Steven Spielberg: Nostalgia and the Light
Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating, performance-captured take on the Belgian comic artist Hergé’s classic action-adventure serial The Adventures of Tintin starts with a bang and barely pauses until the credits roll a hundred or so minutes later.
For over four decades, Spielberg has obsessively struggled to reconcile the opposing ideals of the modern man.
Jam-packed with product labels and advertising slogans and clips from TV shows and movies, this is perhaps the Spielberg film most saturated with pop culture, as well as the one that most cannily illustrates the director’s ambivalence towards it.
The first decade of the 21st century, even with all the technological changes that have greatly expanded knowledge of our origins and pointed towards our potential futures, holds no monopoly on the great unending debate of what the word “human” means.
In the wake of Ryan, realism ceased to be an aesthetic choice or strategy among countless others that might be employed to cinematically portray war; it became a de facto principle, an attitude taken for granted as the obviously correct one for approaching said material.
It stands alone as Spielberg’s only courtroom drama, and as thus is preoccupied with concrete matters that none of his other films are, in terms both historical (that history is a reflection of a given era’s social institutions) and philosophical (that natural law needs to supersede that of the land and government).
The film has all the trappings of an archetypal Spielberg classic: fast-paced action spectacle; literal and figurative flights of fancy; the yearning for familial wholeness and the unearthing of youthful energy. That’s the problem. It’s a simulacrum of Spielberg wonder.
It should be re-viewed as a quintessential Spielberg film; it depicts the belief that our choices are at once motivated by a greater power and a distinct set of humane ethics. That Spielberg filters it all through classical Hollywood narrative tropes is wondrous.
Perhaps no other film in his oeuvre reflects so many of his preoccupations, both superficial (1940s, Nazis, boyhood, movie history) and substantive (absent fathers, fractured masculinity, the intersection between domestic strife and the threat of large-scale annihilation).
Memory has no hold for a boy stunted in day-to-day survival mode, with its hunger pangs and delirium masquerading as sanity. Is that American fighter pilot really waving at Jim from his P-51 as it bombs the internment camp? Do such distinctions matter when you’ve been swallowed whole by a world gone mad?
It often feels wildly inappropriate, especially for a film so burdened by questions of racial and sexual representation. . . . it’s also a remarkable work of Hollywood mastery, and its sheer emotional impact makes it one of Spielberg’s great achievements.
Arriving at the approximate midpoint between the two most devastating acts of war ever carried out on American soil, 1941 is a prophetic vision for anyone who’s thought seriously about buying some duct tape or packing their home and fleeing from residency in a major city during a crisis.
Without the pop-existentialist gloss of Duel, Jaws pointed the way towards the “classic” Spielberg cinema of wordless sensation—located anywhere on the spectrum from terror to bliss—raised to the level of the absolute, sensation shorn of anything outside our own willingness to experience it.
In the director’s pre-blockbuster innocence and naiveté, he sought grittier story material that might possibly reflect the way things are, like it or not, grounding his aesthetic in a mastery of technique before attempting to blow it out with a spectacle as full of heart and utopian longing as a galactic visitation calls for.