin excuses that get Ian Malcolm to go back to the island on to the unleashing of a dinosaur in San Diego, this cannot be classified as a “great” movie. Minority Report, like The Lost World, is full of enough plot holes that while it is perfectly enjoyable – and who doesn’t like a good mystery? – it’s just not great.
The Terminal is a perfectly fun film — it’s light, it’s airy, it’s so transparent and flimsy that it’s practically not there — Tom Hanks doing Andy Kaufman’s “Foreign Man” for two hours and Stanley Tucci hating him for no particular reason. It’s a moderately amusing series of vignettes that just don’t hold together well enough or long enough or cause the audience to care enough to make this a great movie.
Artificial Intelligence: A.I., while it has other flaws, is dismissed from the list of great movies due to what has become a common Spielberg problem — his inability to end movies. If he had shortened the movie by fifteen minutes, cutting out the final footnote and postscript, he may have had a winner. The story is intriguing, the characters well drawn, and it has a great look and feel. But, by the time the credits finally roll he’s lost too much of the audience; he has let himself get too carried away and loses the heart of the picture.
War of the Worlds, you say? Just not possible. No way. The (SPOILER ALERT) son can’t be alive at the end of the movie. We actually get to see him go over the hill; everything explodes on the other side of the hill. The son is dead. A dead person doesn’t magically turn around and get to live again in order to make a happy ending. And, speaking of the ending, the machines dying off at the end felt false. It wasn’t properly built into the movie earlier, it just made it seem as though Spielberg decided now that Tom Cruise has made it to Boston the movie should end and since the movie should end the machines must die. That does not make a movie great.
That leaves just Catch Me if You Can. Probably Spielberg’s best work (not including the historical epics) since Jurassic Park. It’s fun and light, without being as flimsy as The Terminal. It has some substance to it without being as heavy-handed as Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio are hugely bright spots in the picture. Ask some of the questions required for greatness: did it take you somewhere you hadn’t been before, show you something you hadn’t seen? Or was your thought walking out only, “Wow, I can’t believe that guy got away with so much?” Another one of the things that stops the movie from being great is Spielberg himself. Unfortunately Mr. Spielberg has set the bar so high that many of his films simply don’t meet it. Would you honestly include this movie in with E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws? Is it that much fun?
Jurassic Park accomplishes each and every one of the criteria for a great movie. Its scope is far greater than Catch Me if You Can, and when the lights come up after it, you’re simply awestruck. The man made dinosaurs come to life. And while he was doing that he also told an incredible story and managed to paint vivid characters. It is the work of a master director at the top of his game. There are huge questions asked in it about science and technology and where the world will take us, and where we can take the world. There are questions asked about what makes a person good, what is right, what is wrong, and what makes a family. Big and small, grandiose and humble, Jurassic Park takes a look at everything and does it in purely mesmerizing style.
Spielberg’s name most certainly appears in the pantheon of great directors, and not terribly far from the top of the list. His recent films, while good, don’t have the same kind of pizzazz he was once able to put forth. I don’t believe it’s a question of him forever having lost what it was that made him great — it’s still there and I’m sure he can (and one day will) find it. Now that is a day I will be thankful to be in the theater.
And I truly believe life will find a way.