The underappreciated master

From Jaws to Bridge of Spies: why Steven Spielberg still doesn’t get his due

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It’s a curious thing. On one hand, you’re the most successful director in cinema history with over $9.1 billion in worldwide grosses; you’ve got a pair of Best Director Oscars, plus a third for Best Picture; your resume reads like a cultural ‘best of’ list from the last three decades. On the other, you’re arguably the most underappreciated director around.

Such is the case of Steven Spielberg.

The man behind Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and too many more to name, has been so consistently great for so long that his genius barely registers. It’s a magic trick we’ve seen before. That’s just what he does. ‘Oh, a masterpiece, you say? Add it to the pile.’

The kind of people who make the lists, who dole out the criticism and the praise, also tend to favour directors they see as edgier, or cooler. The Tarantinos and Paul Thomas Andersons of the world. Spielberg is safe. His films are optimistic; full of hope and wonder. It’s cherry-picking and oversimplification, but it allows critics to put Spielberg in his own Spielberg-y box.

Imagine for a second, though, that Bridge of Spies (or Lincoln, or Munich, or The Terminal) had come from an unknown director. There’d be standing ovations from Burbank to Cannes. For Spielberg, it’s a solid entry. A likely tenth Best Picture nomination (the most for any living filmmaker), and moving on.

Another in a long list of remarkable statistics is that, when The BFG comes out in July, it will be Spielberg’s twelfth film this millennium. Not only is his excellence consistent, but he manages it at an average rate of once every 16 months. That would be fast if these were small, low-budget dramas; for sci-fi tentpoles and lavish period pieces, it’s unprecedented.

If there’s something he can’t do, we haven’t found it yet

Speaking of genres, Spielberg’s filmography encompasses sci-fi and period, but also action adventure, war films, dramedies, thrillers, biopics; animation. He moves, with seeming effortlessness, from one genre to the next to the next; a trail of excellence in his wake. If there’s something he can’t do, we haven’t found it yet.

From the raptors in the kitchen in Jurassic Park, to the boulder chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to withholding the shark in Jaws, whole books could be (and probably have been) written on Spielberg’s style and execution. Still more could be written on his undeniable influence on everything, and everyone, that has come since, including the birth of the tentpole strategy that dominates the film industry 40 years post-Jaws.

It’s easy to forget that the majority of the audience – for whom a film is just one of many entertainment options; who don’t follow the awards race; who aren’t scouring the trades – can’t tell you who directed whatever they just watched. Not James Cameron, not Peter Jackson, not Martin Scorsese, not Christopher Nolan. But there’s one name they do know. That’s what happens when you’re an indelible part of so much beloved work.

Perhaps people have just run out of superlatives. If that’s the case, they need to find some more. Spielberg may be the single most important figure in the history of cinema, and though it’s a natural inclination to want the newest, shiniest toy; to get giddy over the latest hot director, we should be careful not to take the old master for granted. He won’t be here forever.

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