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Steven Spielberg's Search for America
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Steven Spielberg’s Search for America

Revisiting the director’s civic-minded oeuvre before his latest film.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 06: Steven Spielberg speaks onstage during AFI Fest 2022: Red Carpet Premiere Of "The Fabelmans" at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 06, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)

In Hollywood, nobody does it better than Steven Spielberg. As the most acclaimed and prolific film director in history, the three-time Oscar-winner’s career has spanned six decades and countless genres. From Hitchcockian thrillers to Saturday matinee serials, war epics to his recent big-budget studio musical, Spielberg’s longevity in the ever-evolving Hollywood ecosystem is due in large part to his ability to leapfrog effortlessly between genres.

His complete filmography can be divided into two large periods of creative development and maturation. The first was dominated by his genre-defining blockbusters. While his pictures were consistently the year’s highest-grossing, Spielberg’s contemporaries were quick to disregard his work as nothing more than cinematic comfort food. For the generations made cynical by Vietnam, Watergate, economic recessions, and political assassinations, many judged his films as little more than escapism. After a decade that produced morally indifferent anti-heroes, Spielberg’s early period reminded us that movies could—and should—be fun.

Spielberg’s second era was focused on proving his chops as a serious filmmaker. After several forays into dramatic territory, Spielberg released his Oscar-winning masterpiece Schindler’s List in 1993. No longer just the kid director who specialized in escapism, he showed he could tell contemplative stories that did not require great white sharks or extra-terrestrials. Such a resounding professional triumph and the subsequent praise from both the public and the industry gave him the freedom to explore more delicate subject matters.

Schindler’s List didn’t just mark a shift in subject matter. It also marked an evolution in Spielberg’s themes too. Since 1993, he has gone from being a master of popular culture to a master historian. His maturation as a filmmaker has brought a civic consciousness and a willingness to explore questions of American memory, identity, race, and democracy. 

Spielberg’s first dramatic venture post-Schindler’s List was 1997’s Amistad, which told the story of the international legal battle surrounding the Mende tribe uprising aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Somewhat underappreciated when first released, the film shows a reservedly sentimental Spielberg. While not as saccharine as his critics might suggest, the film is unapologetically pro-American. Yet it doesn’t ignore America’s original sin—Spielberg tackled the great injustices of racism and chattel slavery through a stirring defense of the principles of equality and liberty found in our founding charters. 

Take 10 minutes and watch the finale of the movie, when John Quincy Adams stands in front of the United States Supreme Court to implore the Dixie-dominated government to free an innocent man from the looming threat of slavery. Adams not only calls to mind the Declaration of Independence but the bravery of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and his own father. In doing so Spielberg reminds his fellow citizens that, “Who we are is who we were.”  In Amistad, Spielberg argues that in a democracy justice lives downstream from memory. To do our best in the present, we must invoke the good from our shared history and in so doing we become heirs to the great promise America holds, just as in United States v. Schooner Amistad, the case depicted in the film.

The strength of the American memory is a theme that few in Hollywood, Spielberg included, would be comfortable conveying today. Even 2012’s Lincoln pulls back on the sentimental pro-American imagery that Spielberg was so enthused to share 16 years prior. The closest that Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner come to refer to the Declaration of Independence is the “self-evidence” of Euclidean geometry. Appeals to the Founding Fathers that were so prevalent in Amistad are non-existent here, except for a lewd joke that Lincoln shares about General Washington’s portrait in a British aristocrat’s water closet

Perhaps this is intentional. Spielberg and company did not seem interested in telling a story about grandiose visions of past glory. Instead, his film chronicles the Shakespearean tale of the gritty, volatile, and sometimes immoral things good men must do for the sake of the many. This Lincoln not only delivers the Second Inaugural but also approves the disbursement of hush money to buy the support of lame-duck Democrats. 

While Amistad explored American memory, Lincoln sees Spielberg confronting and coming to terms with the flaws and strengths of American democracy. And he does so without hardly ever using the word “democracy.” The word appears in the script only three times during one pivotal scene in which Lincoln is discussing reconciliation with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.

Alexander Stephens:

How’ve you held your Union together? Through democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration? Your Union, sir, is bonded in cannon fire and death.


It may be you’re right. But say all we done is show the world that democracy isn’t chaos, that there is a great invisible strength in a people’s union? Say we’ve shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere? Mightn’t that save at least the idea of democracy, to aspire to? Eventually, to become worthy of? At all rates, whatever may be proven by blood and sacrifice must’ve been proved by now. Shall we stop this bleeding?

Here we see the point of the entire enterprise. Spielberg’s maturation as a filmmaker results in a more nuanced and succinct vindication of American self-government than he could have produced in the late ‘90s. In Lincoln, the director lets the actions of great men speak louder than their words. 

In the next decade, Spielberg returned to American history on three occasions for three wildly different stories. In 2015 he released Bridge of Spies, a Frank Capra-esque examination of the importance of the rule of law in the story of James Donovan, the man who defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel before negotiating his exchange for American pilot Francis Powers. Less than two years later, Spielberg reunited with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep for The Post, a fairly mediocre effort that took on The Washington Post’s fight to publish the classified Pentagon Papers tracing American involvement in Vietnam. 

Spielberg’s later films, especially The Post and 2021’s Oscar-winning musical West Side Story, respond to the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump and the state of the American mind. Unlike the first stage of his career, where he sought to offer escapism from a weary world, Spielberg has leapt at the chance to explore today’s political tensions by shining a light on shared triumphs and failures.

West Side Story is the farthest thing possible from Amistad. Not only is it a big-budget studio musical with rousing song and dance numbers filmed in vibrant colors, but it is also a scathing indictment of the place racism still holds in this country. The racial unrest that the country continues to grapple with and the continued debates over immigration unmistakably make their mark on the film. But the greatest thematic change that Spielberg makes to the material is the character Anita, played by the recently minted Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose.

In previous incarnations of the material, Anita was a full-throated advocate of the American dream. The 1961 Oscar-winning film relished in Rita Moreno dancing among the rooftops of Manhattan, defending America against her pragmatic boyfriend Bernado in the signature number “America.” She viewed herself as an American regardless of her place in the dramatic arc. In Spielberg’s film, however, Anita yearns to be American—to be accepted as one—but ends up rejecting the country because its people rejected her. In a new line added for the 2021 film, Anita declares after surviving a sexual assault attempt by the surviving Jets: “I am not American. I am Puerto Rican!” 

Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story examines the promise and disenchantment of the American dream. There’s little good about America in this film. Gone is the rousing sentimentalism of Amistad; gone is the quiet grace of Lincoln; gone is the civically minded Bridge of Spies and The Post. For Spielberg, what’s left to explore in America is the inescapable truth that racism still exists and there is still work to be done.

The trajectory of the themes in Spielberg’s American saga indicates, at least from the filmmaker’s viewpoint, that America itself is on the decline. Somehow we are not living up to the principles that the characters in his earlier historical efforts fought for. No doubt this evolution coincides with recent historical developments. Still, over the arc of his career, Spielberg presents himself as a devoted institutionalist who believes Americans have the tools necessary to be better than we were. 

During his 30-year search to better understand his own country, Spielberg has wrestled with the nation’s demons. In exploring slavery, racism, government corruption, and secession, he has also discovered the country’s better angels. America, according to Spielberg, is an imperfect union that was designed to be made—and has been made—more perfect. 
Perhaps he will return to the history books in the future. His latest effort, The Fablemans, in theaters nationwide later this month, will explore less of the civic and more of the personal. Spielberg himself has called the film “semi-autobiographical,” chronicling a fictionalized account of his early childhood growing up as part of a disintegrating Jewish family in post-war America. Expect Fablemans to further explore questions of identity and, as in classic Spielberg films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T., the disintegration of the American family. Nevertheless, I hope he does return to the history books one day. After all, America is a pretty big place with a lot of stories to tell and we will always need to remember that this country is one worth fighting for.

Tyler MacQueen is the Digital Content Manager at Common Sense Society. Follow him on Twitter at @1776TMac.