On Reality, On Truth, On Stephen Spielberg

Does Stephen Spielberg, a master of cutting and mounting, but also a master of storytelling, tell the truth or lies in his films?

In reality, it is possible that a Cretan tells us all Cretans are liars. There's no problem in this statement, and things like that occur in everyday life. On the other hand, there is a problem if we ask for truth. The well-known logical problem of the Cretan Epimenides’ antinomy arises. The Cretan seems to contradict himself, or he is no Cretan.

Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ posed the question of reality anew. It is the apparatus that steps between the work of art, the artist and the process of creation. As an example, Benjamin cites the fact that Chaplin’s film L’Opinion Publique needed the shooting of 125,000 meters of footage, whereas the film itself came up to a length of 3000 meters. In this context, he states that the classical artwork of the Greek knew no form of reproduction, setting aside the Roman copies. The process of forming an artwork did not allow for any alterations. By contrast, the film has a unique quality that is its ability to be improved through technical devices. So, shooting a film is a work of montage and cutting and we stand before the conundrum that if a film tells the truth, it is a patchwork of glimpses of realities.

Is Stephen Spielberg, a master of cutting and mounting, but also a master of storytelling, a Cretan? Does he tell the truth or lies, when he shows his films? Let’s begin at the beginning, the movie Duel. In my opinion, all artistic elements which account for Spielberg’s style and mastery are already fully plain and visible in his first movie.

Firstly, there's a story that is hard to believe. A certain David Mann, driving home in his car, is suddenly chased by a truck. What at first seems to be repeated overtaking of each other soon turns out to be a game of life and death. The businessman, who is nearly pushed off the road by the truck, is the only one in this movie whom we see personally. The truck driver himself remains unknown and anonymous, as does the reason for his attacks. They get more and more dangerous, the trucker driving without regard for his own vehicle in the attempts to crush the automobile and its driver. Only a last, desperate ruse enables the driver to demolish his antagonist’s eighteen-wheeler, by sacrificing his own car and engulfing both vehicles, and the trucker within.

Secondly, the spectators are confronted with a splendid dialogue direction which delivers an illustration of the actions, and a subtext, too. We witness a telephone call between David Mann and his wife. She complains about his cowardice when she was addressed in an unpleasant way by her husband’s superior during a dinner, while her husband let her down by being unhelpful and unchivalrous. This phone call opens a wide gap between the two settings: The craven, and perhaps due to his standing in the company, calculating misbehaviour at home, and the unforeseen necessity to become a fighter and to develop personal heroism.

This difference is stressed by the spectators’ not knowing the identity of the trucker. It might be possible that this vengeful person is a woman, a real or symbolic Nemesis punishing Mr. Mann for his at-home misconduct. Things like this account for the mastery of Spielberg's directing, and for the atmosphere of his movies, which are among the best in the field of everyday entertainment.

This leads us to the question of truth. We may see the plot as a symbol of modern times’ personal (or rather unpersonal) relationships, as a symbol of overall competition, of depersonalization of human contact, but we won’t look at it as a real event. Nevertheless, Richard Matheson’s script, based on a short story of his, reflects an incident that occurred to him when he, driving home from golfing, was tailgated by a truck. The question of what is true remains undecided, even if we know that things like this happen.

There are other elements besides the enforced heroism and the ambiguity regarding content. There's the stress on family situation and values, something we find throughout Spielberg’s movies: In the Jurassic Park Trilogy, in ET, but also in Munich, for instance. And there's another continuous feature in his films, the fascination by technology and its destruction, mostly and joyfully performed on cars. Recall again the Jurassic Park trilogy, with its demolition of well-equipped and newly-developed vans and driverless automobiles by angry tyrannosauruses, but also the cell phones appearing in dung heaps of carnivorous raptors that have digested their human meals. The joy of destruction is also openly displayed in 1941 or in Jaws.

But the question of family and relation reaches further than simple American values. Destruction here often is a subtle leitmotif also in human relationships, and beyond the realistic depiction of founding families and raising children while divorcing or never marrying, Spielberg projects his dreams of intact families with fathers and mothers as wedded couples and their own children. ET is about the mishap of a single mother who is more and more alienated from her son. This non-communication is mirrored by an extra-terrestrial who is not understood in a strange and hostile world.

We find equally estranged and complicated relations in passing through the three Jurassic movies. In the first movie, Dr Grant is engaged to his colleague, Dr Sattler, but he does not care about children. They are a nuisance to him and he tries to get out of their reach. During the adventures in the amusement park-to-be, a black out of security and the ensuing escape and attack of the tyrannosaurus, Dr Grant not only becomes the saviour of the amusement park owner’s two grandchildren, he also develops deep feelings for the two kids. After having rescued them from their predicament, we see him in the final scene sitting in a helicopter that flies them out, while both children rest in his arms, sleeping and recovering. He holds them tight, smiling at his fiancée, who smiles back. We see that his attitude towards children has changed. Dr Sattler may be looking forward to a nice, all-American family.

In the second part, the main role is Dr Malcolm’s, who played a smaller one in the first movie. Now he, his girlfriend Dr Harding and his daughter Kelly Curtis-Malcom are at the centre. Ms Curtis is totally absent, and we know nothing about her except that she has to be Afro-American, taking into consideration the child’s looks. And she had apparently married and divorced Dr Malcolm. That, we only learn through the program note. In the movie itself, the girl is only referred to as Kelly. We find a nice, albeit not complete, display of a modern patchwork family with all its problems and pitfalls. This is quasi-ironic (as dinosaurs are no spouses,) in contrast to the love and care of two T-Rexes — a real couple — for their cub. This is, by the way, a motif that reappears in the third part of the triptych, this time with the velociraptors, and not as a couple but as a clan.

Focussing on men in the third movie (no longer a product of Spielberg himself, but distributed by his production company, Amblin) we find Dr Sattler again, now in a family with a husband and two kids, but unfortunately not married to Dr Grant, who nevertheless remained a friend of the family. The relationship between Dr Sattler, who appears as Dr Grant’s friend Ellie (her new surname is unknown) and Dr Grant has become a symbol of true friendship. She's the one he can rely upon in any plight or need, and consequently she's the one who sends in the Marines to rescue the expedition to the isle of Saurians.

Dr Grant has not succeeded in marrying his fiancée from the first movie. Yet the ideal of WASP matrimony and family prevails. This is now depicted by a divorced couple, Paul and Amanda Kirby, which is searching, with the help of Dr Grant, for their lost son, Eric – lost an a holiday trip to one of the isles where the cloned dinosaurs live. The common adventures whilst rescuing their common child reunite the family. They are, as Eric says at the end of the movie, going home.

It is often claimed that the stress on family in Spielberg is due to his parents’ breaking up when he was nineteen. I do not agree. I guess that the stress on family values and their bonds is part of an all-American conservativism, in its specific Spielbergian variant. One distinctive mark of this conservativism is the question of everyday heroism and of being a good man. Paradigmatic is the last scene of Saving Private Ryan when the now old Ryan visits a military cemetery in France. He asks his wife, in front of the cross bearing the name of Captain John H. Miller (the common name again illustrates Spielberg's mastery not only in film but also in words, emphasizing every day heroism through an everyday name), if he, Ryan, has been a good man.

This question, and the positive answer, are contrasted with the stolid courage of Captain Miller, the pre-war teacher of English composition. We never learn in what way James Francis Ryan has been a good man. We may fathom a life as a father and husband and as a well-to-do businessman. But from the film, we know that he, too, had had his moment of heroism, when he refused the order to be sent home after his three brothers had been killed in combat. He would rather stay with his unit, regarding its members as his last brothers, whom he will not deceive by any means. Thus, Private Ryan was not saved by Captain Miller and his party – a blend of white Americans of every kind, descent, and religion – which was annihilated, except for two men who survived. Nevertheless, he lived to be a good man.

We may say that the conservativism of Spielberg does not derive from redneck ideology and reactionary historical patterns, but rather from an enhancement of identity, that is of American identity. Another film unfurls this discourse about heroism and identity in a rather painful way. That, of course, is Munich. The film shows the deeds of a retaliation squad installed by the Israeli Mossad to kill leaders of the Palestinian Black September, planners of the attack on Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich. Avner Kaufmann, the unit’s leader, and his companions are successful, at first, but start developing doubts about the righteousness of their actions. The unit soon falls apart, partly by deadly mistakes, partly by actions of other secret services.

Avner Kaufmann sends his wife and child to Brooklyn, where he thinks they are safe. After another failed operation, he aborts his mission and leaves for America, too. He makes sure that he will not be trailed but left alone. In the last scene, he and his case officer Ephraim meet, exchanging offers of identities. Ephraim wants Kaufmann back, referring to the epic Zionist tradition of his parents. Kaufmann asks Ephraim, as a foreigner in a foreign country, to visit him and his family and to break the bread of Sabbath together, as Jews should do. Neither embraces the offer of the other, the Jewish identity of Avner Kaufmann is straight American, the other Jewish identity strictly Israeli.

Talking about truth in Spielberg’s plots, we must never forget that he is a gifted storyteller, and that every story has its moral application. In Munich, truth is not to be found in the deeds of Kaufmann’s unit. To emphasize this, the unit is not even a Mossad unit, but a band of bloody amateurs who estrange themselves from civil life and national ideals. Regardless of the true operation ‘Wrath of God’, Spielberg displays his points of view: Jewish, American, humanist and thoughtful in a Socratic way. He leaves more questions open than answered. But through all the destruction gleams a perhaps only narrow path to saving humanity, even under heavy losses.

The destruction of lives, not of motorcars and technical gimmicks, that is brutally, painfully and in every last detail displayed in films like Saving Private Ryan, Amistad or Lincoln is the price to be paid for preserving mankind and humanity. There must be something worth fighting for, and there must be a hope that all the struggling and battling and killing will be surmounted by the prized values men are defending.

This gleam of hope that every man and woman can be strong and do the right thing is the background of Spielberg’s storytelling. It is displayed in his work as a director, with Private Ryan and Captain Miller, but also in his other works about World War Two, as a producer of movies and miniseries. There are the epic movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood and produced by Spielberg, and there are the TV series Band of Brothers and Pacific, produced in cooperation with Tom Hanks. They all are connected to Saving Private Ryan in a certain way: It is the honest, manly war engaging American heroes to save the world from fascism and dictatorship. It is not a war like the one fought in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq. These wars appear in other films, and they are not directed by Spielberg. They show no heroism and no saving of humanity, either.

In these films, the combatants are fighting only to fulfill orders, trying to survive. There is no hint of a just cause, of devotion to man’s fate, progress and development. This is not Spielberg’s standpoint. His films are about right or wrong. Films like Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow are only about wrong. And wrong is the enemy, while at the same time the American soldier is not right but obeying. He's not convinced of doing the right thing and need not be so. Spielberg’s fighters have to convince themselves, in one way or the other, even if they have to go through hard and painful experiences that cause them to break laws — or to preserve or enact them, against all odds.

This is what Lincoln is about, too. We see a president trying to gain the majority for the Thirteenth Amendment of the American Constitution. In the very plot of the movie we witness a president cheating, bribing, and telling only half of the truth, a president who dirties his own hands only to get the amendment passed. This is mirrored and contrasted with his family situation, the condition of his matrimony, the mourning of a late child, the quarrel with his wife, the wishes of his eldest son to move in the army, in order not to be seen as a coward protected by a mighty father – all considered a leitmotif of Spielberg’s, beside the one of the brave and good American: in this movie, Abraham Lincoln and the famous abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens.

This film is also about Spielberg’s storytelling. As the president perverts one fact or the other, so does Spielberg. No comment on the Emancipation Proclamation regarding the fact that there were slaveholder states in the Union, as well. No comment on the casus belli that was the preservation of the Union of the US, and the Emancipation Proclamation nothing more than a handle for the confiscation of Confederate property as spoils of war. The Thirteenth Amendment was necessary to let the South stay in the inferior condition of a devastated economy, to let the Unionist war profiteers of the Reconstruction Era relish their loot. No comment either that Lincoln wasn't unwilling to compromise at the Hampton Roads Conference, a peace conference held in February 1865, to compensate the South for the loss of its slaves.

Spielberg picks what he needs for his story. In this way, Lincoln or Amistad are only pretenses for the stories he wants to tell. What he wants to tell, and perhaps to be believed, is the story of the all-over good American. Do his stories tell the truth? There's an intricate relation between truth, reality and everyday life. Is Spielberg a Cretan who tells us that all Cretans tell the truth? Or is he an American who tells us that all Americans are good?