Has Blockbuster-Inventor Steven Spielberg Outgrown Violence?

Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies
20th Century Fox

Sure, you can blame the aliens, the gophers, the monkeys and the fridge. But even without all those, 2008's Indiana Jones and the Harrumphing of the Whatsit likely wouldn't have worked. Its director, you see, no longer finds it edifying to dream up new ways to kill America's historical enemies and/or the world's indigenous peoples. In fact, he barely could be bothered to do so way back in 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a family comedy that, outside its tank-attack sequence, plays about as rough as Herbie Goes to Venice. There's no way around it: Steven Spielberg the responsible grown-up no longer finds his jollies in pulp-adventure killing sprees.

If anything, this master showman has pushed back against the prevailing idea, on our screens and in our national character, that violence is noble, justified and — ick — fun. Some blame for that must lie with Spielberg, who along with George Lucas pioneered the industrialization of bad-guy killing, invigorating the moldy thrills of old war, Western and Bond pictures with brilliant tech and technique — and enshrining chase and fight set-pieces above all else.

Today, Hollywood's young directors make a smart indie or two and then get promoted to working on that set-piece assembly line. The money's good, of course — but like Shia LaBeouf in that last Indy, none of these guys has yet won the right to wear the master's hat. (Or, in Spielberg's case, beard.) That's despite the fact that Spielberg himself isn't even competing with them: His last chase-and-fight picture, 2011's The Adventures of Tintin, is a lulu of vigorous invention, one without much of a body count, but even he had to know that audiences would prefer the generic thrills of Jurassic World.

Since Schindler's List, Spielberg films have found violence horrific. In Saving Private Ryan it's sacrifice and endurance that are heroic, while the killing is grueling and painful; in War of the Worlds and The Lost World, the monsters are to be fled rather than ass-stomped. As Spielberg has aged, his heroes have become increasingly reluctant to deal out death: Minority Report is about a man who insists that he won't kill, even as the fates insist he will.

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Suspenseful and touchingly confused, Munich depicts Mossad agents harrowed by their assassinations of the Palestinians behind the slaughter of 11 members of the Israeli wrestling team at the 1972 Summer Olympics. That film's much-ridiculed climax flashes back to the graphic murder of the Israelis while agent Avner (Eric Bana) has thundering sex with his wife. It's a sweaty reversal of Private Ryan's "Tell me I've led a good life!" epilogue: Here's a man worrying that the blood on his hands is justified by the crime he was avenging.

Munich is a pained and reluctant film, one given power by its creator's ambivalence toward some of his great crowd-pleasing strengths: the tension before an act of violence, and that act's crisp execution. To that end, Munich was also a dead end, a trick he could only pull off once. In how many movies could he get away with staging masterful murders while simultaneously apologizing for them?

That ambivalence has hardened, since Munich, into something like refusal. Yes, there's giddy action in Tintin, but it's abstracted through animation, and that movie is about clues and escapes — and impossible soaring camerawork — rather than offing bad guys. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, meanwhile, he directed like a conscientious objector: He wants to kill those Russians like the National Lampoon wanted to kill that dog.

So, in his new Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, Spielberg doesn't kill the Russians. He hardly kills anyone, in fact — we do see, from a distance, shadowy figures gunned down as they clamber over the Berlin Wall, an image that the film makes clear will haunt its hero until the end of his days.

Like Lincoln, Bridge of Spies is haunted by war and the possibility of war to come. The hero this time is an idealist with a head cold, one who gets hassled, as Indy might, by young men on the streets of a foreign city — but neglects to shoot them. Tom Hanks' James B. Donovan, like Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln, believes we all share some baseline human decency, but he's no naïf. This negotiator sees the humanity of his adversaries — and in that humanity finds the pressure points he must thumb to ensure everyone lives up to that decency. The world doesn't just do so out of the goodness of its heart, of course!

These two films might play as fantasies of how much more that idealist Barack Obama might have accomplished if he had had the toughness and the human touch to find those points of pressure. The films are un-violent but not pacifistic — in Lincoln's case, without the millions of American dead, the 13th Amendment might not have been ratified for several more decades. But they exemplify the director's own unfashionable belief in that simple human decency of Capra or Dickens, which in Bridge of Spies culminates in a moment that is as familiar to old Spielberg as faces bathed in mystic light were to his younger self.

We could call it the Spielberg Détente, the literalization of his efforts to cease all that meaningless action. It comes when, in the midst of terrible conflict, our Everyman hero and some representative of the opposing side find a moment of shared humanity. In Bridge of Spies, it's an act of unlikely solidarity, occurring right in between East and West Berlin, in the darkest hour before dawn: A spook on one side surprises all sides (but probably not audiences) by throwing in not with the Americans, the Russians or the Germans but with Hanks' character's sense of the greater spirit of humanity.

In War Horse the détente comes in another no-man's land: At the Second Battle of the Somme, British and German soldiers take a break from shelling each other to aid a stray horse that has gotten tangled up in barbed wire, exchanging tense jokes and well-wishes. The scene's a sugary one-act, a tiny drama with a thesis statement that might apply to all of Spielberg's war pictures: Nations are mad but people are good. As Bilge Ebiri argues in Vulture, politics itself seems the subject of Spielberg's latest movies — although the triumphs negotiated in Lincoln and Bridge of Spies depend upon the suspension of the usual national politics.

Variations on this suspension turn up again and again in late Spielberg: Munich's Mossad assassins share a safe house and a heart-to-heart with members of the PLO; the savers of Private Ryan encounter a chatty German soldier who shouts "Fuck Hitler!" with such gusto they can't bring themselves to kill him; Lincoln unfolds in the uncertain peace at war's end, before the country had settled into its new self; Catch Me If You Can makes a Christmas Day ritual of cat and mouse checking in on each other on the phone. Spielberg's least successful 2000s movie, The Terminal, stranded Tom Hanks in what might be the director's ideal situation: stuck in an international airport, citizen of the world but of no particular nation, forever in between, liberated from nationalism — and too kind and reasonable for any of those countries anyway.

Young Spielberg dreamed of relentless terrors, of luminous aliens, of an American demonstrating his pragmatic superiority by just shooting that flashy Arab swordsman. Old Spielberg dreams of heroes who don't have to kill, who effect change otherwise, who never deny the humanity of their adversaries — and often even connect to it. No wonder he's not selling tickets like he used to.

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