Ask the Professor: Is Spielberg one of the all-time great directors?

Professor Lapadula: I have all kinds of respect for Spielberg — he’s the filmmaker; he can do what he wants with his movies. But in the majority of his films, he’s a little too sentimental for me, and almost a little too easy to watch. Schindler’s List (1993) was a hit. How can a movie about the Holocaust be a hit? It made almost $100 million in the U.S. Because even though there are the awful things you see, no primary character that we follow, nobody who is seriously important to the audience, dies. What we witness is tragic, beyond horrible and horrific, but none of the principal characters are dead at the end of the movie. That strategy was very different from the 70s miniseries Holocaust (1978). Something like seven of the principal nine characters were dead before that series was over because that was the Holocaust. But Spielberg doesn’t want to shake us up.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) has one of the best sequences in movies history: the Omaha beach landing. If that’s all that ever survives of Stephen Spielberg’s work, that’s enough to know that he was technically one of the greatest filmmakers ever to get behind the camera. But that sequence is bookended by this extremely sentimental section showing Private James Ryan (Harrison Young), years later, looking over the graves. He’s really, really choked up about it. I understand it would be a big emotional moment, but those scenes took away from the power of this movie.

Spielberg sentimentalizes everything. The guy is overly emotional, but he should allow the audience to be emotional. He doesn’t have to make the character be our cue to be emotional.

Harrison Young as an elderly Private James Ryan in Saving Private Ryan (1998)

That’s where the difference between a Kubrick and a Spielberg lies, for me. That’s why Kubrick will be always a much higher level of achievement, even though he’s made far fewer films. His movies have a grim, real texture and tone. When you go through a Kubrick experience, it’s something that marks you for life, as far as who you are and how you look at the world. That’s what the greatest directors do.

Spielberg is the most fun ride in the amusement park. He’s the ride you want to go on again and again and again. Kubrick is the ride you can only get on occasionally because it’s too frightening. It’s exhilarating in a way that makes you almost ashamed of yourself — for example, when you watch the rape scene in Clockwork Orange (1972), it’s horrible, but you can’t turn away from it.

Obviously, Spielberg is a major, major filmmaker, and I think Spielberg’s someone who can sleep very well at night. He’s a really hard worker; he treats everybody with respect, from everything I’ve heard; he’s amazing with actors; he’s great with his crew; he knows exactly what he wants; he gets what he wants; he brings a movie in usually around on budget and on time; he’s not notorious for being a prima donna. So there’s everything in the world to respect about him as a filmmaker, as a person, as a man. If you look at a movie like Catch Me If You Can (2002), with Leonardo DiCaprio (I love that movie, and people forget that’s a Spielberg movie), you see that he’s someone who could make anything, but he’s making what he wants.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg on the set of Catch Me If You Can (2002)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I can’t be as critical of him for pushing the sentimental note because, if that’s his sensibility, he’s brave enough to do it. Clearly, he’s not doing it now to make some money — he’s got more money than anybody could ever need. So more power to him. Still, although technically I’d put him in the same class as the best of the best, I would not put him as an overall filmmaker in the same class with a Hitchcock or a Kubrick.

SP: Do you feel one of his blockbusters like Jaws (1975) ever reaches a high level of cinema or art?

Professor Lapadula: It reaches a very high level in the way that it executes its narrative, but it cops out at the end. Again, Spielberg is so successful, and it’s his film, so he’s allowed to make it the way he wants. But when Brody’s climbing, scaling that mast at the end, as the ship is rapidly sinking and the shark is coming in, circling in for another attack, suddenly John Williams gives us a couple of notes that actually make you realize he’s going to make it. Spielberg wasn’t even comfortable with letting us think Brody’s going to drown. Once I hear, suddenly, this majestic sequence of notes as he’s going up the mast, I know, Wait a minute, he’s going to make it. So I jettison all my worries.

Roy Sheider in Jaws (1975)

Yes, it’s still suspenseful, but, my God, it would have been even more suspenseful if we didn’t have that music cue. And maybe that was John Williams’ mistake (in my opinion), but Spielberg allowed it to be in there because that’s what he wanted. He has every right to make that decision. But he doesn’t want to shake us up to much.

Read more from Ask the Professor: In “Jaws,” how does Spielberg exemplify a new generation of directors?

Marc Lapadula is a Senior Lecturer in the Film Studies Program at Yale University. He is a playwright, screenwriter and an award-winning film producer. In addition to Yale, Professor Lapadula has taught at Columbia University’s Graduate Film School, created the screenwriting programs at both The University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins where he won Outstanding Teaching awards and has lectured on film, playwriting and conducted highly-acclaimed screenwriting seminars all across the country at notable venues like The National Press Club, The Smithsonian Institution, and The New York Historical Society. He has also been an expert script analyst in major Hollywood lawsuits.