Scene by Scene explores an auteur’s finest moments — the scenes that let you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller. This week, in light of his latest film, Ready Player One, Sam will reflect on the magic moments of Steven Spielberg’s filmography.
Throughout his career, Spielberg has delivered instantly iconic images. When we think of him, we picture Elliott riding his bike across the face of the moon in E.T. or Indiana Jones outrunning a rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But rather than focusing on these moments that always spring to mind, Sam is going to shed light on the less-discussed scenes from Spielberg’s more recent work.
5. THE POST: A TIMELY SPECTACLE OUTSIDE THE SUPREME COURT
In the middle of post-production on Ready Player One, Spielberg snuck off to make this masterpiece — one of the most relevant and riveting dramas in recent memory. With an urgent impulse to “tell this story today,” he chased after it like one of the hungry journalists at the heart of the film.
The tale of the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers is not only timely in this age of fake news; it also reflects this period of female empowerment. Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer wisely focus on Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper.
The film’s most indelible image is that of Graham beaming with pride as she wades through a sea of women washing over the steps of the Supreme Court. It beautifully mirrors the women’s movement of the moment. This scene serves as a stirring reminder of Spielberg’s ability to sweep us away with a simple shot.
4. WAR OF THE WORLDS: RISING FROM THE ASHES
Although the first Tripod attack is certainly a work of dark magic, the most striking moment comes shortly after this sequence. Tom Cruise’s character rises from the rubble, returns home and stares into a bathroom mirror, stunned that he survived. His face is caked in ghostly white dust, and as he washes it off, we can’t help but see the ashes of 9/11. The devastation of that day also flooded Spielberg’s mind during the making of the film.
“The image that stands out most in my mind is everybody in Manhattan fleeing across the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11, a searing image that I’ve never been able to get out of my head,” Spielberg said in an interview with Today. “There are politics underneath some of the scares (in the film). It’s certainly about Americans fleeing for their lives, being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they are being attacked and who is attacking them.”
We focus so much on the timeless moments from Spielberg’s filmography that it’s jarring to see him tap into the zeitgeist (as he also does in The Post). I remember seeing this film in the theater the summer before my freshman year of high school. I shivered in my seat as the chill of post-9/11 dread loomed over the film. This quietly devastating moment of a man shaking off debris felt like the introduction of a new Spielberg — one in tune with the tortured soul of America.
3. MINORITY REPORT: THE CLICKING OF SPIDERS
Police chief — and murder suspect — John Anderton (Tom Cruise) hides out in a dingy apartment building as fellow law enforcement officers send robotic spiders to search the premises. Spielberg’s camera takes a bird’s-eye view as the creepy crawlers scurry through the residents’ homes. This sequence is a bone-chilling embodiment of a future in which Big Brother is always hovering overhead. It resonates now in this era of rapidly decreasing privacy.
Spielberg mounts Hitchcockian suspense as the spiders close in on Anderton. They grow as menacing and iconic as the truck in Duel, the shark in Jaws or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Watching this scene for the first time back in 2002 felt like witnessing the arrival of a new classic.
2. MUNICH: HISTORY DOOMED TO REPEAT ITSELF
One of Spielberg’s darkest films, Munich follows the team of Mossad agents assigned to assassinate the Palestinian terrorists responsible for killing 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. In this scene, the leader of the team (Eric Bana) wrestles with whether he destroyed monsters or merely created more of them, looking at himself as a source of evil. Much like the War on Terror, this mission born out of reactionary revenge becomes a morally murky mess. In the film’s final shot, we see the Twin Towers in the distance — a haunting harbinger of history doomed to repeat itself. Like the image of debris in War of the Worlds, it’s a brief yet unforgettable reminder of Spielberg’s ability to reflect the times.
1. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: TWO MICE IN A BUCKET OF CREAM
Spielberg is known for creating moments of movie magic, for making us look up in awe at spectacles larger than life. But he also works wonders when he comes down to earth. In this scene, he mesmerizes us with a simple, intimate exchange between a father and son.
Earlier in Catch Me If You Can, we see Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) looking up to his old man (Christopher Walken), gazing with childlike wonder as he charms everyone around him. Frank adopts his father’s confidence and charisma on the path toward becoming a con artist. When we arrive at this scene, he’s in the midst of impersonating an airline pilot and ready to make his dad proud. As he regales his father with a fancy lunch, we discover Frank Sr. is deep in debt and digging out of a divorce. He launches into the story of how he met his son’s mother — the same one he’s told a million times. But this time, he breaks down. The twinkle in his eye turns to tears of pain. Frank is shocked to see his father — his hero — as a mere human.
This happens to many of us. We hold certain people in high regard, we see them as gods and we yearn to reach their plane of existence. When we finally feel like we’ve gotten there, we learn that they were just like us all along. And this revelation is more rewarding than becoming the idealized version of them that we saw in the beginning.
Catch Me If You Can is about someone chasing after a perfect identity. That theme hit close to home for me in junior high as I struggled to look at myself in the mirror and sought solace in movies, wishing I were as cool as the characters on screen — and the loved one who reminded me of them. Like Frank, I longed to become my hero, who was in closer reach than the likes of James Bond. But as Frank’s hero did, my father taught me to be myself.
Spielberg is also like Frank, reaching for the heavens but emerging as his best self when he’s grounded in reality.
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