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.


  1. I'd like to take a look at this book anyway, just to see what he's got to say that's nice about Amistad and KOTCS, two films I always fairly somewhat outgunned in appreaciating.

  2. Hi Rod. Yes, the Second Edition is definitely worth checking out, especially for the nice things he has to say about something as underrated as Amistad. His defense of that film allowed even me to reconsider the things that *I* perceived to be flaws, such as Freeman's Joadson character; McBride points out that Freeman's performance is mostly in his facial expressions, showing pride at key intervals. This is such a good point to make about the characters in the film that I'm baffled as to why McBride didn't adopt the same criteria when he was critiquing Munich, and suddenly writing off the characters in that particular film as one-dimensional.

    The defense of KOTCS is interesting, too, although McBride has always had a love/hate relationship with the Indy flicks. He hates Raiders, REALLY hates Temple of Doom, kinda, sorta like Last Crusade and seems to really like KOTCS because of its Cold War commentaries.

    So, those are the brights points of the Second Edition, as well as his long-overdue defense of A.I. in which he rightly points out that Spielberg is true to Kubrick's vision. I just wish his perspectives on some of the other films hadn't been so rushed and close-minded.

  3. I'm not sure I want to read anyone who hates Raiders and likes Crystal Skull! Hahah.

  4. lol. Well, there's no question that McBride's letting his political beliefs color his perceptions of the Indy flicks. He dismisses Raiders as "the perfect film to mark the beginning of the Reagan Era," taking high offense at the scene where Indy shoots that one Arab swordsman, but he likes Crystal Skull because, I guess, it has a left-wing worldview about McCarthyism. I'd say he's wildly overreacting about Raiders and Temple of Doom, but at this point in time he's probably never going to change his mind about either. *Sigh*...

  5. I have yet to read McBride, and when I do, I'll probably start with his work on Welles (which is highly regarded and a departure from the still-popular though weakening "Welles as failure" thesis). I know we argued about this on Facebook a few months back, but I still fail to see why a biographer is required to line up his opinions with his subject's most ardent fans, or to "consider thoughtful defenses" of films he dismisses. (Really, must we yet again conflate the war with the film with the "WW2 vets liked the movie" argument?) By that rationale, shouldn't he also include harsh criticisms to balance out what he admires? Well, actually, that might be good too, but I don't hear you making that case. You've perceptively sussed out the author's possible biases and blind spots, and I'll take your word for it that parts of it feel rushed - though it's curious that all the rushed arguments involve Spielberg films he didn't like while all the well-considered arguments are for those he did. Sounds like McBride is a first-rate biographer with occasionally infuriating yet refreshingly idiosyncratic opinions and too much integrity to kiss ass: Bravo, Jim!

  6. I need to read his Welles book, too, and today I decided to order his Capra book (The Catastrophe of Success), which my school's MOBIUS system is going to be sending me any day now. Admittedly, I'm afraid to read the Capra book since I've heard it's pretty damning and - being a Capra fan - I'm afraid of what I might learn about him from it. Still, the purpose of a biographer is to acquire all the information he needs about his subject, so I'm preparing for some brutal stuff.

    In fact, one of the things I liked about the Second Edition of his Spielberg book has to do with something negative: those bizarre statements Spielberg made during the release of Minority Report that sounded disturbingly sympathetic towards the Patriot Act. I had heard the statements before, but I am pleased McBride includes them in the book because it shows how naive Spielberg was as a public speaker back then, and how far he's come since. And also because the film itself contradicts his statements, which just goes to show that movies does not always represent the idiotic things their directors say to the press (A more recent, off-topic example: Melancholia doesn't appear to be the work of a director who believes he's "a Jew who's actually a Nazi.").

    But that's just personal details. It's McBride's own, dubious opinions about Spielberg's films that I'd argue are more up for debate. It does seem like his chapters on Saving Private Ryan and War of the Worlds are way too rushed, and that he hasn't given enough consideration to arguments in favor of those two films. I agree with you that it's important to mention negative criticisms of the films by other critics, but that's all he ever does with those two films - that is, bring up the negative responses to them (he sort of does this with Munich, too, though I'm assuming he still kind of likes that movie despite reservations). He doesn't even try to answer the positive responses to those films. It's not like with the chapters on A.I. and Amistad, where he sides in favor of them and then proceeds to answer the negative responses by other critics.

    But to answer your question about biographers, and whether it's unwise for them to dismiss certain films made by their subjects, I try to look at it this way: if there was a book on Kubrick that dismissed Barry Lyndon as "boring" and/or Full Metal Jacket as having a good first half and a bad second half, is it likely to be considered one of the foremost books about the man and his films? Probably not - especially if the author has no consideration for defenses of those films. At least when I was debating about Saving Private Ryan with you, Ed, Jake and others, you guys were willing to consider my arguments before drawing up your own. But I failed to locate a similar wisdom in McBride's own take on that film.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.