As part of their Completist series, in which a writer consumes and considers an entire artist's (usually a director's) oeuvre, the Internet's perpetual hand-raising prodder Slate had Bill Wyman watch all of Steven Spielberg's films and report his findings. They were, unsurprisingly, pretty negative. This is frustrating.
As some commenters on the article pointed out, particularly a professor of film at Central Florida University, Andrew Kenneth Gay, the whole "Spielberg is shallow and sensationalistic" argument is kind of cliche at this point. And that is the bulk of Wyman's argument — Spielberg made interesting movies early on in his career, but most everything else borders on uninspired shlock, at best visually impressive but otherwise empty, at worst dumb, pandering or clueless. Which, OK, if this argument hadn't been made ad nauseam since, oh, 1991's Hook, but certainly at least since 1995, when writing a takedown of the Holocaust sentimentalism of Schindler's List, Philip Gourevitch, then of The Washington Post, sighed, "If nothing else, the success of Schindler's List is a testimony to Spielberg's unerring talent for giving the American public what it wants." So nothing revolutionary here: Steven Spielberg, the guy mainstream America has most identified with the word movies for the last quarter century is somehow unimaginative?? Do go on! Iconoclasticism is important lest we become unthinking automatons who unquestioningly accept all that we're given, so serving up Spielberg and cruelly dissecting him in front of our eyes has its place. Or, rather, had.
What more on the reconsidering Spielberg front can be said, exactly? Yes, we get it. Some people don't cotton to his brand of spectacle-based, broad stroke moviemaking, they think it's cheesy or manipulative or uninsightful or naive, or all of those things. And whether the merits of that case are worthy or not — we'd argue that Spielberg isn't doing worse movies than, say, the darkly focused and wildly inconsistent David Lynch (whom Wyman references several times in fawning terms) but that, duh, he's doing very different movies, with very different goals in mind, and to monolithically compare the two is like comparing apples and Atom Egoyans -- the real trouble with this Slate piece is that the case was made at all, here in the scattered, crowded futurescape of 2012. Do we really need to be picking apart Steven Spielberg in a strange effort to prove, what exactly? Who has an intellectually discerning taste in film? Dismissing films like Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan because they're a bit more for-the-people than a critic would like isn't just taking an eye-rollingly narrow view of how people watch movies, it's adding to an already pretty high pile of contrarianism that has helped us all turn into cynics and skeptics who can't, as a nation, even have a coherent conversation about Lana Del Rey. Yes, it's true: Steven Spielberg is beloved by many and reviled by some. It is known. (Well, actually, reviled would be better. Reviled would at least be a strong point of view.) A long essay, nowadays, saying that Spielberg is mostly not as good as people think or that his career is "an arc of failed promise" (as Wyman does) is simply an act of asserting a prickly sort of personal Rightness, and gosh we already have so much of that. Enough! If you simply must do it, please do it about someone other than Steven Spielberg. That dead horse, war or otherwise, has been beaten enough already.
Wyman's is the kind of looking-for-problems-from-the-outset essay that the Completist should avoid. As Dan Kois' well-considered summary of Steven Soderbergh's work or David Haglund's survey of the Coen Brothers catalog suggest, the feature can be an interesting way to draw bigger themes from work separated by years and decades. But Wyman seems to have gone in with an agenda, one bent on tearing down the already slightly torn down idol that is Steven Spielberg, making the whole thing seem sour. It's full of snippy asides and critiques that are at turns nonsensical (the actors aren't big-name enough) and at others so broad that they could apply to just about any filmmaker (he frequently uses popular narrative tropes — Yeah, him and everyone else!). The Completist is a fun idea for a feature — it's an exercise and an adventure for the writer, a comprehensive summation for the reader — but walking in with an agenda, and a well-worn one at that, makes for a bad end product.
Look, we really liked War Horse, OK? Maybe that's all we're saying. And A.I. is unfairly maligned. As is Minority Report and Always. Steven Spielberg has his issues (there is no defending The Terminal) but, yawn, who doesn't. You know who stinks? David Lynch. Yeah, we said it. Have at us, Wyman!