Lester D. Friedman. Citizen Spielberg. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2022. $24.95.
Calling him “our foremost practitioner of reel American history,” Friedman draws our attention to Spielberg’s determination in The Color Purple, Amistad, Schindler’s List, and Lincoln to “get beneath the skin of polite society and examine the murky underside of cultural attitudes toward the marginalized other, the people denied the status of humanity by those in power”
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American critics have always had a curious attitude toward top-grossing filmmakers. As Frank Manchel points out, “Film is a medium where the more successful you are commercially, the less acceptable you are to the critical community” (Friedman xviii). This was undoubtedly true for Alfred Hitchcock, whom New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called “the master of melodrama and specialist in the shriek” in 1939, and who, until 1983 (three years after his death), when two of his greatest films, Rear Window and Vertigo, were rereleased, was held in far less esteem by most of the critical film community than foreign filmmakers like Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni, and Bergman. This began to change when critic-turned-New-Wave-director Francois Truffaut started to champion Hitchcock as the ultimate film auteur in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema and when Truffaut, complaining that journalists were always asking him, “Why do the critics of Cahiers du Cinema take Hitchcock so seriously? He’s rich and successful, but his movies have no substance” (Gevinson 2), began a series of interviews with Hitchcock in 1962, which were then published in his 1966 landmark book Hitchcock/Truffaut.
With his second edition of Citizen Spielberg, first published in 2006 and reissued now with newly edited commentary and reviews of all of Spielberg’s movies through 2021, American cinema studies scholar Lester D. Friedman sets out to do the same thing for Steven Spielberg. As with Hitchcock, Friedman believes Spielberg’s reputation as an artist has suffered because he has been thought of primarily as a crowd-pleaser who has made a lot of money making “popcorn films” for the masses, beginning with a thriller about a homicidal truck before moving on four years later to the first American summer blockbuster about a homicidal shark. (After all, one can hardly imagine Ingmar Bergman posing in publicity shots in the jaws of a 25-foot mechanical shark he has nicknamed Bruce.)
Placing Spielberg’s films into five main genres – the fantasy and science fiction film, the action/adventure melodrama, the monster movie, the war film, and what he calls the social problem/ethnic minority film – Friedman discusses the time period in which each of Spielberg’s films was made as well as elements of preproduction and production that had a significant bearing on his work. This is followed by an analysis of his films and a response to the main criticisms of the director’s “detractors.”
First, there is the idea that Spielberg has “juvenilized” American cinema by centering so many of his films around adolescent boys (or men who want to go back to being adolescent boys) and by privileging their fantasies as adventurers who can vanquish monsters, defy earthly limits, and tame the savage wild for civilization. So, in the seventies, we have Jaws, where three men bond to kill the sea monster that threatens their community, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where one man with a vision (but not the woman who also shares that vision) frees himself from his unadventurous middle-class family to fly off into the stars with some musically minded aliens. Then, in the eighties, we meet Indiana Jones, a man-boy straight out of the action/adventure serials of the 1930s whose hat, bullwhip, and jacket allude to Tarzan, Zorro, and the bomber pilots of World Wars I and II.
These “childish” movies have also been criticized for their cloying sentimentality, which in the eighties also brought us ET, a “Lassie Come Home” derivative tale about a little brown alien who is hunted by the government while the children he befriends try to hide and protect him; Hook, where a terrible father gets to turn back into his former identity as Peter Pan to save his children; and Always, where a dead boyfriend gets to demonstrate his newly found spiritual maturity by giving his girlfriend Dorinda (a name that makes me think she grew up next door to Shane) permission to move on with another man. Then there is Spielberg’s choice throughout his career to make movies like Jurassic Park, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, The BKG, and Ready Player One, all primarily targeted at teenagers.
But perhaps more damaging to Spielberg’s reputation as an artist in the liberal community of film criticism is the idea that his work is reactionary and jingoistic, encouraging audiences to feel a nostalgia for those simpler times when “men were men,” women knew their place, and America was a land of plenty that was once again on the right side of history. So while most critics admit that the 25-minute opening scene of soldiers landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day in Saving Private Ryan is an incredible testament to Spielberg’s technical virtuosity, the rest of the film is, in William Golding’s scathing analysis, “a detestable piece of shit” (Friedman 215) that attempts to erase our memories of a more recent war where U.S. helicopters used napalm to incinerate villages of women and children and American soldiers returned from the jungles of Southeast Asia permanently scarred by PTSD and addicted to heroin. In other films, America is literally presented as the center of the universe, the country where of course the aliens in Close Encounters and ET choose to land and where, in the toy-filled suburban homes of Elliot, Mike, and Gertie, we all live happily with everything we could possibly need.
To address these criticisms, Friedman argues that Spielberg’s films often present counter-narratives to the juvenile male fantasies and gung-ho American beliefs they supposedly endorse and that critics who label Spielberg as “little more than a modern P.T. Barnum, a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance and emotion for depth” (xviii) fail to recognize and appreciate how ambiguity, subtext, and paradoxical meanings are communicated in both the written and cinematic language of Spielberg’s films.
Friedman also argues that because critics make the mistake of assuming that there is no difference between Spielberg’s beliefs as a director and those of his characters, they do not understand that his movies often “parody rather than advocate or affirm a particular set of values held by his protagonists” (xix). This reminds me of when my Gen Z students watched Taxi Driver and assumed Scorsese was valorizing Travis Bickle’s racism, misogynism, and violence. Having grown up in a political climate that favors ideological reductions and generalizations over interpretative multiplicity, the idea that he and Paul Schrader had created a psychopathic but at times sympathetic Vietnam war vet to critique American society’s role in creating and then forgetting this destroyed human being was difficult for some of these 20-year-olds to grasp.
Although, as Friedman acknowledges, more film critics and scholars have written about Spielberg positively since his book’s first publication in 2006, I was struck by how rare it still is to see Spielberg discussed as a great cinematic artist who has spent almost the last half-century pushing the boundaries of narrative and stylistic conventions, and who, completely aware that his movies have often been accused of being dominated by special effects and sentimental pablum, has often talked in interviews about wanting to challenge himself and that reputation in each film. In addition, as Friedman points out, few critics even today seem to acknowledge how Spielberg’s work has evolved from “the ramshackle comedy of 1941 to the serious ethical questions depicted in Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, and Bridge of Spies” (242). Looking over the 33 films he has made over his long career, we see a portfolio that has attempted more and more to understand who we are as Americans through a historical focus on a host of important and sometimes horrific political and social issues. Calling him “our foremost practitioner of reel American history,” Friedman draws our attention to Spielberg’s determination in The Color Purple, Amistad, Schindler’s List, and Lincoln to “get beneath the skin of polite society and examine the murky underside of cultural attitudes toward the marginalized other, the people denied the status of humanity by those in power” (310).
Friedman also reminds us of these films’ impact on our lives and how they have taken up residence in our nation’s consciousness with images, sound, and tropes that have become part of our emotional and psychological lexicon. Whether it is the menacing tuba of Jaws, the repeating five tones from Close Encounters, the silhouette of a boy and an alien riding his bicycle across the face of the moon, the red-coated girl in the Warsaw ghetto, or the ironic suggestion that it might be time to get a bigger boat, Spielberg’s films have created new cultural signifiers that have resonated with audiences all over the world.
One of the great strengths of Citizen Spielberg is that in his mission to champion Spielberg as a sophisticated artist whose films have evolved far more than many critics appreciate, Friedman still makes room for some of the more justified criticisms that have been lobbed at his work, particularly as they concern race and gender. He tells us of the criticism by Kwazi Geiggar of the Coalition against Black Exploitation that The Color Purple “degrades the black man, it degrades black children, it degrades the black family” (252), and that in Amistad, historians have “rebuked Spielberg for distorting the Supreme Court’s extremely limited decision on United States v. The Amistad, thereby twisting the 1841 ruling into a broad antislavery triumph with little basis in reality” (268). In discussing the Indiana Jones series and his portrayal of Indian, Chinese, Hispanic, and Arab characters, Friedman writes that Spielberg “demonstrates a disturbing recycling of offensive stereotypes” (99) in films that “rarely question[s] Indiana’s right to take precious artifacts from other cultures” (101).
Friedman is also quick to point out that “Spielberg, even at his best, seems to have a hard time fashioning complex female figures,” citing Meryl Streep’s character as Washington Post owner Katharine Meyer Graham in The Post as one of the few exceptions. Unlike the men in his films who eagerly board alien spaceships and search for priceless mythical artifacts, Spielberg’s women often “possess extremely constrained visions,” like Ronnie Neary, played by Teri Garr in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Knowing what kind of brilliant and hilarious work Garr is capable of and had just displayed three years earlier in Young Frankenstein, it is painful to see her confined to the role of a wife who is more concerned with what the neighbors think than the possibility that aliens not only exist but might be communicating to her husband.
Indeed, one of Friedman’s most devastating critiques of Spielberg’s inability to portray women with agency and power is when he discusses Marion Ravenwood, daughter of Abner Ravenwood, the father figure to Indiana Jones who is played by Sean Connery. Marion is the chain-smoking tomboy we might consider “liberated” as she is introduced to us in Raiders of the Lost Ark outdrinking a burly local peasant at the bar she runs in Nepal before slugging Indiana when he shows up. But that is before Friedman points out the pedophiliac and even incestual nature of the initial Indiana-Marion relationship, which according to the novelization of Raiders, occurs when “Marion is fifteen years old, and Jones is about twenty-seven” (87), and how Spielberg shows us Indiana’s self-absorbed and feckless attitude about it. When Marion says to him, “I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong, and you knew it,” all Indiana has to say is, “I can only say I’m sorry so many times” (88).
But if the female characters in Spielberg’s films are often “fridged” so that they mainly serve as narrative devices to motivate the central male characters, Friedman argues that Spielberg’s treatment of his male characters overflows with conflict and contradiction. So, while Indiana Jones might look and sound like the stereotypical macho hero who swashbuckles and jokes his way through one incredible adventure after another, he often overestimates himself, endangers others, and fails to accomplish what he had initially set out to do. (Plus, what kind of icon of American masculinity is afraid of snakes?) Uncertain of who they are in the world, these men invariably face existential crises that force them to recognize their failures as fathers, lovers, and men. In Minority Report, Anderson only becomes “a hero” when he accepts that everything he has believed in is a lie. In Schindler’s List, Schindler is a cunning entrepreneur and dissembler who is always looking for a way to increase his capital and social standing, and why he risks his business and reputation for the Jews is not always clear. Even Captain Miller, arguably one of the most moral of Spielberg’s male characters, causes the death of four of his men and ultimately himself to save one man, an ethical decision constantly called into question throughout Saving Private Ryan.
As other critics have also pointed out, the flawed nature of the men in Spielberg’s films is most visible in his depiction of the fathers, which in part mirrors Spielberg’s relationship with his own father, which only improved much later in his career. Friedman describes these fathers as “forever distant, [men who] forsake the family, neglect their offspring, or run off to pursue goals and people beyond the family unit” (37). They appear in movies as disparate as Hook, The Color Purple, and ET, which Spielberg said “began with me trying to write a story about my parents’ divorce.” They are sometimes even portrayed as monsters, like Basie in Empire of the Sun, who first tries to sell the young Jim to Chinese merchants and later leaves him twice on the street to face starvation.
Yet despite Friedman’s even-handed treatment of both the pros and cons of Spielberg’s work, he does not talk about the almost total lack of gay, transgender, or nonbinary characters in his films. In Ready Player One, Lena Waith’s character is not revealed to be a lesbian as she is in the novel, and it is not until 2022’s West Side Story that a Spielberg movie features a transgender character. This is truly egregious, especially from someone who is considered by many to be America’s foremost filmmaker.
Still, for anyone interested in understanding how Spielberg has managed over his long career to consistently break box office records and, in the process, transform the sci-fi, horror, adventure, war, and Holocaust film genres, this book is a must-read. In Citizen Spielberg, Friedman not only succeeds in casting a new light on Spielberg and his films but also in reminding us that when we castigate an artist for being popular, we are, in fact, criticizing ourselves.
Crowther, Bosley. “Hitchcock Considers Rebecca.” The New York Times. 19 March 1939.
Friedman, Lester D. Citizen Spielberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 2022.
Gevinson, Alan. “Alfred Hitchcock at the National Press Club, March 14, 1963.” National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/record/pressclub/pdf/AlfredHitchcock.pdf