The Spielberg Face: An Expression of Wonder, Horror, and Surrender

How the director wrangles a spectrum of emotion from a single expression.

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How the director wrangles a spectrum of emotion from a single expression.

The best acting is reacting, it’s setting aside the fabrication of the moment and experiencing it as though it was real, thus eliciting real emotion. Because ultimately it is that – real emotion – which separates great acting from good acting, something words on a page or years of study can’t conjure, rather something that can only be gained from experience, and on occasion, excellent directing.

In terms of directors, no one consistently gets great performances from their actors quite like Steven Spielberg. He’s directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations (though astonishingly, only two have won, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Mark Rylance just last year for Bridge of Spies), and whether he’s working in the realm of family adventure, sci-fi, straight drama, or war films, Spielberg keeps his characters’ humanity front and center, he never lets the audience forget that whatever wonders or horrors are occurring onscreen, the real focus is the effect these wonders or horrors have on the characters and how in turn they react to the situation.

In most cases, they do so initially with the Spielberg face.

This isn’t a widespread cinematic term, “the Spielberg face,” but I’m willing to bet as soon as you read it you knew exactly what I was talking about, because it describes an expression made at least three times in every single film the director has ever made: eyes open, not too wide but right there on the edge, ready to go saucer-like; mouth open too, again, not too wide, just enough to keep held breath; and their focus attuned razor-sharp to something just off-screen, something that breeds awe in them, something that words couldn’t react to as powerfully as do blank expressions of stupefaction. It’s the look Brody has on his face when little Alex Kintner gets eaten on the 4th of July; it’s the look Roy Neary has when he makes contact; same for Ray Ferrier when he encounters alien life; and it’s the same on Captain Miller’s face when he lands on the beach at Normandy. It’s also the expression on most of our faces, too, in the audience, when these moments flicker in front of us.

In the following video from Kevin B. Lee – one of the figures on the Mount Rushmore of video essayists – the phenomenon of the Spielberg face is studied across the director’s entire filmography to illustrate the expression’s versatility, how it can enhance a wide variety of contexts, and also its effect on those of us watching. What it reveals is that the Spielberg face is, quite simply, unspoken storytelling at its finest.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist