Almost all of the history of American movies flows into Steven Spielberg, and the movies that have come since can't help but be in response. As a storyteller and as a cultural figure, his closest precedent isn't John Ford or David Lean, but Dickens, another age's popular titan, beloved more for brio and heart than for thoughtfulness. Besides a tendency toward the sentimental and a mastery of rousing scenecraft, the creators of E.T. and Little Nell exhibit a rare feeling for childhood, a deep yearning for domesticity and gifts for violence and suspense balanced by some pained ambivalence toward the moral use of those gifts.
Both in their work anticipate the mood of the masses who embraced them: Critics may quail at the scene of Private Ryan grown up but breaking down at Omaha Beach, asking if the life he had lived was worth the deaths it took to secure it, but the boomer men sitting around me in the theater during its initial run sniffled right through, red-eyed but still out of some principle of stoicism refusing the tissues that their wives and daughters offered. In the invaluable new study Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films (Yale University Press), the great critic Molly Haskell quotes an appreciation of E.T. from Martin Amis, a novelist it's hard to imagine shedding tears over Little Nell's death: “[Spielberg’s] line to the common heart is so direct that he unmans you with the frailty of your own defenses.”
Unmans. Spielberg gives men license to cry. Like Dickens, he's a boy to the end, even in adulthood, too little interested in the inner lives of women — which puts him right in step with a Hollywood that has (since the ‘70s, in Haskell's formulation) shared that lack of interest. America itself shares it, too. Of Saving Private Ryan's success, Haskell writes, "In paying tribute to his father's wartime experiences, personal agenda once again coincided with the zeitgeist." That's quite a trick — the artist who can manage it doesn't need the endorsement of critics.
Still, Spielberg's lucky to have Haskell. She's tough on him for his boyishness, for his recurring images of threatened masculinity, but she still gives him a fair, incisive reading, neither fawning nor dismissive, except maybe of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And we're even more lucky to have her, as each page of her survey is as packed with pleasures and revelations as the best scenes in his best films — the air-traffic controllers talking a pilot through a UFO sighting in Close Encounters, say, where the mastery seems offhand.
Haskell is thorough but brief, touching on in her 200 pages all of Spielberg's features, up through Bridge of Spies, as well as his somewhat uneventful biography and many of the films he has produced. One priceless insight: "The two-part Fievel saga (An American Tail and Fievel Goes West) is in many ways more deeply personal than 1993's Schindler’s List, the film that certified the director's rebirth as a Jew, and his much-vaunted evolution into a newfound 'maturity.'"
As you would hope from a Spielberg critic, Haskell is especially good on that question of maturity — on his struggles not to unman but to unboy. The director's arrested adolescence both fascinates and frustrates her. She notes his "twin poles of masculinity," the dueling ideals of father figures that appear across the films: the surrogate rogues (the grave-robber who gives Boy Scout Indiana Jones his first fedora; John Malkovich's Basie in Empire of the Sun) and the "upright responsible" fellows (Indy's bookish dad; the British stiff who actually sired Empire of the Sun's boy hero.)
She notes that Spielberg's analyst served as an advisor on Hook, a film she describes as "a show-and-tell in which all his signature themes trot out, take a frantic bow, and retreat, more in desperation than resolution." Blessedly, she knocks sharp elbows into Spielberg's female characters, even a beloved one: "The putative Hawksian woman, Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's on-again-off-again love interest and sometimes ally, is another deglamorized Spielberg woman, a cartoonish gin-slinging tomboy who will soon be wearing dresses and screaming for help."
That critique suggests the still-urgent arguments of Haskell's 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, now out in a welcome third edition. In that book (and in her work at the Village Voice, New York and elsewhere) she demonstrates that actresses actually enjoyed greater opportunities and a wider variety of good roles under the old studio system than in the years that followed the Movie Brat revolution of the 1970s. The studios made films for everyone; the great dude directors (Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese) made movies they were interested in. She doesn't groove on action for action's sake, so don't expect detailed celebrations of the best-in-class hurly burly of The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Instead, Haskell's Spielberg book is at its most interesting when Spielberg is, too. As with Dickens, the works that prove most rewarding as time passes are often the ones that weren't epochal, the ones that darkened and interrogated the assumptions underlying the hits. Her chapter on 1987's Empire of the Sun, the film she cites as the director's best, offers an illuminating celebration of a movie too often considered a sort of dry-run for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, Empire follows British schoolboy Jamie/Jim (Christian Bale) through World War II after he's separated from his parents when the Japanese attack Shanghai; Jamie witnesses and escapes countless brutalities, but still comes jollily of age in an internment camp, dreaming of fighter planes, befriending through the barbed wire the Japanese pilots who take off one hill over. Jamie likes the end of the world just fine, thank you very much.
Upon release, many critics found the candied scenes of the boy's adventure at odds with the prevailing themes of loss and death and the apocalyptic third act. But, as Haskell notes, that contrast is the point: “The zest for war is alive in every fiber of [Jamie's] being, a reminder of feelings sublimated in adult men and rarely acknowledged in the antiwar theme of most war films.” Empire of the Sun is honest about boys' — and the movies' — yen for action. Seven years before Empire, making Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg took Harrison Ford's advice and let Indiana Jones “just shoot the fucker”; the flip death of that Arab swordsman brought the house down. Empire crashes that gee-whiz zeal for violence into the abattoir of history, revealing the sickness at the heart of both our fun and our “serious” war films.
Bale's Jamie dreams of gunning down planes, carries a magazine copy of Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Fear around with him and at one point, in his adolescence, has to choose between watching an air-raid bombardment out the window or peeping on the beautiful woman in the throes of passion one bunk over. It doesn't get more Spielbergian than that.