Tag Archives | Steven Spielberg

Movie Analysis: Empire of the Sun (1987)

On its own terms, Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun doesn’t make an everlasting impact. The 1987 movie is too stylized and self-conscious to successfully execute a coherent theme. It is an engaging movie nonetheless.

Made as a response by the director to critics claiming he makes movies about only innocent childhoods, Empire of the Sun is best understood as a transitional and reactive film in Mr. Spielberg’s career. Every frame of this movie about a British boy’s wartime separation from his parents in Shanghai—resulting in imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp—moves with a sense of purpose, unfolding the story of one child’s trauma, loss of innocence and damaged, stunted growth. From the opening scenes’ floating coffins, children’s choir and comic books to the elegiac final picture of a drifting collection of what’s been lost and dispensed with, Empire of the Sun is somber and severe.

Introducing Christian Bale (American Psycho, Terminator Salvation, Batman Begins, Swing Kids, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) in his movie debut as a diplomat’s only child on the eve of Japan’s invasion of China, the film’s main character goes from being called James to Jamie to Jim. For two and a half hours, Bale’s boy makes a full circle with his angelic choirboy’s voice. Interestingly, this film is extremely focused on the choirboy’s view of the world and it’s interesting because the exposition leaves out what informs and contextualizes that viewpoint.

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For instance, his worship of the Japanese kamikaze, which entails a fascination with militarism which could be born of his lack of power over his own life in a foreign land where his parents are detached, is inexplicably persistent. Certainly, children become obsessed with certain things. But this kid goes out of his way at an elaborate costume party to go off on his own and play with his model airplane. The model is a Japanese zero—the kamikaze’s fighter plane used in the sneak attack that destroyed Pearl Harbor—but why this child is drawn (and encouraged) to worship it remains elusive.

In any case, the zero is what fuels Jim’s imagination, allowing Mr. Spielberg to juxtapose the horror of war with the beauty of life and love. He did this, too, in 2005’s atrocious Munich. There are echoes of several future Steven Spielberg motifs, notions and themes here: the scrap and random subsequence in war of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, the smoke, ash and nonstop death of 1994’s Schindler’s List, the pacifism and equivocation of 2011’s War Horse and Munich.

Other scenes are as warm, potent and majestic as only Steven Spielberg (Jaws, The BFG, The Sugarland Express, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, Bridge of Spies, Hook, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark) can produce. A thief’s slap of contemptuous envy, a promotional mural for David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind as Shanghai falls to the Japanese, learning the word ‘pragmatist’ while learning the cost of living by doing only what’s convenient in the moment, the imagined fancies of a traumatized child in captivity—all and more make Empire of the Sun immensely watchable.

But the film impresses for what’s left off the screen, too. How Jim survives imprisonment in terms of food, clothing and shelter are clear, as Jim trades on material possessions and cigarettes, however, how he relieves himself (apparently, he doesn’t) is left untold. There’s also—in retrospect, not surprisingly—very little of the Japanese in Empire of the Sun, which is based on the war memoir by J.G. Ballard, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard and produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. In fact, the imperial Japanese were voraciously mystical and religious—like today’s Communist North Koreans, they worshipped a state dictator as a deity—brutal and barbaric. But Mr. Spielberg omits any serious and lasting references to such key facts, which are crucial to grasping Japan’s empire, invasion of China and lust for war with the West.

Yet his Empire of the Sun, unlike the tribalist Schindler’s List, focuses on the individual. “You’re an American now,” a gruff but decent scoundrel (John Malkovich) tells Jim during internment, and, for all the dodging and hustling Jim does, he means it as a compliment, signalling a turning of the tide in war. This is another Steven Spielberg imprint; jaunty Americanism matched by what’s regarded as a fundamental emptiness in what makes an American—specifically, that he’s self-made, especially through trade. Empire ties this theme into its final frames.

Seeing himself in a Japanese boy he tries to save, catching a Hershey’s bar and manmade goods that fall from the sky as hallelujahs play in song (on a score by John Williams), Jim the boy finally faces reconciling what he’s been through even as he’s forced to march or die. That Jim goes from worshipping self-sacrificing Japanese to cheering self-reliant Americans doesn’t mute that he also makes himself something of an easterner who discards his possessions and begins a postwar childhood devoid of idealism. The boy’s romanticized empire marches in, gets real, and dissolves. Jim’s cherished Empire of the Sun comes to an end.

Leaving gaps while immersing the audience in the color of bomb blasts and the rising sun, Steven Spielberg counters his early movies’ benevolent intimacies with a hollow if stunning epic about the wreckage of a boy’s sense of life.

Spielberg to Direct ‘Indiana Jones’ in 2019

Disney announced this morning that another sequel based on the action character Indiana Jones will return to movie theaters on July 19, 2019.

Disney studios logoThis marks the fifth picture in the popular series, which was introduced in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and continued with 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, earning what Disney estimates as nearly $2 billion in worldwide box office receipts.

Disney announced that the legendary Steven Spielberg (War Horse, E.T., Bridge of Spies, Schindler’s List, Lincoln, Munich), who directed each movie in the series, will also direct the currently untitled project. Harrison Ford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) will return to star as the archaeologist and explorer in the title role. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are also back on board, so this new movie should deliver more of the same exciting, throwback adventurism, though Disney did not announce who will write the screenplay.

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

BridgeofSpiesPosterSteven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne, Toy Story 3, Angels and Demons) is another carefully plotted exercise in moral equivalence and equivocation. The fact-based spy story is measurably better than Mr. Spielberg’s modern Arab terrorist apologia, Munich (2005).

The DreamWorks picture begins with meticulous details of espionage absent its intent and purpose. As with most Cold War-themed movies, such as X-Men: First Class, the nature of the conflict between the world’s only nation based on man’s rights and the bloodiest dictatorship to exist on earth is, to a large extent, ignored or evaded. Instead, as usual, America and Soviet Russia are generally depicted as morally similar or equivalent, with one crucial exception later in the movie. The exception is powerful, but it is incidental.

Details are nevertheless engaging, especially if you know American history. In 1957 New York City period setting, costume and music, in lush film awash in dark blue, black and brown, Mr. Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Lincoln) shows a Communist spy fronting as a painter named Rudolf (Mark Rylance, perfect in the role) fussing with a double-edged razor blade, a coin and a book of matches. When detained by the FBI, as prone to incompetence here as they are today, he quickly establishes guilt to the audience.

The weaselly Soviet’s threat to the United States is neither framed that way nor made evident to his Bar Association-designated lawyer, James Donovan (Hanks), who chooses to defend him—every other attorney declines to represent him—on the grounds of giving the accused a proper defense in a republic based on the Constitution. This portrayal of insurance lawyer Donovan, a Democrat later picked by President Kennedy to negotiate with Communist Cuba who ran for and lost a seat in the U.S. Senate, makes him out to be a non-partisan Constitutionalist, which I’ll leave to historians to address. In Bridge of Spies, Donovan is a decent if agnostic American lawyer, partner, husband and father.

Doing what he regards as his duty, at great risk to his family and firm and over objections by his law partner (Alan Alda), Donovan argues to the Supreme Court on behalf of a man accused of aiding an enemy which may seek to wage a nuclear act of war on the U.S.

When asked if he is curious about the accused’s guilt, Donovan replies: “No, not really.”

This is the main flaw in Bridge of Spies; the leading character, whom the audience is to believe capable of real bravery and integrity, is daft, cavalier or knowingly ignorant about the impact of intelligence gathering for acts of war. Contrary to his lack of curiosity about whether the accused aims to aid the enemy in gaining a capacity to destroy New York City, Donovan later shows curiosity about whether the accused is in danger. Donovan’s higher regard for the life of a suspected KGB agent than for potential harm to his own family, firm and country poses a serious character credibility problem.

When a single vote determines the Soviet’s appeal, Bridge of Spies takes a turn. It starts to feel like Mr. Spielberg’s answer to Munich critics. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit) and Matt Charmin, with strong, even performances by Hanks and Rylance, and Amy Ryan as his wife with Dakin Matthews as a judge, everything dovetails to international intrigue culminating in an attempt to deal with Communists in Berlin, the post-World War 2 city decimated thanks to National Socialists and divided into east and west. It’s a Cold War climax in director Spielberg’s masterful hands. Berlin serves as a staging ground for Donovan’s possible redemption, though Bridge of Spies is murky about this, too.

With a jazzy score, fading, serpentine transitions include one from the sound of a CIA spook’s creaking footsteps to the sound of a federal judge’s zipper. Another goes from schoolchildren taking the Pledge of Allegiance to a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb detonation. Bridge of Spies shifts to Pakistan, where U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers prepares for a mission on a secret airplane with new reconnaissance technology. The destination: Soviet Russia. The film’s title tips its reconciliation theme, which is to be ignited by Donovan. Indeed, it’s Donovan who uniformly adopts a “humane attitude” about the Communist, the downed U.S. Air Force pilot and the young American in love with a girl in East Berlin. One of them, and it’s easy to guess which one, pegs Donovan as a man of principle. A shot of the man who stands alone on the bridge of spies is a signature on this selective Cold War portrait. The question of what principle he stands for is the real enigma in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is gently made, shot, framed, scored and arranged. It is also frosted with Cold War facets that sneak up like a deadly ghost. The expression on Donovan’s face when he witnesses an act of Communism in practice—matched by a contrasting expression of his awakening to an act of liberty in practice—makes Bridge of Spies an interesting and thought-provoking, if mixed, movie about a man’s moral character and dilemma.

But it is important to note that Bridge of Spies trivializes an undeniable low point in U.S. history. The actual events depicted in the film’s climax foreshadowed in history deepening American loss and appeasement to Communism. The U.S. caved to Communists over the Berlin Wall, South Vietnam, the USS Pueblo, USS Mayaguez, a Soviet shootdown of a jumbo passenger jet with innocent passengers and a U.S. congressman on board in 1983 and President Bush, in his first foreign policy test in 2001, yielded to Communist China’s seizure of a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet that killed the American pilot. As with Munich, it is impossible to detach from Steven Spielberg’s elegant and romanticized Bridge of Spies the facts of history.