Friday, March 2, 2012
My problems with the Second Edition of Joseph McBride's book on Spielberg
Since the original 1997 edition of Joseph McBride's biography of Steven Spielberg is still, I think, the best book on Spielberg around, I went ahead and checked out the Second Edition of McBride's book that came out recently. There are parts of the new edition I like very much - he mounts an unexpected and very enlightening defense of Amistad, declares A.I. to be the masterpiece that it rightfully is, and waxes poetic about Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal and, surprisingly, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (he sticks up for the "nuke the fridge" gag). He also does some good research on Spielberg's track record as a DreamWorks mogul.
So, you'd think this would be a very welcome edition, preferable to the first one. But it's not. I'm very disappointed to see that McBride considers a majority of Saving Private Ryan "a serious letdown" and that he has chosen to side with the age-old argument that every scene after the D-Day sequence is an anticlimax. He thinks the movie is "damaged" by its refusal to adopt a firm stance on warfare (why does it need to?). He appears sympathetic to Jonathan Rosenbaum's infamous review of the movie, in that he wonders if Spielberg is glorifying war, more than he is painting a horrorific picture of it. When he describes the scene in which Mellish is stabbed upstairs by the Waffen-SS soldier while Upham is downstairs cowering, he claims that it's a clumsy allegory for the Holocaust because Upham is a Gentile, despite the fact that Spielberg has specified in interviews that he identifies most with Upham. Strangest of all, McBride does not go into detail about the scenes featuring Miller and Upham's crisis of conscience when they decide to let "Steamboat Willie" go. McBride makes no mention of this pivotal subplot at all.
In fact, the entire chapter on Saving Private Ryan feels rushed and unorthodox. McBride does not lend very much weight to arguments in defense of the film; it's like he's committed to some strange cause of erasing the movie from public memory. To me, this a cardinal sin to commit as a biographer. We're all entitled to our opinions, obviously, but since nobody has written a more well-read biography on Spielberg than McBride I think he owes a little more to his readers. Why not consider some of the more thoughtful defenses of the film out there - the ones by Jim Emerson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Roger Ebert, etc.? Why not refer to what Quentin Tarantino said, about how even he believes the movie changed his opinion on war movies in general? Why not make note of the fact that so many WWII veterans saw the movie and adored it? Like it or not, Saving Private Ryan is one of the most important achievements in Spielberg's career as a director; it's a little unwise of McBride to be marginalizing it, regardless if he has reservations with the film or not.
And my problems with the new edition of McBride's book don't stop there. He is surprisingly damning of War of the Worlds, which he dismisses as "ugly". To be sure, he praises it as a technical marvel and says some nice things about Tom Cruise's performance, but then whines that "the characterizations are thin" and that the movie does not work as an emotional experience or as a communication of post-9/11 paranoid feelings through the medium of the Hollywood blockbuster. I completely disagree with all of this.
McBride also doesn't really do justice to either Minority Report or Munich, films which he likes but doesn't seem to love much. He thinks that Minority Report sometimes gets distracted by having "too many action scenes," and holds to the argument that it falls apart in the last scenes, believing they're too good to be true. He doesn't go into any detail over why the movie ends the way it does. Why not consider if maybe John and Lara's triumph at the end of the film is a bittersweet one? Why not also consider the dubious (but still thought-provoking) theory which the IMDB commentator LoneStranger and others around the Internet have suggested: that the whole ending of the film may or may not be an illusion? Mind you, I get the impression that McBride likes the movie (he seems to admire how timely it was at the time of the signing away of the Patriot Act), but his enthusiasm for it is not on the level of someone like Roger Ebert's.
As for his writings on Munich, I expected more... much more. McBride goes into painful detail about the enemies Spielberg and Tony Kushner made in Israel when they chose to release the film, but whatever acclaim he may have for the movie feels muted. As with War of the Worlds, he argues that it works on a technical level but not on an emotional level. He sides with Todd McCarthy, in complaining that Avner, Carl, Robert, Hans and Steve are not well-rounded characters. But I would counter that each of the characters have individual moments in the film where they come alive (Carl's point about Israel's anti-death penalty policies; Robert's "soul" monologue; Hans' regrets about the way he treated the Dutch woman; Steve's paranoia after failing to assassinate Salamei; Avner's tortured reconnection with his wife back home).
Bizzarely, McBride also argues that Steven Bauer's portrayal of Avner in Sword of Gideon (1986) is superior to Eric Bana's. To that I say, "WTF?" To be sure, I only saw Sword of Gideon once, but I remember Bauer's performance being more than a little ham-fisted and the movie itself being very badly photographed and directed. Whereas Bana's performance in Munich is subtle, moving, and - if you ask me - completely relatable. I should probably make note of the fact that McBride comletely ignores the often-mentioned sex scene between Avner and his wife. Had McBride read Matt Zoller Seitz's online defense of this particular scene, I'm sure he would not have ignored it.
After some time, I began to notice a recurring theme in McBride's criticisms of Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Munich: McBride has a bit of a problem with Spielberg as a director of violence. He seems to prefer Spielberg as a director of magic, comedy and occasional heartbreak, not as a director of sequences in which people are gruesomely slaughtered (with the notable exceptions of Schindler's List and Amistad). From what I recall, the only "action" movies McBride actually praised in the first edition of his book were Duel and Jaws, and I think it's because those were simple 70's-era portrayals of themes like man vs. machine, man vs. nature, etc. But I do remember in his first book that McBride was also incredibly annoyed with the action/violence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park. To be fair, his panning of The Lost World Jurassic Park in this new edition is much fairer game, but...
Maybe I'm off-base, but I suspect McBride's criticisms of Spielberg's more recent forays into violence stem from a political objection of some sort. He is obviously a very liberal writer, and perhaps he holds firm anti-war beliefs that prevented him from fully appreciating something as neutral as Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps the scene in War of the Worlds where Ray is driven to murder Ogilvy rubbed him the wrong way, and colored his perceptions of that entire film in general. I could be wrong, of course, but I think that's why he goes into great detail about only some of Spielberg's latest films, in this new edition, and sort of hurries past the others. Because of that, I'm hoping some brave biographer will publish a book of his or her own to challenge McBride's views of these films, perhaps even in such a way that he'll consider reevaluating his positions on said films in the inevitable future edition of his book.