Now that Steven Spielberg’s newly released Lincoln film is enjoying its top box office status, all eyes are on Daniel Day-Lewis, whose portrayal of The Emancipator has convinced many of his chameleon-like acting talents. Yet despite that transformation, there is one thing I am even more curious to see. Ever since I saw my first Spielberg film, Jurassic Park, at the age of five, I’ve associated a very grand and dare I say, epic feeling to his work (emotions that arguably err on the side of cheesy). So as I ponder whether Lincoln will bark up the same tree or tread new territory, let’s take a look back at the director’s career as a storyteller and why it is he is so undoubtedly Spielbergian.
Spielberg’s stories are classics, viewed by some as melodramatic and others as heartwarming, but chances are we’ve all seen them. From Jaws in the 70s, Indiana Jones in the 80s, Jurassic Park in the 90s, Minority Report in the 00s and now Lincoln in the doesn’t-really-roll-off-your-tongue 10s, Spielberg has dedicated his life to filmmaking—a life he started with his first 8mm camera when he was just 13 years old.
Spielberg in 1978.
Filmmaking was an escape for the young Spielberg. It was the one way he could express his feelings and soon it became his lifelong obsession. Even when he was directing his first short films, he took the craft very seriously. In Joseph McBride’s book, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, he quotes Steve Suggs, a classmate of Spielberg’s who played a fighter pilot in his first World War II film, Fighter Squad. “He had a script; he knew what he was doing. It wasn’t just the boys going out and screwing around…It just blew me away. It’s as if you hear this nerd play piano and suddenly he’s Van Cliburn.”
Nerdom aside (although making a Van Cliburn reference is pretty nerdy), Spielberg’s dedication was fueled by his passion for the craft and since then that passion has never been extinguished.
In a joint interview with George Lucas for Entertainment Weekly, the pair was asked if they were alarmed they were already in their 60s.
Spielberg’s reply? “I’ve always sort of time-locked and mind-blocked myself in my 30s, and that’s always the age I feel,” he said. And look where he was in his 30s: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. That period was the birth of classic Spielberg.
Spielberg has always been a filmmaker who holds to certain principles of filmmaking. Take for instance his loyalty to his longtime editor Michael Kahn, who’s been cutting almost all of Spielberg’s films using an upright Moviola, which was the first device invented for film editing in 1924.
While there’ll always be room for the film vs. digital debate, I’d like to think that the film techniques in Lincoln has just as much merit as the CGI thrills we get from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
My journey with Spielberg began as a little boy obsessed with dinosaurs, and my life forever changed when actor Richard Attenborough offered me his warmest greetings on the silver screen as he triumphantly uttered the famous line:
“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
Remembering that day makes me wonder if Lincoln will have such a moment. Will children or adults feel inspired? Will it be by reading the pages of history or by the Spielbergian portrayal of it? Will it be an immediate moment of awe? Or will it take someone looking back 20 years from now to find it? Either way, Spielberg’s passion and dedication will continue to fuel his need to share stories and give us the chance to find out.