How Steven Spielberg Keeps Confounding His Critics

Michael Tran/Getty Images
Steven Spielberg

A look at the director's impossible-to-summarize career, which takes a plunge into virtual reality with 'Ready Player One,' just months after 'The Post' championed freedom of the press.

In the mid-1950s, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay that riffed, so to speak, on an observation by an ancient Greek poet: that a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.

“Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words,” noted Berlin. “[But] there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision [the hedgehogs]…and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory [the foxes].”

In other words, you can divide people into two types: the monomaniacs, whose thinking is dominated by an overriding idea that colors their view of the universe; and the generalists, who bombard us with a thousand different ideas, sometimes dazzling but rarely tethered to any grand unified theory. 

Einstein was a hedgehog. Leonardo da Vinci was a fox. They had equally valid, but diametrically opposed, approaches to everything.

It’s an arbitrary division, of course, because most of us are a mixture of the two; you’d have to be certifiably insane to be so possessed by a single belief that it never left room for anything else. 

Berlin broke great artists down into these two categories; but in truth, the ones we most admire today are hedgehogs, whether writers or directors, sculptors or poets. They’re obsessed with a core idea that they explore over and over, in all its permutations. They apply the same point of view to a range of subjects and stories, no matter how varied these may appear to be. 

That’s just as true of filmmakers as of painters and poets. Look at Renoir or Kurosawa or John Ford, and each has such a unique way of seeing the world that we recognize it at once. The same applies to a Stanley Kubrick or a Quentin Tarantino — when we use the term “Tarantino-esque,” we know exactly what it means: a surreal blend of violence and comedy, each feeding off the other.

Think about Hitchcock. It doesn’t matter if he’s doing a period piece (Rebecca) or a thriller (North by Northwest), there’s always that sense of foreboding, a feeling that the universe holds all sorts of dangers that are liable to break suddenly and dramatically into our lives, albeit with a splash of humor. Hitchcock’s worldview can be found across a body of work that spanned 50 years; no matter how many films he made, his essential philosophy remained unchanged. That’s why the French New Wave called him an “auteur.” It’s a fancy word for a hedgehog.

There’s only one major filmmaker I can think of who’s an exception to this rule: Steven Spielberg. 

Sure, he’s made movies in which awe and wonder seem the most fundamental things, others in which an all-American optimism and decency appear central to his creed. But search as I might, I can never find any unifying idea, the “vision thing” that, with some filmmakers, stamps every frame.

I thought of this the other day when I bought the last remaining ticket to an evening showing of Ready Player One, which opened this weekend to a solid $50 million-plus domestically. There were a hundred different ideas bubbling through the movie — about what constitutes reality, about how computers are transforming our lives, about the clash of the imagination and the real. But there was no dominant conceit that linked this picture to Spielberg’s entire corpus.

Try to connect Player with his previous film, The Post, and you’ll be left scratching your head. I challenge you to tell me what makes them part of the same metaphysical whole, regardless of whether they’re good or bad (I, for one, felt Player was beneath his enormous talents). 

Spielberg’s problem isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s an excess. He’s not just a fox — he’s the most foxy fox in the field.

That’s not true of the man in real life. I’ve interviewed him a number of times over the past two decades, and, on each occasion, one gets an immediate sense of who he is: quick-minded, curious, immensely charming and evermore benevolent the older he gets. But as a filmmaker, he leaves me bewildered.

The grandest of artists can sometimes abandon one worldview for another. That’s why we speak of Picasso’s rose period or his cubist phase. At the very highest echelon, a handful of masters may have different eras in which their portrayal of life alters radically.

Filmmakers are rarely like that today; the economics of the motion picture business don’t permit it. Movies are too expensive, too long in the works, to allow someone who has branded himself as one thing to reinvent himself as another. Even if an Oliver Stone wished to try his hand at comedy, it’s almost certain nobody would let him.

But Spielberg shape-shifts in the blink of an eye. The director who made Schindler’s List is the same one who made Jurassic Park in the very same year. Each is quite brilliant but in a completely unrelated way.

That’s marvelous for a studio system that has always valued craftsmanship over art. But it’s maddening and infuriating for critics, who delve in vain for a one-line credo they can latch onto and explain. Spielberg’s protean nature has allowed him to survive at the top for decades, but it’s hurt him with the very people who’ll be defending him for decades to come.

To them, he’s a visionary without a vision, a man of a multitude of gifts, rather than a single one. For centuries, that was the sort of man we most admired. Not anymore. This is the age of the specialist, not the generalist. We like people who think vertically, not laterally. 

We want our artists to have one Big Idea, not a hundred smaller ones. And so we keep hoping Spielberg will turn into a hedgehog, when he’s always been a fox.

For more Galloway on Film please see the archive