This is a fascinating review of Minority Report from the film’s release in 2002. Writer Andrew O’Hehir makes some interesting points (it’s one of the most comprehensive analyses of Spielberg’s darker impulses I’ve read), but the passage about the film not having anything to say about society seems very off indeed.
‘Minority Report blends the conventions of 1930s film noir with classic modernist science fiction and the more recent dystopian tradition of Blade Runner and The Matrix. If there’s nothing especially original about the combination, it’s brilliantly executed as pure cinema, both breathtaking and disturbing. Pure cinema, however, is all it is. Steven Spielberg has grown up into, of all things, a superior film artist. He is no longer a social commentator, an observer of contemporary life or a historian, if in fact he ever was any of those things. In the world of movies he’s a grown-up, and maybe nowhere else. You could argue — and probably should — that this limitation will keep him from greatness.’
This seems such an odd criticism of a director who weaved deft criticisms of government authority into Jaws, Close Encounters and ET, and has continued to comment on society in more direct ways as his career has progressed (Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad). AI: Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg’s most recent film at the time of writing, also had some incredibly powerful things to say, especially about the responsibilities of parents to children. It’s a theme that has been present in all Spielberg’s films and considering everyone on the planet is a product of their family, I can’t think of a director who has said so much so consistently about society than Spielberg.
As for Minority Report, I’d say it’s one of the most important films of the Noughties. It’s the first film Spielberg shot after 9/11 and it’s laced with a nervy paranoia about the morally dubious things authorities have to do to protect their people from crime. By applying this overarching societal theme to the story of a father and his lost child, Spielberg gives a philosophical point an emotional resonance. He shows us a character attempting to atone for his son’s disappearance by building a ‘safer’, ‘better’ world (by his own terms) even at the risk of personal freedoms, and asks, if we were in the same position, would we do something similar. Thanks to the emotional connection we have, answers are not easily come by.
So, for me, Minority Report absolutely engages with social issues but, as is so often the case with Spielberg films, it does so by making the audience think they’re watching nothing more than a ripping popcorn thriller.
Spielberg is a massive collector of Norman Rockwell art and I’ve always been interested in how the painter’s work influences Spielberg’s visuals. So the following little tidbit from this USA Today set report caught my eye:
The day’s scene of eager young men marching out of town, unaware that slaughter awaits them instead of honor, is a prelude to that.
“That’s the idea. They were all happy. The town is embracing them, singing them off,” says Spielberg, wrapped in a thick jacket and scarf against the cold rain that is pelting the English countryside during the filming. “They’re all heroes, before they even lift a gun.”
The similarities with Rockwell are no accident — Spielberg is one of the foremost collectors of his work. In War Horse, that down-home sensibility and idealism is played as earnest naïveté in the face of a war that would eventually claim tens of millions of lives — and for no discernible reason.
“It’s bittersweet because, remember, in World War I, the soldiers thought they were going to be back for Christmas dinner,” Spielberg says. “People fought each other to recruit themselves. They lied about their ages. There was massive enlistment in Britain because everybody wanted to be part of this ‘great sport of war.’ Once they got over to France, they all woke up and realized that they were going into the worst four years of their entire lives. Many of them came home without their friends.”
Obviously it’d be wrong for Spielberg to reference the uniquely American Rockwell too clearly in the decidedly English War Horse, but this is an interesting comparison nonetheless and judging by the trailers, there are certainly some idyllic Rockwellian images to be seen. I can’t wait to see how the full film pans out.
There are two interesting comments from Spielberg in this Hitfix War Horse article. The first covers his prepratations for the film, the second his view on the genre the movie falls into.
“When I realized I was going to commit to direct ‘War Horse’ I actually went out there and just was photographing them [the horses at his personal stables] from all angles. I spent a lot of time with the iPhone taking photos.”
“I also don’t consider ‘War Horse’ to be a war movie. It’s not one of my war movies. This is more of a real story about the way animals can actually connect people together. And that’s what Joey does. Joey’s miracles are really in great sense of optimism and hope and all the people he brings this into their lives. This was much more focused I think on the characters. The war was certainly a horrendous backdrop providing tension and drama and the need to survive. But, the war was not in the foreground of ‘War Horse.’”
This is an interesting, and in my opinion correct, approach. Michael Murpurgo’s story is set at wartime but isn’t really about war - it’s about connection and hope. As Spielberg says, war is the background but not the foreground.
Spielberg gave this neat interview to the Daily Mail over the weekend and there’s one brilliant tidbit I’d never heard of before buried in it.
“Despite being undisputed master of the film set (his director’s chair famously bears the word ‘Dad’, because when the camera rolls, ‘I’m the daddy’), Spielberg tells me he was forbidden to feed the horses — not even a sugar lump.”
Wonder if he knows that Ray Winstone gave that phrase a very different meaning to his intention in Britain years ago…
Anyway, there’s plenty of other great bits in there, but I was particularly interested in this comment:
“The thing that touched me so much about Michael Morpurgo’s material was that he was telling a story about courage . He used courage to bring humans and animals together, in a kind of mutual respect. And the play brought that home even stronger.”
Again, Spielberg returns to themes of connection and communication in his film-making. The father theme is often emphasised by critics, but I’ve always considered connection a more integral theme. Ultimately his stories about fathers and families all work into it - our families are just another thing that connect us.
The Hollywood Reporter has a great look at the making of War Horse in its latest issue. The piece features interviews with producer Kathleen Kennedy and writer Richard Curtis, along with Spielberg himself, and I was fascinated to hear Curtis’s comments on the book on which the film is based.
“I found it hard to read the last 10 pages to her because they were so emotional,” he recalls, declining to say more about the operation. “I thought immediately, ‘If it works in the book, we can do it in the film.’ “
War Horse is one of a number of films Spielberg has adapted from a literary or historical source, and I’d be fascinated to hear his thoughts on the challenges posed by such adaptations.
The LA Times’ Hero Complex blog has a lengthy and fascinating interview with Spielberg and Peter Jackson in which the directors chat about The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (due for release in the States this month).
It’s one of those interviews that I relish as a fan, with Spielberg really getting into the nitty gritty about the film. The key takeaway is his what he says about technology and story. Tintin is a technical marvel, but Spielberg is keen to remind us that no matter how brilliant the mechanics behind a film are, if the story and the characters don’t work, the film doesn’t either.
Technology is merely a tool. The technology that brought dinosaurs to life in “Jurassic Park” was talked about a long time because there had never in the history of film been a leading character that was nonexistent except on a computer. But one minute into “Jurassic Park,” if your movie’s working and if you’re telling your story properly, you can get the audience involved and they forget and don’t even care what medium you’ve chosen to tell the story. To me the medium is not the message, the characters and the narrative are.