When you mention a director’s name to someone, usually their response is to spout of their classics. Mention Steven Spielberg, then you may actually get several different responses depending on the age of who you are asking. If they grew up in the 80’s, you’ll hear E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jaws. The 90’s kids, will tell you Jurassic Park, Hook, and Saving Private Ryan.
It got me thinking that not many directors can span decades of classics. And while Spielberg’s classics are in the double digits, I still think he deserves more. Looking over his filmography I noticed several of his films that are not mentioned enough, starting with his first feature.
The Sugarland Express (1974) – The story of a young couple (Goldie Hawn and William Atherton) who kidnap a police officer and proceed to lead the authorities on a chase across the state as they attempt to get back their infant son from his foster parents. At a time where car chase movies were all the rage like: “The Getaway”, Vanishing Point”, “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”, and the original “Gone in 60 Seconds”. Unlike those films which had definite foot in the realm of exploitation, “Sugarland” while still having had the car chases, and the shoot-outs, it also had the Spielberg signature ‘heart’ in the form of Goldie Hawn. The scene where Atherton is watching her watch a Road Runner/Coyote cartoon at a drive-in theater they are hiding out in, should seem out of place, but ends up being a sign of many great moments to come from the young director.
Always (1989) – When Spielberg attempts a love story that goes beyond the realm of death, he succeeds, despite maybe one too many gags in this film that follows aging firefighting pilot Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) as he’s killed in action and as a ghost is saddled with the responsibility of helping a young pilot find work and possible romance with his former love played by Holly Hunter. Again it was probably the tone that jumps around quite a bit that hurt this one, but some of the jokes are so funny, and the dramatic beats are so good, how could you not include them all? With a brilliant performance by John Goodman, as well as Hunter, this forgotten gem deserves to be re-examined.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – From an un-filmed script by legend Stanley Kubrick this is a dark look into the future where robots are everything from employees who don’t get sick, sex toys, to replacements for lost children. While Spielberg had gone heavy before with “The Color Purple”, “Amistad”, and “Schindler’s List”, this was a fictional view of where we could be heading, but true to form it is also a modern re-telling of Pinocchio. With Haley Joel Osment as David, a non-blinking, eager to please robot boy, who unconditionally loves his mother. But when he can’t fit in the family dynamic, he and his robotic teddy bear go on a journey full of wonder and danger. Again this was dark territory for the guy who made E.T., and I feel he was unfairly panned for this film. True, there are flaws and I’m still not too sure about that ending, it doesn’t take away what makes this one special. Love.
Catch Me if You Can (2002) – I put this one up there with “Munich” and “The Terminal” as far as the forgotten Spielberg films. But it needs to be pushed forward for what it is, a superb coming-of-age story with classic performances by Leonardo DeCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken. Along with some great moments with newcomers like Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams. This birth of a con-man story which was based on the life of Frank Abignale Jr. and his rise from posing as a teacher and forging checks to pay rent, to posing as an airline pilot, and stealing millions. A boy wanting to be James Bond and succeeding, while trying to discover his own identity, only a grown-up Spielberg could make this as heartfelt and entertaining as it is.
Minority Report (2002) – With still some left-over dark sci-fi left in him, Tom Cruise as John Atherton is on the run from his own Pre-crime unit as he is viewed committing a crime before it happens. The future depicted here is not too far off, when we see retinal scans on the subway, much like the ones on our phones now, and personal ads, much like the “because you watched this movie” feature on Netflix. Aside from that it is still a very compelling thriller, with the typical Spielberg humor tossed in. The camera work and lighting bring to life this future that begs to be seen and in true sci-fi fashion, to be learned from in more ways than one.
The Mission (TV) (1987) – Ok, this is actually a 6th one, and it’s TV not a movie, but it’s my list and I’ll do whatever I want with it. This was an episode from the canceled too soon series “Amazing Stories”, (which you can find on Netflix) think “Twilight Zone” with a Spielberg flare. Which had both positive and negative effects on the series as a whole. This tale directed by Spielberg about a WWII bomber after a firefight with the enemy their belly-gunner (Casey Siemaszko) gets trapped in his turret. And worse, their landing gear is destroyed. It’s up to the young cast including a baby-faced Kiefer Sutherland and their Captain played by Kevin Costner to try to get him out before the run out of gas. It’s the best episode of the series and is classic Spielberg. With an ending that still kinda gets me.
–Robert L. Castillo