Spielberg at 70: storytelling, history, and his recent work

Our salute to Steven Spielberg at 70 considers his most recent work, such as Lincoln, War Horse, Tintin, Bridge Of Spies and The BFG.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

There’s a scene early on in Lincoln where the film stops to listen to a man tell a story. This is made a little less remarkable for the fact that the man in question is Abraham Lincoln and the story is part of a wider point the President is making about the abolition of slavery. But regardless it’s a unique moment and one that sums up Steven Spielberg’s current cinema. Quiet and thoughtful, it’s a sequence that homes in on the power of words and the significance of storytelling, and Spielberg captures that weight with directorial reverence: three minute-plus long takes that draw us into the room and leave us captivated by Lincoln’s words. For Spielberg, one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history passes through hard work, smart politicking, and above all, the power of stories.

Storytelling was something of a tradition in Spielberg’s household when he was growing up. His father would fill his head with the short stories he found in science fiction magazines, and Spielberg himself would concoct wild tales around everyday banalities. On one occasion, upon spotting a crack in his wall, he imagined the tiny monsters that might appear from it and wreak havoc. Most significantly, he was privy to stories from his grandparents and the Jewish friends of his mother and father. They told him about the Holocaust and life in Russia, where they grew up. He learned how to count from them, grasping his numbers from those tattooed on the wrist of a Holocaust survivor family friend, and was so enamoured of his grandfather Fievel and his stories that he’d go on to name the lead character of An American Tail in his honour.

A love of storytelling has always been implicit in Spielberg’s films, but as he’s grown older, the emphasis on it has become a dominant feature. We see it in Saving Private Ryan, as Ryan becomes the torch bearer for Miller, living his captain’s life through his own and seeking to respect it through earning the sacrifice of his death. We see a darker take on it in A.I., where the limits of storytelling are explored through David’s relentless faith in Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy. And we see it also in The Terminal, where Viktor undergoes tremendous heartache to conclude his father’s lifelong project of collecting all the autographs of the jazz musicians seen in the famous photograph ‘A Great Day in Harlem’. Stories are our lifeblood, Spielberg tells us. They shape who we are and who we might become.

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This is certainly the driving force behind Spielberg’s first two films of this decade: War Horse and The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn. The latter is perhaps the most direct, with Captain Haddock so utterly out of touch with his identity that he can’t cope with real life without consuming enough booze to get him blind drunk. Like Indy in Last Crusade, his quest for the Unicorn isn’t simply a search for treasure and fame; it’s about reconnecting with his family and discovering who he is by doing that. Spielberg emphasises this through literal storytelling, Haddock being forced to sober up enough to remember the story of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock. The clues he and Tintin learn from this story give them the critical insight in their search and ultimately allow Haddock to rediscover his ancestral home, Marlinspike Hall.

War Horse is a little more subtle with the message, but Spielberg still firmly makes his point. In a film of multiple narratives, Joey is the film’s only permanent throughline, crossing into numerous people’s lives as the war hits them in different ways. He becomes something of a totem, a walking (or rather, galloping) metaphor for the hope and endurance the characters need to get through the war. But he’s also a representation of Albert’s father, whose Boer War pendant Albert pins to Joey before they venture to Europe. Albert’s conflicts with his father are born out of an inability to understand his experiences, and therefore his inability to understand his own heritage. But by living the kind of horror his father went through, Albert comes to appreciate the reverence that pendant (and his father) deserve. He lives his story – and learns from it.

Following Tintin and War Horse, Spielberg promptly got to work on another history-based project. Lincoln had been in development since 1999, initially with Liam Neeson lined up as Honest Abe. Spielberg, however, simply couldn’t find a script he was happy with, and as the years rolled by, Neeson’s claim on the role diminished and he eventually dropped out, saying he was too old to take the part on. The delay had cost him dearly, but arguably created a better film: Lincoln is a measured masterpiece, the result of years of careful consideration that seems as significant a part of Spielberg’s canon as E.T., Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan.

History weighs heavy on the film’s shoulders as Spielberg shows us two visions of the President: the man and the myth. The first time we see Lincoln, he’s covered in shadow, sat down, with two soldiers looking toward him in awed admiration. He’s like a living, breathing version of the memorial that bears his name. Towards the end of the film, we see him walking out of the White House as he readies himself for his fateful trip to the theatre. Again bathed in shadow, his iconic stovepipe stands out above all else, sitting atop his famously lanky frame. “Now he belongs to the ages,” Edwin Stanton says at the President’s deathbed. Through visuals like this, Spielberg leaves the audience under no illusion as to just how iconic and historic Lincoln is.

But he also shows us how normal he us. Along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg gives us an intimate portrait of life behind Presidential doors, allowing us to feel like we’re a part of his life, a friend of one of the most important figures in world history. We get to appreciate his relationship with wife Mary, his quiet and understated dealings with others, and, perhaps most significantly, his approach to fatherhood. His youngest son Tad is Spielberg’s focus here and at the start of the film, we see that he’s been studying photographic plates of slaves in an effort to understand their stories. Later, we see Tad again, sitting on his father’s lap reading as voting on the 13th Amendment concludes. These two scenes are the film in microcosm: grand historical significance given personal meaning through the relationship between father and son, and the intimacy of storytelling.

Bridge Of Spies narrows this to a one-on-one relationship as Spielberg focuses on the story of James Donovan and Rudolf Abel. By taking Abel’s case, despite the Russian obviously being guilty, Donovan essentially becomes his storyteller. Abel can’t speak for himself: he’s vilified, hated, his rights stripped away from him by an American public eager to lock him up. But like Lincoln, Donovan sees it as a moral responsibility to take the case. He has to defend those who are not in a position to defend themselves, he has to tell their story.

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Spielberg explicitly draws attention to Donovan’s totemic significance by having Abel compare him to a man he knew as a child. This man – the Standing Man as Abel calls him – withstood the beatings of the Russian authorities to stick to his principles. Donovan does the same, refusing to buckle under pressure, refusing to compromise, refusing to do anything that would contradict that which he knows to be right. Abel is right to compare him to the man in his story. People such as he and Donovan only seem to exist in the stories we tell to inspire us. Like Lincoln, Spielberg’s version of Donovan belongs to the ages.

Some criticised Bridge Of Spies for being too nostalgic, too wide-eyed in its outlook on life, but the film’s tension, like that in The Terminal and Lincoln, is generated by the number of people who are willing to oppose Donovan in his attempts. He succeeds, of course, keeping Abel alive, and negotiating a deal for the release of American pilot Francis Gary Powers. But in the final scenes, Spielberg strikes a note of caution by referencing an earlier scene in which East Berliners are shot dead while trying to cross the wall. What will happen, Spielberg asks, when people like Donovan aren’t around any more? What will happen when nobody opposes prejudice and tyranny arrives on American shores?

It’s a terrifying question to answer, and perhaps that’s why Spielberg resorted to fantasy for his most recent film, The BFG. A perfect offering for this stage of his career, Spielberg’s take on Roald Dahl’s classic novel is a film about storytelling, regret, and most poignantly, age. The relationship between Sophie and The BFG is like that between a grandfather and his grand-daughter, with the former regaling the latter with tall tales and grand stories (here represented by dreams and the wonder of their creation in Dream Country) and seeking to inspire and empower her through them.

It’s a goal he achieves in the triumphant final act, which finds Sophie concocting a nightmare to take to the Queen to inspire her to take action against the mean giants. Spielberg, ever the student of the human face, focuses in this moment not on the Queen as she experiences the nightmare, but on Sophie herself as she watches on. Delight, fear, wonder, intrigue and a range of other emotions play out on her face as she sees the results of her storytelling endeavours and Spielberg’s camera never flinches. Sophie holds the Queen, the country, and the audience in her hands. Stories have power and storytellers control that power.

If Lincoln and Bridge Of Spies represented an anxiety about the future, a desire to build a better world and a fear that it can’t be done, The BFG finds a moment of optimism to end on. As Sophie bids a Good Morning to her friend, The BFG smiles warmly while Spielberg fades to black. For the boy who grew up feeling alienated from those around him, it’s a moment of connection and friendship that transcends physical difference. For the adult he grew into, it’s a moment that confirms that there’s hope in a future generation that’s compassionate, empathetic, and understanding of the needs of others. For the filmmaker he’s become known to audiences as, it’s an image of hope and redemption, perhaps (were his next film not already in the can) the perfect image to close his career on. It captures the same joy and wonder Spielberg has given us for years.

For five decades now, Steven Spielberg has charmed and delighted, educated and informed, redefined and evolved. He still attracts as much criticism as praise and remains for some a symbol of Hollywood’s obsession with safe and sentimental entertainment. But his influence is undeniable and as he moves into his 70th year, he continues to mix styles and tones, flipping from sci-fi with Ready Player One, to religious drama with The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara, and back to old-school adventure with Indiana Jones 5.

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The boy who dressed as Jesus one Christmas still enjoys provoking a reaction, still enjoys attracting attention, still enjoys the thrill of storytelling. And if his most recent films (and the climate they’ve been created in) tell us anything, it’s that those skills are needed more today than ever before.