How do you follow up the defining year of your career? This is the conundrum Steven Spielberg faced when he returned from hiatus and looked to get back behind the camera in 1997. Four years earlier, he’d experienced the kind of success most can only dream of, hitting box office gold with Jurassic Park and – finally – finding the critical adulation he’d spent years seeking with Schindler’s List. So what next?
Not content with simply repeating his double-header, Spielberg aimed to better it. First came Jurassic’s sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, followed by two history films: the slavery drama Amistad and his World War II masterpiece Saving Private Ryan. Something was missing though. A handful of bravura moments aside, The Lost World lacks the magic of the first film, while Amistad displays an uncertainty rarely associated with Spielberg’s cinema. Only Ryan emerges as top-tier work.
The Lost World is the more frustrating of the two failures. Having never written a sequel before, Michael Crichton wasn’t initially interested in Jurassic Park 2, but with fan pressure building and the box office receipts from the first film climbing, he felt compelled to do so. By early 1995, he was almost done, but while Spielberg was happy to produce, he was unsure of whether he’d take the helm in the director’s chair. “I’d love to direct it,” he said, “but I just have to see. My life is changing.”
Indeed it was, but The Lost World features precious little of that change. Certainly the tone is darker than Jurassic Park, but thematically Spielberg doesn’t evolve the story, only telling us once again that resurrecting dinosaurs might not be the best of ideas. The cut from screaming woman to yawning Ian Malcolm that segues the first scene into the second is not only a great Spielbergian gag (and a high point of the film), it seems to reflect its director’s feelings. The Lost World is the work of a less interested Steven Spielberg.
Adding to this sense of malaise, Spielberg never quite seemed to know what he wanted. Much of Crichton’s set-up is abandoned, with just two core elements maintained: Site B and the scene featuring a trailer dangling off a cliff. What remains is something of a hodge-podge: InGen is battling against itself instead of corporate rival Biosyn, as in the novel; two scenes (the opening and the death of Dieter) are lifted from the first book, and most famously, the T-Rex attack on San Diego was a rush-job, added shortly before filming began. Spielberg has originally planned to keep such a sequence for a third movie, but when he realised it was unlikely he’d direct it, he dropped it in here.
Amistad would offer no opportunities for such frivolity. Telling the story of the mutiny aboard the eponymous slave ship and the legal battle that followed, the film is long, slow and deeply flawed, but under-appreciated in Spielberg’s canon, even by the director himself. Spielberg rarely talks about his ‘lesser’ films, and when he does it’s only to join in with the criticism: Hook and 1941 come in for particularly harsh treatment. Others remain something of a mystery though as he avoids talking about, say, Empire Of The Sun and Always, which struggled to gain critical and commercial traction, perhaps because it’s difficult to dismiss them as bad (Empire Of The Sun, in particular, has no shortage of fans too). Amistad is very much in that group.
The film was brought to Spielberg by producer Debbie Allen, who had read books on the subject in the mid-80s and had been trying to get a film up and running ever since. Schindler’s List convinced her that Spielberg could realise the project in the way she wanted and, for his part, Spielberg was excited. “Steven wanted to know everything about the story. He was just insatiable,” Allen said. “We had a fantastic, emotional conversation that went on for about an hour and a half, and I knew we were going to make this movie. After all those years, it happened so quickly.”
Pre-production zipped along and shooting went well, but as the December 1997 release neared, Amistad suddenly got hit with legal action. Author Barbara Chase-Riboud accused the film of plagiarizing her novel Echo Of Lions, which also focuses on the mutiny, and an injunction was drawn up in an attempt to prevent the film’s release. The action was denied just two days before Amistad was set to hit cinemas and in February 1998 the case was dropped, but the drama understandably frustrated Spielberg. “That was troubling to me only in that people seemed more interested in asking me questions about the lawsuit than about the content of Amistad,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But, you know, we live in sensational times, and many magazines and newspapers are sold based on their sensational reportage.”
By this point, Spielberg could be forgiven for feeling weary. The Lost World had been roundly dismissed as inferior to the original, and Amistad garnered only four Oscar nominations in the Cinematography, Costume Design, Dramatic Score and Supporting Actor categories. It won none. But there was no time to dally as a few months after the ceremony, Saving Private Ryan hit cinemas. It was Spielberg’s third release in 14 months following the May 1997 premiere of The Lost World – an incredible, and no doubt exhausting feat.
The weariness tells – not so much in quality, but tone. While Saving Private Ryan continues the ‘he who saves one life saves the world entire’ mantra of Schindler’s List by insisting that one single man in the maelstrom of war is worth saving, it also asks us to question its cost. The men we follow are tired, their mission is FUBAR. The hope that Schindler’s List offered is only fleetingly seen, and Spielberg even inverts it at one point when Captain Miller refuses to help a small girl escape the French town of Neuville. If Schindler’s morality was saved by a child, Miller’s is compromised by one as Spielberg tells us that nobody really wins in the madness of war.
Nowhere is this better seen than in the famous opening D-Day sequence, which is Spielberg at his most nihilistic. Here, we’re put in the position of the soldiers and given a sense that we’re there too. It’s a dizzying and terrifying feeling. At one point we see a man screaming in agony. Spielberg’s camera looks down and for a moment, it seems like he might become a focus amongst the chaos, that we may be in a position to help him. But we swiftly move on. He may on the verge of death, but there’s no time to take it all in or do anything to stop it.
Exhaustion and cruel justice dominate as the scene continues. Bullets fly, men scream and at one point, one takes his helmet off, relieved that it’s stopped a bullet ploughing through his skull. Another one fires through the shot shortly after and does just that. It’s almost like a cruel joke, a bitter irony delivered by a world gone mad, and it’s difficult not to see it as a reflection of Spielberg’s state of mind at the end of the ’90s. If he began the decade by embracing a sense of childhood wonder in Hook, he ended it by accepting the sometimes grim and exhausting burden of adulthood.
It was, however, a burden he needed to accept. For all his successes in the 90s, the decade stands out as one of Spielberg’s weaker eras, a time when he cemented his position as a mogul at the expense of his position as a director. After the Millennium, however, he emerged with renewed vigour and a drive to test his creativity. Science fiction blockbusters, capers, comedies, terrorist dramas and disaster films shaped one of the most eclectic periods of his film-making career, and he’s showed no signs of slowing down since.
With The Post marking his fifth film in six years, he seems more energised and enthusiastic now than ever.