For years, Francine Stock hated Steven Spielberg's films, but as Lincoln, his new epic, hits the screens, she argues that he brings out the dark side of Hollywood blockbustersby Francine Stock / January 23, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012)
Some years back, I took a trip into the heart of Spielberg country with one of my daughters: we boarded a small craft on the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios in California. Universal gave Steven Spielberg his first directing job in the late 1960s. For decades they made his films—through sharks, aliens, dinosaurs, whip-cracking adventures, war, history and back to sci-fi—and he has helped them construct their rides, acting as creative consultant to the Studio Tour which draws heavily on his films.
The sky was pewter-grey, spitting large drops. Two in a craft which might have taken a dozen, we bobbed along through milky-blue waters scented of bleach, towards a “scientific compound.” Here, we were told, a group of lab geeks had managed to create dinosaurs through cloning. The conceit, as in the film, was that the dinosaurs had escaped their cages and were now roaming free, through a landscape of jungle, mesh fences and warning signs. We entered a hangar: a siren went off and we were instructed that a lethal substance would be released to rid the area of a dangerous predator. It was clear that soon we were to be expelled from this sinister structure, through the hangar doors and down the advertised “84-foot death-defying raft plunge.” Five minutes passed. By now I could discern the mass of the mechanical beast that would lunge at us just before the fall. I could also see figures high above scurrying with jerky haste in a control room, pointing and talking into communications units. Was this pantomime or genuine equipment malfunction? We were stuck in Jurassic Park hell and at least one of us was a little teary. This was not exactly the thrill as billed.
Nor was it the first time Spielberg—director, producer, co-founder of Dreamworks Studio—had made me uneasy. The man who once described his first huge 1970s success, Jaws, as analogous to “directing the audience with an electric cattleprod” had found ways over the decades to unsettle my prejudices of him as a master-manipulator. Now, he has delivered Lincoln, a sombre political procedural that both harks back to The Birth of a Nation (1915), DW Griffith’s seminal, if politically repellent, story of the civil war and reconstruction era in America, and points outwards to the pressing concerns of the Obama era. The film is grand but complex, canny and sincere. And increasingly, as the years go by, I find there is more mystery and doubt than I first suspected in the work of this most influential of filmmakers. If Spielberg were more intellectual or more gnomic in discussing his films, he might be regarded not as a mass-market wizard but as a cult director.