The Great Directors: Steven Spielberg

Eric Molnar

July 1, 2001

The art vs. commerce debate rages on; are films meant to entertain or to represent an artistic vision? How can we reconcile this question? It must be clear that film offers one of the highest forms of artistic expression; film at its most expressive can encompass nearly every other art form. Yet, the movies are big business and remain America’s favorite form of populist entertainment.

It is because of this delicate balance (the task of creating a truly artistic vision which nevertheless appeals to mainstream audiences) that Steven Spielberg has emerged as one of the true masters in the history of filmmaking. Spielberg, unfortunately, rarely is mentioned among the greatest. There are those who would hold his success against him; because Spielberg has achieved commercial success, his art is in some way corrupted. It is shameful to not mention Spielberg among the greatest directors ever because the man, success aside, is a virtuoso, and there are few directors who can match Spielberg at either a technical level or a storytelling level.

Anyone who doubts Spielberg’s technical prowess need only revisit 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. SPR is clearly his most accomplished technical piece. Both the storming of Omaha beach and the final battle at the bridge are whirlwind pieces of filmmaking. The bleaching of the film, by minimally over-exposing the negative, provides both scenes with a newsreel/documentary atmosphere, heightening the you-are-there intensity that Spielberg maintains through both of these scenes.

While his technical mastery should not be overlooked in considering Spielberg’s greatness, it is that which appeals to the large audience that ultimately seals his greatness. I have long held a theory about Spielberg’s films. All of Spielberg’s most successful films, both critically and commercially, seem to share a common characteristic; I will call this the Every-Man Theory.

From Jaws to Schindler’s List, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Saving Private Ryan, nearly all of Spielberg’s films feature a character who reacts to the events in the film much as the audience itself is reacting or would like itself to react. This feature allows the audience a much more intimate experience as they watch a character vicariously enacting there own emotions.

This aspect of Spielberg’s films can be witnessed as far back as 1975’s Jaws. Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody was not a superhero. He worried for the people of Amity he had sworn to protect, yet was equally apprehensive at the idea of hunting a great white shark. The fear when Brody famously states, "We’re gonna’ need a bigger boat," spoke for the entire audience.

Why does Close Encounters work? Not merely because it is a story about first contact with extra-terrestrials, but because Spielberg, and in turn Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary, are as equally mesmerized by the very notion of contact. The finale of Close Encounters is not an overblown special effects light show, but as honest a treatment of first contact that those who dream of such things could imagine. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial works in the same manner. Spielberg so carefully draws the audience into the mindset of Elliot, asks us to feel his emotions and passions, that when E.T. reawakens and the young Henry Thomas exclaims one of the purest expressions of joy on film, we do as well.

The Every-Man theory could be applied to the Indiana Jones films as well. Where Brody, Neary, and Elliot are clearly "every-men," Indiana Jones certainly cannot be described as such. Yet, for the exploits of a world-traveling, adventure-seeking, treasure-hunting archeologist, whom did Spielberg cast? Harrison Ford, America’s "regular guy" of the 1980’s. Ford brought such an amused air to the role that Indiana Jones was deflated; Ford made Indiana Jones into a man who exists so close to reality, that we could almost see ourselves in his shoes if our situation permitted.

Spielberg has continued this interesting trick into his later, more personal work, where it would seemingly appear difficult to do so. Still, take for example Schindler’s List. Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler is a deeply flawed man to whom some in the audience could relate. However, the scene that most fully demonstrates how closely Spielberg has associated his audience with Schindler is the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Recall Schindler upon the hill, looking down upon the horror before him, and raising a futile hand to his mouth in order to do something, anything. Was there any member of the audience at that moment who did not feel the utter helplessness of Oskar Schindler? From that moment on, Schindler acts for the audience or, again, as the audience would like to imagine themselves acting in a similar situation.

Finally, we turn to Saving Private Ryan. In the midst of the horrors of war, Spielberg gives us America’s newest "regular guy" du jour, Tom Hanks, as English teacher turned soldier, John Miller. At the heart of the film, Miller admits that his greatest concern is in seeing his wife. Miller is obviously another example of a character more ideal than many of us, yet who among us would not like to react to battle like John Miller?

That Spielberg has so consistently applied this method, throughout his entire career, is a testament to Spielberg’s power as a storyteller. Steven Spielberg is one of the most visionary filmmakers in history, and his technique is nearly flawless. Still, ironically for those who would dismiss him, it is that which attracts his audience that in fact defines his excellence as a filmmaker. Few directors as technically proficient as Spielberg have ever dared bring their audiences the intimacy that Spielberg delivers. Spielberg has done it for twenty-five years and attempts it with nearly every film.

Eric Molnar is a senior from Elyria, Ohio, majoring in political science and history with a minor in English. He also serves as a film critic for The Collegian, AU’s student newspaper.