History According to Steven Spielberg

By  · Published on June 30th, 2016

It’s more of a feeling, really.

With the release of The BFG this July 4th weekend, we are celebrating by Deconstructing Spielberg, exploring five decades of his influence in the world of entertainment.

The first thing that comes to mind in considering Steven Spielberg as historian is that he is, himself, history: since the dawn of cinema as an industry no director has had as sustained a run of commercial and artistic success. Alfred Hitchcock, whose run immediately preceded Spielberg’s, is the only other filmmaker whose career comes close by all the previously mentioned metrics: duration, box office, and quality. Upon introduction to Spielberg’s work, Hitchcock famously declared the prodigy to be “the first one of us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch,” a way of passing the torch to a new standard bearer for a generation whose cinema would be liberated from the stage. It’s possible to quibble with the historicity of Hitchcock’s remarks, but the gist – that Spielberg was a generational talent with an exciting innate sense of film and its possibilities – holds, given support over the years that has gone from ample to frankly excessive.

Spielberg’s cinema is of such a purity that it not only doesn’t see the proscenium arch, it often doesn’t even see the printed word. This is not to say that the writing in his movies is bad – far, far from it – but that his facility with composition, camera movement, and cutting are such that the movies could have almost the same impact as silents. Thus, his famous action set pieces, and also the reputation he unfairly developed at one point for not being a “serious” filmmaker, as “serious filmmakers,” in the prevailing misconception, make films about “serious” things: history, politics, and the like. Whether to prove critics wrong or simply because he felt like it, Spielberg has spent almost three quarters of his career regularly making films based on significant historical events, dealing with political matters of great import, and at this point his reputation for lacking seriousness is as much history as the subjects of his films.

What’s particularly effective about Spielberg’s historical films – and something I never thought I’d ever say as praise in my younger days as a misbegotten orthodox rationalist – is that they convey historical import as felt rather than something known. In Spielberg’s most notable early “serious” works, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, the sheer physical length of the film comes into play as a means of illustrating the protagonist’s terribly long wait to experience freedom. This willingness to run long has maintained throughout his career, and is often mistaken for an inability to edit himself. What it really is, to my eye, is a desire for completeness, and thoroughness, and a polite disregard for conventional notions of dramatic structure. Thus the exaggeratedly artificial bookends of Saving Private Ryan, and the non-narrative, color coda of Schindler’s List.

There is not enough space here to fully appraise Spielberg’s histories, which I regret, but applying a number of the above tendencies to one specific movie is possible, so without further ado, his best historical film: Munich. The time spent establishing the situation or characters in traditional terms is virtually nil, instead jumping straight into the night Black September terrorists kidnapped the Israeli athletes they eventually murdered, and the portrayal of the events in the media. The introduction of the protagonist, unassuming (lightly fictionalized) Mossad agent Avner Kaufman, and the main plot, that he’s being assigned to kill the Munich killers, is done in just as direct terms. The remainder of the film is in just this kind of ongoing present tense, with the audience in the middle of the action, rather than in a theater observing players under a proscenium.

Munich’s refusal to be a neat, focused polemic from one particular point of view or other drew considerable, voluble criticism at the time of its release. The protagonists’ misgivings at having to repeatedly kill people and at the degree of trust in their mission contrasted with the paucity of tangible evidence given of its righteousness was called ahistorical by one side, and the reasons Munich gives for the ultimate termination of the mission was accused of the same wrong from different quarters, who protested that the real reason was the political fallout from the team accidentally killing an innocent person rather than the agents’ fatigue and ambivalence. Both these critiques are off-base, being script rewrites rather than appraisals of the work itself. The Munich that Spielberg directed and Eric Roth and Tony Kushner wrote is a fiction based on the real events, and its allegiances are to drama before the historical record (and let us not forget, history is not an immutable entity, it changes in often profound ways depending on who writes the record). It is also, by virtue of being an American film of the 00s, about a more recent terror attack, although it only literalizes that connection in a concluding title card superimposed over a long shot of the Twin Towers wryly noting that 9 of the 11 terrorists were eventually killed. In that context, the fretting about the moral weight of revenge and the impossibility of closure serves another, more cautionary end.

Munich is a film of such emotional weight and due consideration that it renders that long-ago notion of Spielberg as being not “serious” even more ridiculous than it already was. It, like his other histories, prioritizes being a good movie above points where fidelity to the historical record would interfere with that aim. This approach has worked pretty well so far, because while some of Spielberg’s “serious” histories – roughly, every picture he’s made set in the past aside from the Indiana Jones ones, which are a different kind of thing altogether – are better than others, every single one from 1993 on has been good. You may need additional reading to get the whole picture of a Spielberg history’s subject, but that’s true of anything. At least with a Spielberg history you’re watching one of the greatest filmmakers ever to do the thing.

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