MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Steven Spielberg: A Defense

Steven Spielberg has been the center of much talk lately, little of it having to do with his filmmaking.  There is the controversy about his being the artistic director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, something that Mia Farrow has blasted him for, even calling him the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing games.”  There is also much ballyhoo about the deal between his studio Dreamworks and Paramount.  Then there is the surprise in some quarters that Mr. Spielberg is making another Indiana Jones film, to be released 19 years after The Last Crusade and with a 65 year old Harrison Ford.

All of these things are overshadowing the fact that the last decade of Spielberg’s filmmaking has been perhaps the richest and strongest period of his career.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a growing contingent of cineastes complain that Spielberg is “overrated” or that he’s “lost it” or that he’s “not very good.”  I am no Spielberg zealot.  I don’t believe he is the greatest filmmaker of all-time, or even the best living director.  But I think people who put him down as being a hack are the same kind of contrarians who say that the Beatles sucked.  It’s become quite fashionable to be a wet blanket, especially when it comes to anybody in entertainment viewed as popular. That isn’t to say that it is not possible for someone to dislike Spielberg as a filmmaker, just that it’s hard to justfy hating his work.

In 1997, Spielberg came back from a four-year hiatus (after the back-to-back of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List) with a new studio that he co-founded called Dreamworks and two new films.  The first film was the atrocious sequel to Jurassic Park (The Lost World.) There is no defense for that film except to say that we all make mistakes.  His next film, however, was Amistad.  Regardless of what you might think about the execution of that film, or the fact that Matthew McConaughey was in it, I’d like to ask a question: can you think of any other filmmaker, who had the clout of Spielberg, who would dare to make a film about a slave who speaks no English for most of the film?  That slave was played by an unknown named Djimon Hounsou and the whole film rests on his shoulders.  And for anyone who thinks that Spielberg can’t elicit great performances from his actors, just watch Hounsou in this film and how the fire in his eyes conveys more than the subtitled words could ever say.

I don’t think that Amistad is a great film, but it is a good one and it was a remarkably daring film for Spielberg to make.  Rather than rest on his laurels and use his clout to make some blockbuster film to help out his fledgling studio, he made a film about slavery.  That takes fortitude.

The following summer, Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan. William Goldman’s evisceration of the film’s final hour notwithstanding, it is another bold chance that Spielberg took.  Granted, he took his chance with the most popular leading man of the last twenty years, but it was still a bloody, realistic depiction of the horrors of war.  It works as an interesting companion piece toSchindler’s List, especially when looking at the subtext of eight men trying to save one soldier for the sake of public relations for the United States when there was a genocide occurring just a few hundred miles away.  But these soldiers did their job and Spielberg pulls no punches with that famed twenty minute D-Day sequence, using real amputees to play soldiers that lose limbs and having the camera move fluidly throughout to make us feel what those soldiers felt.

I was fifteen years old when the film came out and I saw it in theaters twice because of that sequence.  It made me feel sick, but it also made me feel something which is more than can be said for most war films.  No other film had captured a battle scene on camera in such a visceral and haunting way.  That one section of the film completely altered war movies and battle scenes forever.  Tom Hanks is good and the supporting cast all get their moments, but it will always be a film that is remembered for those twenty minutes.

Three years later, Spielberg released AI: Artificial Intelligencewhich is, in my opinion one of his best and most misunderstood films.  It was a project that originally was to be directed byStanley Kubrick – my favorite director of all time – but he gave Spielberg his blessing to take over prior to his death.  The mere fact that Spielberg would dare to step into Kubrick’s shoes is astounding and shows a lack of ego on Spielberg’s part; if the film was considered a masterpiece, the credit would go to Kubrick most likely, and if it were considered anything less, the blame would rest on Spielberg.  He made the film anyway and it is a film that does not feel like a Kubrick film, but also does not feel like a Spielberg film.

It rests somewhere in purgatory between cold and warm, between robotic and human, and I think that is what turned off many people but it is why I think it’s one of the best films of this millennium. Haley Joel Osment is wonderful as David, a robotic boy programmed to love a mother that doesn’t love him.  But the problem is that a machine cannot be taught to love the way a human loves, instead it becomes an obsession.  Perhaps Spielberg is trying to say that love is just obsession or maybe he is saying that the love for a parent is automatic and never-ending.  Or perhaps he is saying that love isn’t real.  The point is that there are many ways to read this film and David’s journey, accompanied in part by Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe, is terrifying and fascinating.

The juxtaposition of Gigolo Joe, who is taught to love physically, and David, who is taught to love emotionally, is incredibly fascinating.  The last half hour of the film is one of the most complex sequences in the history of film and it represents the best explanation of religion in cinema.  When the futuristic robots find David thousands of years into the future, human beings have long since perished and these robots long to find a connection to their creator.  There is clearly a message in there about how we are constantly searching for the question of how we got here, about how that is the most basic of human questions and these robots are just as human as a result.  It is impossible to think that Spielberg is just a hack after watching AI because it presents some of the biggest questions and contains some of the most incredible answers.

A year later, Spielberg released both Minority Report with Tom Cruise and Catch Me If You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio andTom Hanks. I’m a bigger fan of the latter than the former because I feel like the denouement of Minority Report is a bit of a letdown.  However, the ideas of pre-cognition in Minority Reportare amazingly prescient and endlessly debatable.  The future world that Spielberg creates is a lot of fun to navigate through, certainly more playful than the melancholy future of AI, and Cruise delivers a perfectly serviceable performance.

In a way, the film is a kind of futuristic Jason Bourne film with John Anderton (Cruise) constantly on the run from his futuristic fellow policemen.  Anderton, however, is less of a superman than Bourne and this is evident in the fact that towards the end he gets caught and put in a comatose prison of his own mind.  That’s where things fall apart for me, but for some folks that is where the film excels because they believe that what follows is all in Anderton’s mind.  I disagree, but I think the film is a fun ride up to that point and I credit Spielberg for making the future plausibly outrageous and keeping the film grounded in reality even though the premise is pure sci-fi.

Catch Me If You Can is an underrated film.  For one thing, it is an incredibly fun ride and Leonardo DiCaprio is at his most boyishly charming.  For a second thing, it is a remarkably deep film about divorce and parenting.  DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale has a father, played by Christopher Walken, who doesn’t discipline him.  He feels that Frank is just lashing out and justifies it by blaming his own inadequacies.  Frank sees that his father’s divorce came on the heels of them losing their nice lifestyle and having to make concessions.  In Frank’s mind, things were perfect and the family was happy when they were wealthy and carefree.  So, Frank decides that in order to have that kind of life that he had in his childhood, that he would do whatever he could to make money.  Frank likes to pretend to be other people and is constantly moving all over the world because he is running away from a past that he does not want to confront.  All he can think to do is offer his father money so that he could fix things with his mother and then everything can return to normal.  The shame his father feels for having his own son offer him money and the shame that his son feels for having to hide where he got the money, it’s pretty heartbreaking.

Then there’s Frank’s relationship with the man that is chasing him, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who is more of a father figure than his actual father because Carl actually wants to punish Frank for his wrongdoings.  This is heavy stuff and Spielberg masks it as a fun romp.  This is the sort of film that Cary Grant would have starred in if he were younger, one that Hitchcock might have directed.  However, since Spielberg’s name was attached, people couldn’t wait to rip it apart for being “light” or “frothy.”  I can’t remember anybody ripping Hitchcock for making To Catch a Thief too “frothy.”

Spielberg made The Terminal in 2004.  Basically, this is a Frank Capra film, a fable and Spielberg rolls with it.  There are some who say that Spielberg only directed parts of the film and that Tom Hanks took over the reins for most of the shoot, but one can’t be sure of the validity of those rumors. (Editor’s Note: MCN’s position is that this silly rumor is absurd on its face.) Spielberg fills the film with supporting characters who we grow to care about and Hanks is quite endearing as Victor Navorski, a man forced to live in an airport because he is without a country.  The premise of the film is so ridiculous that Spielberg decided not to back away from that ridiculousness.  He creates a lot of subplots that are fun and a lot that are boring. Catherine Zeta-Jones is completely miscast and uninteresting, but the film is still compelling and worth watching.  There’s not a lot more I can say about the film because it is such a trifle of a film and I think if anybody else had directed, it might have gotten positive notices and people would have liked it.  But, because it was directed by “Steven Spielberg”, people attacked it for not trying to be more than it was.

Spielberg’s last two films perfectly define the kind of filmmaker that Spielberg is, in the best and worst ways.  In the summer of 2005, he released the remake of War of the Worlds and then in December, he released Munich. The first was, I think, the most tragic mistake of Spielberg’s career, a misstep far worse than 1941. The second was the second greatest film he has ever made, tied with Jaws, right behind Schindler’s List.

War of the Worlds, the original film directed by Byron Haskin, is a masterpiece in my eyes.  It perfectly told the story of the novel and still holds up.  In fact, I watched the film for the first time right after seeing Independence Day in the summer of 1996, and I thought that the 1953War of the Worlds was a superior film and that was after seeing the incredible CGI in theRoland Emmerich film.  So, the original is perfectly fine, it’s not dated and there’s no need to remake.  However, Independence Day was already a kind of remake of that film, set in modern day, so why must there be a second remake of War of the Worlds?  Now, there is a lot to like in Spielberg’s film.  There are scenes that are genuinely terrifying for the first hour of the film.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the first hour of the film is as thrilling as anything else that he’s directed.  Then the film completely implodes right around the time that Tom Cruise’s son in the film goes running off to join the war against these aliens.  This is followed by a few ridiculous scenes with Tim Robbins as “Generic Crazy Guy” and a scene where “regular guy Tom Cruise” is able to extricate himself and his annoying daughter (Dakota Fanning) from one of the giant, unstoppable alien war machines.


The ending of the film is indefensible, with Tom Cruise’s son surviving after all and somehow making it to Boston before Cruise and Fanning.  The idea of a virus killing the aliens is straight from the source material, but it feels far too abrupt in this film after all we went through.  I don’t know how much of what is bad about this film is Spielberg’s fault because it’s never a film you want to turn off, but it’s one that should have never been made.  But if Spielberg had to make this film in order to make his next one, then I will take all the War of the Worlds in the world if it affords Spielberg the opportunity to make another Munich.


I’m very familiar with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, being of Jewish ancestry myself, and I want to start by saying that I think Munich is respectful of both sides while definitely choosing a side.  But, there is nothing contained within the frames of the film that should be remotely controversial.  This is a story about human beings killing other human beings and the emotional toll that it can take on somebody.  It gives a voice to both sides because it is so rare for these two groups to listen to each other, rather than turning to a weapon.  But more than anything, the brilliant thing that Spielberg does with Munich is make it as entertaining as hell to watch.  This is a fun movie to watch, if you take away the context.  This is about a group of guys who get together to seek revenge and they go all through Europe to find it.  It’s basically Oceans Twelve meets Death Wish meets The Sorrow and the Pity, but better than the sum of those parts.

Eric Bana gives a remarkable and soulful performance as Avner, the leader of this group, but he is also funny and tender and human.  “Human” is the word that keeps coming back whenever I think of this film.  This shows that Spielberg is, at his heart, a humanist and that he believes people are capable of being good even in the aftermath of something as terrible as the Munich Olympics.  The film believes that the Palestinians should be punished, but it is also Avner’s group that is punished by doing the punishing.  They will forever be marred by the memories of what they have done because they are human beings who have taken away the lives of other humans beings and it doesn’t matter that it was right or that it was just.  Avner will never be the same because the memories of those faces whose lives he has taken will haunt him and that’s what makes him different, that’s what makes him a hero.

Munich is a film that nobody else but Steven Spielberg could make.  It is a heavily-budgeted film about something that isn’t on the top of people’s must-see list, but he made it entertaining while also getting the message through.  And that is what Steven Spielbergdoes.

Personally, I’m disappointed that his next film will be an Indiana Jones film because I believe his talent is in getting a humanist message to the masses while entertaining them.  But I have no doubt that when he makes his Lincoln film, he will infuse it with heart, soul, and most of all, he’ll make us want to keep watching.

– Noah Forrest
August 6, 2007

Noah Forrest is a 24 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon