Steven Spielberg is sometimes Steven Spielberg and sometimes not. Jurassic Park is very Steven Spielberg; Catch Me if You Can is not. Schindler's List wasn't particularly Steven Spielberg but then again neither was 1941. Some films are too Spielberg (Hook). Others are perhaps not enough, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Shite. And yet what is all this about Spielberg? Can such a profligate really have a style? Someone who seems capable of genuinely surprising moves (cf. the under-rated brilliance of Munich and Empire of the Sun)?
And yet War Horse arrives trumpeted as Uber-Spielberg, Spielberg porn, and at the core of it is the definition of Spielberg who is someone willing to go straight for the tear ducts and we look on that with as much disapproval as someone heading for the gonads. We are (when it comes down to it) emotional puritans.
But I would characterise Spielberg as a Terminator of a director. He might have a superficial coating of soft organic looking emotion, but underneath there is a skeleton of tough, hard, resilient titanium. Watch Schindler's List again and wonder who Spielberg is most interested in: it isn't Schindler or Ben Kingsley's mentor character, Stern, it's Ralph Fiennes' Nazi, Amon Goeth. This can be seen as rooted in Jaws most clearly. The famous boat scene shows you who Spielberg thinks he is (Hooper) but who he wishes he was, who he is genuinely and secretly is Quint. That's why Quint has to die.
War Horse is ostensibly and actually a children's film about a magic horse. But like many children's story this is about magic meeting reality and the uncomfortable friction such meeting creates. The magic horse runs through history and, although damaged by it, survives. The magic horse is Spielberg's ideal camera, a Peter Pan of inhuman flightiness, which nevertheless bears witness to human folly, sympathizes with human weakness and will ultimately want to to find some sort of fate linked with humanity, but who is essentially and ultimately magical. The horse runs through a series of episodes which half resemble children's fantasies--boy and his dog friendship, the heroic charge, the two brothers run away, the little Heidi girl who lives with grandpa--but each of these stories is broken by the trauma of history, the First World War. The idylls are destroyed, safety is an illusion, escape and escapism ends in summary execution. And yet Spielberg gets accused of sentimentality?
Even the happy ending seems so consciously belaboured as to suggest that it is a dreamscape, an impossible technicolor fantasy, a reward but not to be taken seriously. The depiction of the battles are bloodless, but frankly theatrical convention rendered war largely bloodless for a good long time and were still shocking and so are Spielberg's scenes with a nod to Wilfred Owen 'Gas-Gas!' and Paths of Glory. The latter comparison might feel overly ambitious, but this is what Paths of Glory would have been if that film had been made for an audience of twelve year olds. I think this film is as hard as it is possible for a film of this genre to be, and the happy ending does not erase the numerous unhappy endings that have come before.
Clint Eastwood has been one of the most successful American film directors of the last forty years. Somehow he morphed from the fascist cop of the seventies through his ridiculous eighties japes with apes to a director of genuine subtlety and vision, redefining his own image and genres in the process with an idiosyncratic eye. His recent Superbowl advert shows clearly how he can be all things to all people; he's the right winger left wingers love. Patriotic undoubtedly but his patriotism is the platform from which to launch criticism rather than a hole to hide in. And yet the his idiosyncrasies mean that he is capable of truly baffling missteps: Bridges of Madison County, Pink Cadillac, and Hereafter. J. Edgar is similarly a misfire.
This is American history seen through one very specific lens that of the FBI's most famous figure, J. Edgar Hoover. Rather than launching a vitriolic attack of Hoover, Eastwood portrays him as a flawed maverick, a little like the director, John Wilson, at the centre of White Hunter Black Heart. This is a man who is forceful in his self-delusion but also charismatic and creative. He gets things done. The morality of what he does is of course open to question, but Eastwood stays up close to DiCaprio's portrait so that we are only offered a divergent opinion towards the end of the film by which time the point is almost moot. Dramatically, this means the film is very much office bound, and as Hoover gets older the narrative and performances become egg bound. This wouldn't be quite such a problem but for some terrifyingly bad make up on Armie Hammer's Clyde, who makes things worse with some shaky old man acting.
When we find out that our J. Edgar was not always the most reliable of narrators, it feels more like a quibble than a sin, a hint of vainglory rather than a genuinely troubling need to reassess all we've learned so far. And his suspicion of Nixon feels like an ill-judged pitch at vindication along the lines of 'worse was to come'.
Alexander Payne has made a career of directing brilliant character pieces, usually based on relatively little known novels. Sideways and About Schmidt were fantastic sketches, following the warts and all Goya school of portraiture. The lead characters made no play for our sympathy, Jack Nicholson's shuffling cliché spouting widower and Paul Giamatti's break through role who see early on in the film stealing from his mother in order to finance a drink tripping with his soon to be married buddy, the decidedly nicer, but meatier headed Jack (Thomas Hayden Church). Any sympathy these characters manage to accrue is hard won and often won in spite of themselves. Giamatti never stops being a self-centred asshole, nor does Schmidt come to terms with his failing life, but they do gain wisdom and in the process our sympathy.
George Clooney begins Payne's first film in seven years with an overt grab at sympathy, or perhaps more accurately, he tries to avert our prejudices. People who live in Hawaii, that is to say paradise, still have problems, he pleads. His problems come to a head when his wife has a boating accident and falls into a coma which looks set to be terminal. He has to somehow reconnect with his daughters and see through an important business deal while at the same time somehow coming to grips with his own feeling. Clooney, as Matt King, is brilliant, a man for whom success has come to easily. He is ill-equipped for grief. When he has to run to his neighbour's house to confront them about something terrible, he runs in espadrilles, a silly duck-like trot. He is a man who has to have the worst moments in his life happen to him while he is wearing ridiculous shirts.
Shailene Woodley as his eldest daughter is fantastic also, as are some of the smaller roles, particularly pugnacious father-in-law Robert Foster. The comedy is genuinely sweet and the tragedy is genuinely bitter. In one moment of horrified realisation and anticipated grief, the camera looms into Matt's face which seems to be in the process of collapsing. It is a wonderful moment in a film that has more than its fair share of them.
A Clockwork Orange is almost impossible to think about for me. As a kid growing up, I read the novel, I had the posters on the wall, I listened to the soundtrack and I wondered what the hell the film would actually be like. There was even a theatrical version, with music by the Edge and Phil Daniels, I think. Unless I drank too much moloko plus. There was a language as well. In the end I saw it probably when I was a bout sixteen, seventeen and the VHS copy was wobbly and distorted, with Dutch subtitles. The opening title sequence seemed to drip from the screen, the colours were so garish and the funeral march threatened to blow the speakers of the television. My first surprise was that all the stuff the film was famous for happens within the first few minutes. The droogs, Singing in the Rain, the bowler hats, the rape, the violence and what not, is all done and dusted after about the first half hour. The rest of the film seemed to be something else altogether and there were many long scenes of people talking in rooms, quite a few speeches, but still held together by Malcolm McDowell's constant and ingratiating voice over.
'Was it good?' was not even a question. Having seen it was a boast. Tony Parsons would almost ruin it by making a documentary about the film and dressing up as droog himself and generally acting like a git, or, more accurately, like Tony Parsons.
Watching it now on Blu-Ray, in immaculate high definition, the soundtrack still booming out, I should be able to soberly reassess the film and perhaps boldly declare it over-rated. But I can't. I am watching a different film though. That much I have to say. Kubrick's films always tend to hit their genres at an awkward angle and it is precisely this awkward angle that makes them so difficult to forget and at the same time to wholeheartedly love. The Shining is a horror movie which frankly is simply not scary enough, but it is so interesting in so many other ways that we can forgive it. Likewise, A Clockwork Orange is a comedy, a bleak satire in the same mould as Dr Strangelove but is just not quite as funny as it should be. Some of the humour is almost cringe-worthy (e.g. Mr Deltoid drinking from the false teeth water glass), some of it jars with the violence (e.g. the cat lady's murder, which I feel we are prompted to find as grimly funny as Col. Kong's last bronco ride). The prison officer's shouting is great but it feels like something from Porridge albeit the TV series would come later, in 1974.
The final joke is that of putting Alex back on the streets, once more uncured as it were. The slippery evasiveness of the politician feeding Alex his eggs is a beautifully funny and restrained scene. The comedy,however, is very much at the expense of a society which is fundamentally divided and hypocritical. There is a nihilism here that is uncomfortable even as it is compelling. In a way, it is a pity that the film has to some extent been reduced to the success of its costumes and design.
Bennett Miller has gone from documentary film maker to making feature films which are based on true life stories. First came Capote in 2005; now he is working on Foxcatcher with Steve Carrell to be released next year and in-between he was signed on to direct the non-baseball baseball movie, Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, after Steven Soderburgh dropped out and a tortuously long development history. The back room drama takes place in board locker rooms. Games are listened to on the radio, or echo through the corridors. By making the sport relatively incidental, it at least removes that dramatic paralysis which grips fictionalised sport and makes Pele's overhead kick in Escape to Victory a multi-angled snore boat. What in real life would be a surprising, heart-stopping moment of spontaneous brilliance becomes false and ill conceived in drama. Moneyball could just as easily be about tiddlywinks. What is important here is the bromance between Jonah Hill's nerdy Peter Brandt and Brad Pitt's aging wonder-boy Billy Beane. There are some lingering looks, an insatiable urge to be together and the occasional delicate music cue which suggest that these opposites are kind of attracting. Billy Beane (and hat's off to Mr. Pitt for escaping the gravitational pull of the heavy dumbness of that name) would undoubtedly have bullied Peter at high school and no doubt someone like Beane did, but here the other side of childhood and yet somehow still in the midst of it, there is a mutually advantageous coming together. When we move away from this relationship and back to things like Beane's relationship to his daughter (apparently untroubled--he buys her a guitar and she sings him a nice song) or the travails of the team (a familiar they do badly, they do awful, they do well, they do really well, they don't quite go all the way), a spark goes out. The victory of the film is not going to be a trophy, but rather the realisation that Billy just can't live without Pete.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.