Reviewing Spielberg

Not so long ago I thought about doing a post about the film director Steven Spielberg. I’d already done a couple of ‘favourite director‘ posts but the thing with Spielberg is that he’s not exactly one of my favourite directors so any post would be not really be complimentary so I didn’t want to get into writing something negative.

Anyway, I just happened to pick up a book about Spielberg in the second hand bookshop so it seems to me I can just combine my criticisms of the book and Spielberg’s works all in one post. I’ll try not to be too negative.

Steven Spielberg the Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter.

Spielberg was born in 1946 and the book glosses over his early life. His parents were divorced when Steven was at school and though staying initially with his mother and sisters he later went to stay in California with his dad. He was making amateur 8mm films as a youngster and according to the book, went on the Universal film studios tour and just stayed on wandering about the studio. At the time one of the only ways to get a job at Universal was through a relative who worked there and the book says that security guards let Spielberg through the gates on subsequent occasions, assuming he was the brother or son of one of the employees.

Spielberg apparently did quite a bit of networking at the studios showing his amateur movies around and after being rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school he managed to get an unpaid job at Universal. Later he took the opportunity to make a short film called Amblin which impressed the studio vice president so much that they offered Spielberg a seven year directing contract.

His first professional job was the shooting of an episode of the US TV show Night Gallery which starred Joan Crawford. It was apparently a difficult job for Steven, dealing with his temperamental star which gave him an aversion to working with so called ‘stars’. Looking through Wikipedia though, the website claims he and Crawford were friends until her death.

The first work of Spielberg’s that I saw was the feature length episode of Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’. At the time Universal was looking for something new to challenge the usual 60 minute episode format and the feature length episodes of their many crime shows seemed to be the answer. Spileberg’s episode is probably one of the very best of the Columbo series.

Spielberg‘s first cinema project was ‘The Sugarland Express’, a movie about a married couple chased by Police as they try to regain custody of their baby. The film received critical success but fared poorly at the box office. Producers however were impressed enough to ask Spielberg to direct the movie version of the book ‘Jaws’ about a man eating shark.

The shoot was a difficult one as the director rejected the idea of shooting in the studio and opted for a location shoot. Steven initially thought of using real sharks and midgets to make the sharks look even bigger but finally had to accept that a mechanical shark had to be made. Difficulties with the shark added delays to the shoot and some parts eventually had to be made in the studio. It was also interesting to read how the script was constantly under review with various writers adding to it and rewriting. Author Peter Benchley had added various subplots to make the book more entertaining and many of these were taken out by Spielberg who concentrated on the fundamentals of the shark chase.

At the time the movie industry was suffering because of competition from TV and Spielberg realised that a film needed to be an event, a major event in order to bring viewers out of their homes and into cinemas. The movie blockbuster was born with Jaws which was a huge hit which made Spielberg’s reputation overnight. I have to say it is probably my favourite of Steven Spielberg’s films. I’ve always enjoyed it and the performances are excellent especially those of Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider.

Spielberg went on to make a series of blockbuster films, all different in subject matter but all designed as major events in the world of cinema. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Indiana Jones films and ET were all highly successful. I can’t say they are on my list of all time great films, ET I thought was uninspired and Close Encounters was a film I couldn’t see the point of, a little like Hitchcock’s Birds. I didn’t get it at all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great Saturday afternoon film based of course, on the film serials of the 1940’s. My big problem with most of Spielberg’s films is that they always leave me unsatisfied. Saving Private Ryan is another case in point. What was the point of all that invasion stuff with people being blown up on the beach? Empire of the Sun was a slow moving drudge of a film lacking any sort of pace. It was a project Spielberg took over from one of his personal directing heroes David Lean and I sort of get the feeling Steven was trying to make the film as Lean might have done. Sorry but it didn’t work for me.

This isn’t a great book and concentrates mostly on Steven Spielberg’s professional rather than personal life and doesn’t really offer too many insights into Spielberg himself although interestingly it says that Steven dismisses the auteur school of directing and thinks of a film as a collaborative effort. I remember once watching an interview with David Lean in which he said that a director’s job was to ‘tickle the talents’ of his crew and cast and get the best possible effort from each person to show in the finished film. After reading this book I’d guess that is something Spielberg would go along with.

The early part of the book I found particularly interesting especially when it explains how Spielberg put his movie projects together, often filming one while beginning preliminary work on another. The author also links Spielberg to the other directors of ‘New Hollywood’, people like Coppola, Lucas, and Scorsese who were great fans of classic Hollywood and built new films and productions while recognising the contributions of classic directors like Hitchcock and John Ford who had gone before.

This is not a great book and certainly not one that really gets to the core of its subject but still a good read all the same.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Favourite Movie Directors Part 2 Oliver Stone

oliver stoneFavourite movie director part 1, which you can read by clicking here, is about Woody Allen. Allen has a directoral style that lets the viewer’s eye roam roam the scene. Oliver Stone on the other hand has a much more forceful style, a highly visual style which takes a firmer hand with the viewer.

To start with, here’s some biographical stuff about Stone:

Oliver Stone was born on September 15th, 1945. The only son of Louis Stone, a successful stockbroker and Jacqueline Goddet. His mother was a French student who his father, then in the Army, eloped with as a war bride in Paris in 1945. He grew up in New York and attended Trinity School on the west side of Manhattan and later attended The Hill, a boarding school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Stone attended Yale University in 1964-65 but dropped out after one year. In 1967 he enlisted in the US Army and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry and later the 1st Cavalry.
Back in the USA he enrolled at university in New York and studied filmmaking. Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Vietnam was among the first subjects of his student films.

Oliver Stone

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Stone graduated in 1971 and took on various jobs while he wrote screenplays. His breakthrough success was in 1978 with the screenplay for the film Midnight Express for which he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The first Oliver Stone movie I ever saw was the 1986 movie ‘Platoon.’ Stone wrote and directed the movie set during the Vietnam War and based on some of his own experiences. It focuses on a new recruit, played by Charlie Sheen and follows through pretty much what happened to Stone himself when he arrived in Vietnam. It shows Sheen getting used to the situation in Vietnam, the weather, the jungle patrols and so on. It also shows the disregard that the other soldiers have for Sheen and any other soldier new to the front line. A newcomer’s life was less valuable than the others who had served their time and put years into the war. It’s a reversal of what you might expect in warfare but the Vietnam conflict was a different war. The combatants were wondering what were they doing there, thousands of miles away from home and for what, and who, were they fighting ? That sort of thinking bred a selfish soldier. Platoon tells the story of those soldiers, all of whom are brutalised in some way by the conflict.

Oliver Stone followed up the movie with another Vietnam film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’ about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. Kovic was a Vietnam vet shot and paralysed from the waist down in the jungle and it is a truly shocking film, perhaps even more so than Platoon. After he has been wounded, Kovic returns to a veteran’s hospital in the USA that is grim and disgusting and as I watched it, it contrasted sharply with another war film from a different era, Reach for the Sky. Kenneth More stars as Douglas Bader who, after a terrible crash, is taken to a hospital full of crisp white sheets and antiseptic cleanliness. The contrast between the two hospitals is shocking. A third film completed Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth released in 1993.

Wall Street was a hit movie for Oliver Stone in the eighties and the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas became an eighties screen icon. Gekko is a ruthless Wall Street player, a stockbroker and financier who looks at a hundred deals a day. Martin Sheen plays Bud Fox, a young salesman determined that one of those deals will be with him. Fox is ultimately corrupted by Gekko as he becomes involved in many shady schemes but in the end he betrays Gekko to the authorities. In Wall Street Stone first develops a mesmerising visual style almost akin to a music video and it is a style that many film-makers seem to have picked up.

In JFK, Stone takes this visual style to another level and combines various film formats to produce a stylish visual montage. The subject is a controversial one, the shooting of President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Stone decides to use the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as a vehicle to explore the various theories about the shooting although ultimately an amorphous military industrial complex is blamed for the conspiracy. Criticism rained down on Oliver Stone from anti conspiracy theorists but I personally felt that the movie was a fair one and everything that was conjecture was shown as conjecture. The great treat for me was the combining of the different visuals and the inter weaving of documentary film with new footage. The movie also led to calls to release more information and led to the Assassinations Records Review Board recommending that all assassination materials be released by 2017. The John F Kennedy Assassinations Records Collection Act 1992 has since become known as the JFK act. Stone went on to make two more films about American presidents, Nixon and W, the latter film about George W Bush.

In recent years Stone made a TV series called ‘Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the USA.‘ I thought, or was led to believe by the hype, that this TV series would be a complete retelling of history. Secrets hidden from the public would perhaps emerge to show how history and events have been manipulated. To be fair, there is some of that. The dropping of Henry Wallace from Franklin D Roosevelt’s Presidential ticket was shown as a blatant manipulation of the democratic process. I might have felt more sympathy for Henry Wallace had the show not preceded this by a disparaging of Churchill in a prior segment. Stone seemed to think that Roosevelt was a man who had the measure of Stalin, especially at their last meeting but it is clear to me that in fact it was Churchill who understood Stalin and Roosevelt who only thought he did.

I have a number of Oliver Stone DVD’s in my collection. Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, JFK, Wall Street, The Doors, not to mention the TV series mentioned above which I have only just started to watch. I still think of Oliver Stone as one of the great movie directors. He is passionate about cinema and has highly political views and yet is still able to laugh at himself. In 1993 he played a small part in the movie ‘Dave’ playing himself as a conspiracy theorist who believes the President has been replaced by a double. Actually, if you have seen the movie, he has!

Oliver Stone’s latest movie is Snowden, the incredible untold personal story of Edward Snowden, the polarizing figure who exposed shocking illegal surveillance activities by the NSA and became one of the most wanted men in the world. He is considered a hero by some, and a traitor by others.


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