On Movies: He’s America’s Storyteller, or: Why I Am a Spielberg Fan

I don’t dream at night, I dream at day, I dream all day; I’m dreaming for a living.― Steven Spielberg

Image Credit: Pixabay

On December 18, 2021 – less than two months ago – Steven Spielberg celebrated his 75th birthday.

Eight days earlier, 20th Century Studios (the former 20th Century Fox Film Corporation and now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company) released his 31st feature film as a director, West Side Story. Written by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich, Lincoln), West Side Story is the second film adaptation of the 1957 musical drama conceived by Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents, and featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The new version of West Side Story – which received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, on Tuesday – marks the first time that Spielberg directs a musical film. This was one of the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s fondest dreams, and we’ve seen tantalizing hints of this in the song-and-dance numbers in 1941 (1979) and in the main title sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Hook, the 1991 fantasy film that starred the late Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan, was initially intended to be a musical – John Williams and lyricist Leslie Briscusse reportedly wrote 12 songs for Hook – but Spielberg changed his mind, and only a couple of songs were used in the finished film.

My Letterboxd list of Steven Spielberg films. With the exception of West Side Story, I have Blu-rays of them all.

I dream for a living. Once a month the sky falls on my head, I come to, and I see another movie I want to make. – Steven Spielberg

I first saw a Steven Spielberg movie – Jaws – when I was 16 years old. It was 1979, and one of my neighbors had recently bought a videocassette recorder (VCR). This was at the dawn of the VCR Revolution; the players were still relatively rare in homes and were priced between $600 to $1,000. Cassettes were intended more for the rental business rather than for the video collector market and, as a consequence, they cost between $90 and $100 at a time.

This neighbor – her name was Jackie – was, like her husband, in the real estate business and were relatively well-off, so they had a VCR and four brand-new videotapes with feature films. The two movies I was invited to watch – on separate occasions – were Randal Kleiser’s Grease (1978) and Jaws.

Of the two films, Jaws quickly became my favorite. Partly because I had not been allowed to see it in theaters when it became the first movie to gross over $100 million (I was 12, but Mom thought I was too young to see it.), but mostly because it is such a well-made suspense-horror-action/adventure film. From the moment I saw that first underwater shot – supposedly from a shark’s perspective – and heard John Williams’ famous (and much parodied) da-dum, da-dum “shark motif,” I was hooked on Spielberg.

From 1979 on, I was definitely a fan of the man Life magazine recently called America’s Storyteller. Since that time, I have seen most of his post-1941 movies in theaters[1] and own – with the exception of West Side Story – all of the movies he has directed professionally on Blu-ray.

I love to go to a regular movie theater, especially when the movie is a big crowd-pleaser. It’s much better watching a movie with 500 people making noise than with just a dozen. – Steven Spielberg

I won’t lie: I like many film genres and – obviously – a wide variety of filmmakers, each with his or her own style and thematic proclivities. But considering that I don’t attempt to buy every home media release of films by, say, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, or even George Lucas but I do try to get all of Spielberg’s films (as a director, anyway), that proves that he is my favorite filmmaker of all time.

That doesn’t mean that I love all of his movies. Hook, the musical-that-wasn’t, never impressed me. I fell asleep while I watched it in a Miami-area theater 31 years ago. I didn’t own it on home media until recently; I bought the Blu-ray for $5 just to add it to my collection and for future use as a cure for insomnia. It has its moments – the best part of Hook is its first act when Robin Williams is an adult Peter Pan who has (willfully?) lost his memories about his childhood and Neverland – but in the end, it’s a messy, tonally-imbalanced cinematic disaster.

I actually like 1941 more now than when I first saw it on DVD a decade ago. It’s a screwball comedy about the panic that hit the West Coast after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and even though like Hook, it’s uneven and too crazy for its own good, it’s not a bad movie, especially if you don’t take it too seriously.

For the most part, most of Spielberg’s films range from “Good” (three stars) to “Excellent.” My favorite is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is the first one that I saw in theaters. After that, Jaws takes the No. 2 slot, with Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List tying for third place; for me, those two films form a loose World War II duology. (You can, of course, make it a loose trilogy by adding the vastly underrated Empire of the Sun, which is my fifth-favorite film, after Jurassic Park.)

I’ll be 59 years old next month (ugh). I first saw a Steven Spielberg film when I was almost 16 years old, so I’ve been a fan of his for almost 44 years. His movies have not just been a form of entertainment and escape from the daily grind of life, but they also informed my desire to write screenplays and be a (small) cog of the Dream Industry. I’ve never met the man, but from what I know of him, he is a kind, warmhearted human being, which are traits that are often missing in the business of making movies.

Why am I such a devoted fan? I suppose it’s because like Frank Capra, John Huston, Michael Curtiz, and Martin Scorsese, he is a natural storyteller. He tends to mine his own childhood for themes and stories, which is why his movies tend to be either set in the 1940s and ‘50s, have a science-fiction aspect,  or delve into the inner workings of families and the classic trope of “finding a way home.”

Sadly, racial, ethnic, and cultural hatred and intolerance are not just history, they are current events.― Steven Spielberg

And, like me, Spielberg is fascinated with history, especially about World War II, the Cold War, and the moral quandaries of those conflicts. That’s why, in addition to directing and producing Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies, and The Post, Spielberg has executive produced Band of Brothers and The Pacific, two HBO miniseries set during the Second World War.

As I said earlier, like any creative person, Steven Spielberg has made some movies that weren’t all that successful. Either they were not up to his usual high standards of quality – Hook comes easily to mind – or they came out at a time when audiences expected Spielberg to keep making “popcorn” blockbusters and not serious adaptations of heavy-themed novels along the lines of The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun. So as much as I love Spielberg’s films in general, I’m not blind to the fact that he is, after all, human and can’t always bat home runs out of the park if you get my drift.

So, yep. I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg and his films. I admire his versatility, his ability to tell stories, and his lack of pretense. Watching behind-the-scenes documentary featurettes or reading interviews he has given to print media, I get a sense that he is one of the few gifted filmmakers who is not, to put it mildly, driven by profit or ego. He seems to have his head on his shoulders and his heart in the right place – morally speaking – and it shows in the movies – from The Sugarland Express to West Side Story and beyond – he makes.

He truly is America’s Storyteller

[1] I didn’t see Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 1941 in theaters; I saw Jaws on VHS after those movies’ theatrical runs. After that, I’ve missed pver a third of Spielberg’s films at the multiplex only because I didn’t have anyone to go with or a theater within a bus hop or (long) walk away. They are:

  1. The Color Purple
  2. Empire of the Sun
  3. Always
  4. Minority Report
  5. Catch Me if You Can
  6. War of the Worlds
  7. Munich
  8. The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
  9. War Horse
  10. Lincoln
  11. The BFG
  12. Ready Player One
  13. West Side Story

That being said, I have seen most of Spielberg’s blockbusters in theaters, including the four Indiana Jones films he directed, E.T., Hook (the only “flop” of Spielberg’s I’ve seen on the silver screen), Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, The Lost World: Jurassic Park,  Saving Private Ryan, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Bridge of Spies, and The Post.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

One thought on “On Movies: He’s America’s Storyteller, or: Why I Am a Spielberg Fan

  1. I’m a longtime Spielberg fan, myself. I was 15 when Jaws premiered in theaters, and my parents and I stood in line about an hour in the Texas summer sun to get in and see it. It was unforgettable. I consider Schindler’s List his masterpiece, followed closely by Saving Private Ryan, but he’s made so many other classics.

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