From E.T. to Munich, the boy wonder of the movie industry grows up.
For years, Steven Spielberg was Hollywood's boy wonder. Boy wonder because everything he touched turned to gold, undoubtedly, but also for the irrepressible innocence of his outlook on the world--which revolved around childhood hopes and fears--and the boyish sense of adventure found in his films. For many fans, the touching naiveté of Spielberg films like E.T. (1982) was the attraction, while for others, the director's seeming immersion in Saturday-morning serials and the romance of the Hollywood studio system revealed an artist willfully blinkered to the adult world.
It was no secret, in the early years of Spielberg's ascendance, that he was Jewish (his mother was something of a celebrity in her own right in Jewish Los Angeles for owning a kosher restaurant), but his films contained little that would explicitly tie him to his religious heritage. Nonetheless, he was embraced by the Jewish community as a hero as few others have been--a Jewish kid from southern California who had become America's preeminent showman, and a filmmaker and businessman nonpareil.
Spielberg had occasionally interacted with serious matters in his films, from Robert Shaw's gripping story of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975) to the Nazi bad guys of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), but his seeming inability to tackle the world's ugliness with any seriousness made him a whipping boy for critics, who saw him as the root of Hollywood's new love for brain-dead summer blockbusters over heartier fare. Having emerged at the tail end of the American New Wave film movement of the 1970s, Spielberg (along with his sometime collaborator George Lucas) was offered as evidence of that cinematic flowering's early demise.
Of course, much of this attitude was unfounded, and simply unfair. Bashing Spielberg for the works he had not made, rather than honestly assessing those he had, was nonsensical, and led to hasty judgments of early Spielberg films like Jaws and Raiders. Demanding seriousness of a born entertainer like Spielberg was missing the point of where his talents lay--or so it seemed.
A Turning Point
Schindler's List (1993) marked the crucial turning point in Spielberg's career--the moment when he simultaneously embraced seriousness and Jewishness in his work. Spielberg had attempted straightforward drama before, in The Color Purple (1985) and the underrated Empire of the Sun (1987), but Schindler's List was the first of his dramas to assume responsibility for the past, and for Jewish history. When Raiders of the Lost Ark had first hit theaters, critics had been puzzled, and sometimes offended, by the jokey, cartoon-villain Nazis on display, and in many ways, Schindler's List was a long-delayed response to those critics, and a mea culpa for the understandable but still lingering offense of Spielberg's youthful lack of historical grounding. For the Spielberg of Raiders, the Nazis were conveniently well-dressed baddies available to dog Indiana Jones' steps; for the Spielberg of Schindler's List, the enormity of Nazi evil was too great to possibly be contained within a single film.