Long before he pedaled a bike across the face of the moon, Steven Spielberg was a Boy Scout with a movie camera. His science fair moxie has produced some of the most inspired technical filmmaking of the past quarter-century, and his continued fascination with cinema has really restored for his audience that childlike sense of wonder at the heart of the movie going experience and all that.
Which is no small thing. But it’s worth considering what this Whiz Kid mentality means in terms of perspective, or, put another way, why exactly Spielberg is so good at making us feel like kids again. Specifically, kids scared that their parents are going to split up (Catch Me If You Can), kids who need their reluctant father figure to learn how to love them, protect them, and restore the nuclear family (Sam Neill and the moppets in Jurassic Park), or kids requiring instruction re: the unfathomable sacrifices of the Greatest Generation (Saving Private Ryan’s framing story). War of the Worlds had it all: Tom Cruise as the All-American perpetual adolescent transformed into responsible single father, whose defining moral decision is made on the other side of a closed door from the daughter he’s trying to save. Neither she nor, significantly, we, see him kill Tim Robbins; nor do we follow him up inside of an alien tripod in a subsequent scene. Don’t worry, Spielberg tells us, Daddy will take care of it.
Inevitable, then, that the source of menace in War of the Worlds is alien invaders, latest in Spielberg’s line of identification-precluding boogeyman dating back, at least, to the faceless truck driver in Duel, and encompassing sharks, dinosaurs, and Nazis (his most recurrent black hats), with whose nature it’s unnecessary, even impossible, to reckon.
My selective reading of Spielberg’s films probably doesn’t give him enough credit for sophistication. Still, I wonder whether his upcoming Munich, about “Operation Wrath of God,” the Israeli response to the kidnapping and eventual murder of eleven members of their Olympic contingent in 1972, will operate within a similarly unambiguous moral matrix. It’s another Spielberg movie about Jews responding to a threat; here, though, it’s a revenge saga, wherein covert Mossad agents assassinate radical Palestinian partisans. At a time when mainstream American consciousness is moving towards a more nuanced understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s the arts that seem the forefront of this shift in awareness, to the extent that Hany Abu-Assad can claim, without much dissent, that Paradise Now humanizes rather than glorifies suicide bombers. (Wonder what he’d make of the Munich saga...) Munich, if it fits within the eternally infantile, hero-worshipping polarity in Spielberg’s work, will miss this burgeoning zeitgeist by miles. And while “Munich as political disaster” is, finally, a less-than-likely proposition, I’d at least bet on it illustrating the schism between Hollywood liberalism and indie liberalism — one which, come to think, echoes the divide between national Democratic leadership and, well, most Americans under the age of 30. Now that’s a Whiz Kid