Who is Steven Spielberg?
Spielberg developed an interest in filmmaking as a child, and during his teens his Escape to Nowhere (1962), a 40-minute war movie, won first prize at a film festival. He next directed Firelight (1964), a feature-length science-fiction yarn, which was followed by an accomplished short about hitchhikers called Amblin’ (1968). An executive at Universal Studios saw the latter film and tendered a contract to Spielberg, who began working in the studio’s television division after attending California State College, Long Beach (now California State University, from which he would eventually receive a B.A. in 2002). He directed episodes of various TV series, notably Columbo, Marcus Welby, M.D., and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law. In 1971 he made his first television movie, Duel, a taut, almost claustrophobic exercise in psychosis that was more intense than typical TV fare (it was released theatrically in Europe). Although Spielberg permitted star Dennis Weaver—who played a motorist chased by a homicidal truck driver—to register a one-note impression of sweaty terror throughout the movie, his handling of the action sequences was staged and executed with bravado. The success of Duel enabled Spielberg to make theatrically released motion pictures, beginning with The Sugarland Express (1974), a chase picture with deft accents of comedy but an inexorable movement toward tragedy; it was anchored by Goldie Hawn’s performance.
Spielberg’s next movie, Jaws (1975), established him as a leading director, and it was one of the highest-grossing films ever. It featured Roy Scheider as the police chief of a resort town who battles a man-eating white shark. Joining him are Richard Dreyfuss as a marine biologist and Robert Shaw as a shark hunter. The highly praised thriller received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, and its ominous soundtrack by John Williams won an Oscar. The film all but created the genre of summer blockbuster—big action-packed movie released to an audience grateful to be in an air-conditioned theatre—and it established many of the touchstones of Spielberg’s work: an ordinary but sympathetic main character is enlightened through a confrontation with some extraordinary being or force that gradually reveals itself as the narrative unfolds.
Spielberg then directed the mystical science-fiction tale Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which he also wrote. Dreyfuss was cast as the lead, and he submitted one of the best performances of his career, as a telephone lineman who encounters an unidentified flying object and subsequently becomes obsessed with UFOs. For the film, Spielberg received his first Academy Award nomination for best director. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography earned the film’s only Oscar, though the special effects were also praised. Spielberg became just the second director in history to score back-to-back $100 million grosses.
After the disappointing 1941 (1979)—which was received as an unfunny comedy, despite the presence of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd—Spielberg directed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a loving, expert (if slightly redundant) tribute to old adventure serials. The film and its sequels, which starred Harrison Ford as handsome archaeologist indiana-jones, used rich colour cinematography, brisk editing, memorable musical soundtracks, and inventive special effects to create a cinematic experience that was typically light yet highly suspenseful. Spielberg received his second Academy Award nomination for best director; the film was also a best picture nominee.
Spielberg’s next film was even more successful. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) was a moving exploration of an alien encounter that cleverly eschewed the epic scale of Close Encounters for the microcosm of its effect on a single California family. Henry Thomas gave a strong performance as the boy who discovers and befriends the stranded alien, and Dee Wallace portrayed his sympathetic mom. The film also featured Drew Barrymore in one of her first roles. As with most Spielberg films to that point, the special effects were a large part of the movie’s appeal—in this case, the wonderfully articulated E.T.—but it was Spielberg’s mastery of human (and alien) emotion that made the movie a blockbuster. Both Spielberg and the film were nominated for Academy Awards, as were Melissa Mathison’s screenplay, Allen Daviau’s cinematography, and Williams’s score; only the latter won.
After directing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Spielberg adapted Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple (1985). The film explores an African American woman’s almost unbearably harsh, yet ultimately fulfilling, life. Color was roundly criticized for downplaying the novel’s lesbian element, for perpetuating stereotypes about black men, and for sentimentalizing life in the Deep South. Nevertheless, it found an audience that appreciated the cast—which included Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards—as well as the script (by Menno Meyjes) and the score (by coproducer Quincy Jones), both of which were also Academy Award-nominated. The film received a nomination for best picture, but Spielberg failed to earn an Oscar nod, a slight that created a small scandal at the time. More important, however, Spielberg had made one of the few commercially successful films about the experience of African Americans, paving the way for similar projects to be green-lighted.
Spielberg chose another critically acclaimed book as the basis of his next film. Empire of the Sun (1987), scripted by Tom Stoppard, was a carefully detailed re-creation of the World War II prison-camp milieu of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel of the same name. But where The Color Purple was able to convey emotional truth, Empire of the Sun almost let the story about its young protagonist (Christian Bale) drown under a wave of pyrotechnics. It was a box-office failure. Spielberg closed out the 1980s with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Always (1989), an adaptation of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe. Although Indiana Jones was a hit, Always failed to find an audience.
Spielberg’s tendency toward broad storytelling may have hampered his attempts at more complex filmmaking, and The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, in the view of many critics, lacked emotional depth or insight. Yet the aggressive commercialism and optimism of Spielberg’s films became the prevailing style in Hollywood in the late 20th century. His pervasive influence was recognized in 1986 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it honoured him with the Irving G. Thalberg Award, given for excellence in producing.
Spielberg’s opening film of the 1990s was Hook (1991), a retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Despite a cast that included major stars Robin Williams and Julia Roberts, the movie was a critical and commercial failure. Spielberg, however, returned to form in dramatic fashion with not one but two enormously popular 1993 releases. The first, Jurassic Park, was an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel (1990) about dinosaurs re-created and running amok on a remote isle. Its scenes of peril are less deftly blended with character-focused downtime activity than in Jaws, but technology is employed to great effect, and there are enough potent shocks to indicate that Spielberg was still a master of Alfred Hitchcock-worthy suspense.
Spielberg’s second film from 1993, Schindler’s List, tells the true story of a group of Polish Jews who avoided Nazi extermination camps with the aid of German industrialist Oskar Schindler during World War II. The drama—which featured notable performances by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and Ralph Fiennes—quieted many of Spielberg’s critics. It was shot with unflinching detail in black and white, and it won Spielberg his first Academy Award for best director. In addition, the film garnered six other Oscars, including best picture.
In 1994 Spielberg joined with multimedia moguls Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen to found a new studio, DreamWorks, which was particularly successful as a creator of such popular animated films as Antz (1998), the Shrek series (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010), and Puss in Boots (2011). In 2006 the partners sold the company to Viacom for $1.6 billion.
On the directorial front, Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) failed to attain the majesty of Jurassic Park, but it had many compelling moments. Based on a 1995 best seller by Crichton, who reportedly wrote the book at the behest of Spielberg himself, the film repeats the Jurassic Park formula with a largely new cast—Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, and Arliss Howard—and returnee Jeff Goldblum, who again plays a scientist who knows this manipulation of nature for profit is both crass and morally indefensible. There are numerous thrills, and the dinosaur special effects equal those of the earlier film.
Amistad (1997) found Spielberg in social historian mode. The film centres on the slave revolt that took place aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad in 1839 and the subsequent trial in the United States for which the slaves were tried for insurrection on the high seas only to be ruled by the court to have been kidnap victims. Matthew McConaughey was effective as a defense lawyer, and Anthony Hopkins earned an Academy Award nomination for his showy role as former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, who is importuned to defend the slaves before the Supreme Court. As Cinque, the leader of the Africans, Djimon Hounsou gave a memorable performance. The film was well received critically, but it did only modest business at the box-office.
In 1998 Spielberg returned to World War II with Saving Private Ryan. The drama stands as one of the high points of his career, both praised and criticized for presenting some of the most realistic battle scenes staged in a Hollywood war movie. Of particular note is the 27-minute-long opening that depicts the invasion by U.S. troops at Omaha Beach on D-Day. After that harrowing sequence, the film settles into a more conventional narrative as a group of soldiers search for a paratrooper named Ryan in order to extract him from combat before he is killed, just as his three brothers recently were. Tom Hanks portrayed Captain John Miller, who leads the mission, and the strong cast also includes Matt Damon in the title role, along with Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ted Danson, and Vin Diesel. Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture, and Spielberg won his second Academy Award as best director. The film was the biggest commercial success of any release in the United States that year.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), based on a short story by British author Brian Aldiss, was a project conceived in the 1970s by Stanley Kubrick, who some 20 years later, with the movie still in its planning stages, began to think Spielberg was a more likely director. After Kubrick died in 1999, Spielberg was approached by the Kubrick estate, and he agreed to helm the project. He cast Haley Joel Osment as David, a young humanoid robot who has been programmed to express love, and Jude Law appeared as a robotic male prostitute named Gigolo Joe. Their fates soon become intertwined and remain so even thousands of years into the future. Spielberg’s facility for science fiction helped make the film provocative and often moving, but its inconsistent tone might be traced to Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s dueling sensibilities.
For the futuristic Minority Report (2002), Spielberg turned to another science-fiction short story, this time by Philip K. Dick. But what he aspired to went far beyond the scope of Dick’s yarn. Tom Cruise played John Anderton, the head of the Pre-Crime division of the Washington, D.C., police department, which relies on three mutated beings, known as Pre-Cogs, who can predict which citizens are about to commit violent crimes. Anderton is haunted by the absence of his young son, who disappeared years ago and is likely dead. Consumed by guilt, and now divorced, he numbs himself by taking an illegal drug to which he has become addicted. Anderton faces further difficulties with the arrival of a cynical inspector (Colin Farrell) who has concerns about the integrity of the Pre-Crime department. Their strained relationship takes a deadly turn when Cruise is “seen” by the Pre-Cogs in the act of committing a murder, grounds for immediate arrest. To save himself, Cruise kidnaps the head Pre-Cog (Samantha Morton) and goes on the run, hoping to solve the mystery of why he was envisioned as a killer. Minority Report functions as both a hard-boiled police procedural and a paranoid vision of the future, and it stands as one of the best of the adaptations from Dick’s oeuvre, though only a fraction of it derives from the original short story. The film was both a box-office and a critical success, though complaints about the somewhat pat ending were not uncommon.
The radically different Catch Me If You Can was also released in 2002, and it was even more widely admired. The biopic was based on the memoir of con man extraordinaire Frank Abagnale, Jr., who as a teenager in the 1960s bilked both people and organizations out of millions of dollars, posing variously as a doctor, a lawyer, and even a Pan Am airline pilot. He also was a genius at the craft of forgery, a skill that eventually brought the FBI onto his trail. Hanks was highly entertaining as the indefatigable federal agent Carl Hanratty, who pursues Abagnale for years and eventually bonds with his target. But the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio, who, as the precocious Abagnale, a charismatic and likable criminal, gave one of his most appealing performances. Christopher Walken played Frank’s disgraced father, and Amy Adams played a doctor’s aide whom Frank romances. A critical and commercial hit, the film was adapted into a well-received Broadway musical in 2011.
In 2004 Spielberg directed the lighthearted comedy The Terminal. Hanks again starred, this time as Viktor Navorski, a visitor from a fictional country in central Europe who lands at a New York airport only to find that civil war in his home country has invalidated his passport, keeping him from entering the United States. Since he now cannot return to his war-torn homeland, he is trapped at the airport. Stanley Tucci portrayed a pitiless customs supervisor who does everything he can to force Navorski to leave, while a more sympathetic eye was cast by Catherine Zeta-Jones as a flight attendant. The film plays like a fable, right up to the happy ending, although it was based on a real-life incident that found a man stranded in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in France for 17 years. Financially, The Terminal was probably Spielberg’s least-successful film of the decade, and it received mixed reviews.
War of the Worlds (2005) marked Spielberg’s return to blockbuster territory in the realm of science fiction. Cruise lent his star power to this version of the H.G. Wells classic, which had already been adapted into a highly regarded film in 1953. Despite a number of effective set pieces, including the opening scene—in which giant alien tripods emerge from underneath the streets of modern-day Newark, New Jersey, to wreak havoc on the populace after having been interred underground for thousands of years (a touch unique to Spielberg’s version)—the film’s approach to the story rarely generated excitement in its audiences, who may have been primed for more action than watching Cruise hiding in a farmhouse with a nutty survivor (Tim Robbins). The film was a box-office success, though some critical dissent was registered.
Munich (2005) was a far more serious and controversial piece of work. Eric Bana starred as Avner, an agent of Israel’s Mossad who is asked by Prime Minister Golda Meir to head a team of assassins whose mission is to hunt down and execute the Palestinian terrorists responsible for killing 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Avner resigns from the Mossad (to ensure total deniability) and assembles a team of experts in explosives, document forgery, and other skills who set about searching for their targets. Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Hanns Zischler, and Geoffrey Rush (as Avner’s handler) are just a few members of the international cast. The film’s strength is also its weakness: its meticulous attention to detail and verisimilitude, which demand respect but can exhaust viewers. Munich was named one of the year’s best films by a number of critics, despite the heated debates—too pro-Israel for some, too anti-Israel for others—that surrounded its release. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture, and Spielberg received another best director nomination.
Made 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg’s next film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), was set in 1957, with Harrison Ford (now a rugged 64) repeating his signature role as professor and adventurer extraordinaire Indiana Jones. This time he falls afoul of the Soviet Union, agents of which want him to locate an ancient crystal skull that legend claims possesses psychic powers. Shia LaBeouf played Mutt, a motorcycle-riding tough who turns out to be Indy’s son by way of Karen Allen’s character Marion from the first Indy movie. Allen returns after her 37-year hiatus from the series to good effect, joined by Cate Blanchett as a deadly Russian agent and Ray Winstone as a British agent who secretly is in the pay of the Soviets and double-crosses Indy. Deliberately made with a retro style, the film found favour with audiences, becoming the third biggest movie at the box-office that year.
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) was an adaptation of the long-running comic strip created by the French artist Hergé. The character Tintin had long fascinated Spielberg, who had acquired film rights from Hergé’s widow in the early 1980s only to have them lapse when the project failed to develop. But with filmmaker Peter Jackson, who functioned as producer, Spielberg was able to get the project off the ground some 20 years later. He and Jackson decided on utilizing a motion-capture technique (such as Jackson had used for the character of Gollum in his Lord of the Rings trilogy) rather than live-action or pure animation. The film’s reception by both the box office and the critics was little more than mediocre in the United States, though in Europe, where Tintin was much more familiar, it fared better.
In 2011 Spielberg helmed another adaptation, War Horse. The drama was based on a popular Broadway play, which itself was developed from a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. The story opens shortly before the start of World War I, when a horse named Joey is sold to a cavalry officer by the father of the horse’s young owner, Albert, to buy food. The officer promises Albert that he will return Joey at war’s end, but he soon is slain, and Joey falls into the hands of a succession of new owners. Albert, who was too young to enlist at the beginning of the war, finally makes it onto the battlefields, and after enormous effort he locates the now-injured Joey and saves him from being put down. The film carried high expectations, given its Broadway pedigree and Spielberg’s reputation, and it was nominated for a best picture Academy Award. However, it received a tepid response from moviegoers.
In 2012 Spielberg released Lincoln, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006), the film chronicles the fraught politicking that preceded the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery, in the closing months of the Civil War. With Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg’s film captures the president’s complex psychology, a blend of good humour and cynical despair. Although some critics complained that it took a few historical shortcuts and underplayed the role of abolitionists outside Congress, the film enjoyed box-office success. It also received 12 Oscar nominations, including best picture and director.
Spielberg then directed the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies (2015), which was written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman. Depicting historical events, the film featured Tom Hanks as civilian lawyer James B. Donovan, who in 1957 was called upon to defend Soviet spy Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, known by the code name Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). When American pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured by the Soviets in 1960, Donovan was recruited by the CIA to negotiate a prisoner exchange in East Berlin two years later. The film was acclaimed for its taut plotting and sharply drawn portrayals.
The BFG (2016) is an adaptation of a beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl. The film featured Rylance as the titular “big friendly giant.” Though his fellow giants prefer to dine on human children and wreak havoc, the BFG (named Runt) subsists on vegetables and spends his days concocting dreams and his nights delivering them to slumbering people. When Sophie, a young orphan girl, sees him one night, he takes her with him back to Giant Country, where they are faced with a crew of colossal antagonists.
In 2017 Spielberg returned to historical events with The Post, a well-received drama about publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Department of Defense study concerning the Vietnam War. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post came into possession of the papers in 1971, and the film follows the latter’s efforts to publish the material. Hanks starred as Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, and Meryl Streep was cast as the newspaper’s owner, Katharine Graham.
Spielberg made his return to sci-fi storytelling after a 13-year absence with Ready Player One (2018). The film takes place in a dystopian 2045 when the inhabitants of a declining Earth find refuge in the exciting virtual world of OASIS. It follows Wade Watts, a 1980s-loving teen, as his avatar competes with other users to find the treasure hidden by the simulation’s inventor.
In addition to his Academy Awards, Spielberg was the recipient of numerous honours. In 2015 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His life and career are the subject of the HBO TV documentary Spielberg (2017).
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