Examining Steven Spielberg’s Fascinating Shift From Popcorn Movies to Politicized Ones

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Photo: Universal Pictures

The most overtly political film Steven Spielberg has ever made was his very first feature assignment. In 1971’s L.A. 2017, a 75-minute-long episode of the TV series Name of the Game, a media mogul (Gene Barry) falls asleep in his car and wakes up in the year 2017. The surface of the Earth has become toxic, and what’s left of humanity now dwells in underground cities. Governments have collapsed, and the U.S. is run as a “shareholders’ democracy” called America, Inc., with a new Corporate Constitution. While the rich and powerful hoard resources and live in relative luxury, normal citizens are closely monitored; rumors abound that laborers are being sent to the poisoned surface to work in industries that support the privileged class.

Though it has elements that would one day return in his 2002 Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report, L.A. 2017 is not a very Spielbergian film. It doesn’t feature much action, save for a brief, indifferently staged hostage standoff and car chase near the end. (It’s hard to believe the director made his incredible automotive thriller Duel around the same time.) While the film is weirdly compelling in its own right — Spielberg’s facility with actors has always been underrated — it mostly consists of on-the-nose dialogue scenes, with occasional throwaway lines to suggest how much the world has changed. (“There are unconfirmed reports of a Negro in Cleveland …”)

Of course, L.A. 2017 and its societal themes were rarely discussed in the late 1970s and '80s when Spielberg was ascending to godlike status in American cinema. The films propelling his swift ascent — Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), or E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) — were free of anything resembling politics or ideology. But over the course of his career, Spielberg’s cinema has become increasingly self-aware and culturally engaged. His latest movie, Bridge of Spies, is a Cold War spy drama that’s interested not so much in the cloak-and-dagger espionage stuff, but rather in the moral and political issues at stake, both within its narrative and in present-day America. This is a fascinating reversal from earlier in the director’s career.

One reason the shift feels so pronounced is because, to some onlookers, the apolitical nature of Spielberg’s early hits was in itself political – whatever his own beliefs, his cinema was a conservative one of comfort, of old-fashioned values returning in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the economic turmoil of the era. In his films, communities were healed and families were reassembled or reunited (albeit often symbolically). As Robert Phillip Kolker wrote in his influential book about American film of the period, A Cinema of Loneliness: “Steven Spielberg is the great fantasist of recuperation … the great modern narrator of simple desires fulfilled, of reality diverted into the imaginary spaces of aspirations realized, where fears of abandonment and impotence are turned into fantasy spectacles of security and joyful action.” Spielberg’s films made for a perfect, albeit unwitting complement to the so-called Reagan Revolution’s culture of reassurance and its return to a golden-hued vision of the past.

To such critics and theorists, Spielberg’s technical expertise was also suspect. His films were self-contained units that prompted very specific, universal, and unambiguous responses: “Spielberg never permits the viewer reflective space,” Kolker asserted. “Should they occur, they might bring down the entire structure of belief each film works so hard at erecting.” He had a point, too: Even those of us who adore Spielberg’s films from this period can see a kind of overwhelming, mystical benevolence at work in them, calling on us to give up agency and power. Look at how many of his films end with big, bright light shows in the sky, which the characters watch in awe – and which we ourselves watch in awe. As Pauline Kael wrote in her rave review of Close Encounters: “God is up there in a crystal-chandelier spaceship, and He likes us.”

Even as Spielberg branched out into more difficult material, the criticism of his work as facile and childlike remained. Never mind that, with his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Spielberg took a fairly daring novel about lesbianism, domestic violence, and race relations in the early 20th century, cast it with mostly unknown African-American leads (including Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their feature acting debuts), and turned it into a huge financial and critical hit. To many, he had scrubbed the novel of its more risqué, subversive elements to create another Spielbergian tale of innocence lost, families reunited and returned, patriarchies redeemed.

Such criticism, of course, largely ignored the humanism of Spielberg’s films, and the generosity they demonstrated toward even the most debased characters. It also ignored the ways in which the director had started to break free of his comfort zone. Jim (Christian Bale), the young expat hero of Empire of the Sun (1987), is a Spielberg protagonist par excellence. As the Japanese invade China, and Jim is separated from his parents and winds up in a detention camp, the film becomes, yes, another tale of innocence lost. But along the way, Spielberg shows a willingness to consciously undermine his own, by-then-patented cinematic flights of fancy. There are even two “bright white light” scenes near the end: The first is a sharp lens flare that repeatedly overwhelms the screen as Jim tries (and fails) to revive a young, dead Japanese soldier accidentally killed by Americans; the second is what turns out to be the distant flash of an atom bomb, which Jim thinks is God.

Empire of the Sun wasn’t a big hit – one of Spielberg’s few financial disappointments – and the director didn’t attempt a more serious “prestige” film for some years. In the 1990s, however, he directed a series of historical dramas that surprised many of his earlier critics. When looked at together, something fascinating emerges from Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998): They’re movies in which human lives are reduced to the level of what amounts to business negotiations.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) manages to keep his Jewish workers alive by discussing issues like productivity and fair value with the Nazi officials who would otherwise kill them. Similarly, in Amistad (1997), a pair of Abolitionists played by Stellan Skarsgard and Morgan Freeman have to make common cause with a shady real-estate lawyer played by Matthew McConaughey in order to win the release of a group of Africans who have seized the title slave ship in the Atlantic. Early on in the film, we see various groups trying to claim the mutineers; one group refers to them as “goods,” another “property,” yet another “salvage.”

The abolitionists have to make their stand on this compromised territory – a heartbreaking concession. (The gamble is echoed in 2012’s Lincoln, when the president admits that the Emancipation Proclamation was itself a compromise, since it had to treat slaves as property under the law in order to free them in the Confederate states.) In Saving Private Ryan (1998), there’s no business negotiation per se, but there is another brutal, ironic calculus at play: the idea that numerous soldiers have to die in order to save one, simply so the U.S. military can score a PR victory. It’s true that these films aren’t overtly political, but there is a sly undercurrent of social critique to them — of the way that society, politicians, and the law often reduce human beings to numbers in a ledger.

After September 11, however, that subtlety began to fade as Spielberg’s work gained greater political urgency. Whereas earlier films had certainly tackled worthy, important issues, now each film seemed to reflect an aspect of present-day American reality. Look at Minority Report’s pointed portrait of a society where individuals are accused, captured, and convicted of crimes before they even commit them, and how it speaks to our growing fears of a police state and the curtailing of personal freedoms in the service of security. The Terminal (2004), ostensibly a romantic comedy about Tom Hanks stuck at JFK airport, addresses the closing off of borders and “Fortress America,” and contrasts it with the American ideals of inclusion, generosity, and diversity. War of the Worlds (2005) evokes sense-memories of 9/11 with its scenes of people being incinerated and walls filled with “missing” posters. Bridge of Spies tackles the question of how a nation treats prisoners of war, and the corrosive nature of debasing one’s values during times of crisis.

Then there’s Munich (2006). Probably Spielberg’s most direct look at the issues America has wrestled with post-9/11, it’s his most open-ended film, consciously tending towards uncertainty – politically, narratively, even morally. Tasked with avenging the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the group of agents led by Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) are initially given all the force of cinematic justice. Their mission is birthed in the bosom of an Israeli government that’s portrayed like one of Spielberg’s countless family units, with Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) presented as a maternal figure; early scenes show the agents sharing big, happy meals around a dinner table in a nice apartment. As the narrative proceeds — and as our heroes get their hands dirtier and dirtier, with each killing seemingly messier than the last — the film’s spaces become darker and more cramped; at one point, the agents actually have to share a room in a safe house with their Palestinians enemies, who argue with them about the importance of home, that all-important Spielberg motif. (“You don't know what it is not to have a home … We want to be nations. Home is everything.”) The film closes on Avner, alone in Brooklyn and abandoned by his government — he, too, has no homeland anymore — no longer sure if the people he killed were responsible for Munich. The twin towers of the World Trade Center loom in the background, suggesting that the general cycle of violence he has become a part of will circle back one day to this very same spot.

A similar willingness to frame complex debates within the narrative prevails in Lincoln. True, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is presented from the very beginning as a character halfway toward becoming a myth. But the film isn’t afraid to bring that image down to earth. As Lincoln becomes obsessed with passing the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery, he and his associates have to navigate, harness, and manipulate disparate points of view in Congress, often compromising their own beliefs to do so. And much of the film circles around this horrific trade-off: Realizing that support for the Amendment will fade if the Civil War comes to an end before it passes, Lincoln must extend the war in order to get the legislation through. Late in the film, as the president rides through a field strewn with dead soldiers — part of the “Spring Slaughter” many deemed avoidable earlier in the film — he’s facing the consequences of his actions, and struggling to make his peace with it.

But perhaps more than anything, Lincoln — like Munich, and to some extent Bridge of Spies — is a film about politics, and the internal and external debates a nation has about what it stands for and what it wants to achieve. It allows its characters to converse, to examine, to contradict one another – and it does so with a surprising degree of respect, even toward those who profess monstrous opinions. Spielberg, whatever his own beliefs, has never been an ideologue. He has always approached his stories from this humanist angle. But in these later works, he has shown a surprising willingness to examine the issues of his day — and to do so in a way that, aesthetically and structurally, reflects that very dialogue. The young wunderkind whose awestruck reveries once avoided debate and discussion altogether has now become the grand old man of mainstream American cinema, and he has done so not by overwhelming us with technique, but by calling on us to listen, and talk, and think.