Like John Ford with John Wayne, or Bobby De Niro with Marty Scorsese, certain directors find a muse and go back to him time and again. Sometimes it’s that he’s a chameleon and right for the part (De Niro), and sometimes it’s just all he can do (John Wayne). Sometimes, for example the case of Alfred Hitchcock, he just picked whoever was the most popular at the time. A prolific period for Spielberg, he hollowed the successful Minority Report by teaming up with two of the world’s biggest stars in Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio to make Catch Me If You Can.
Part jaunty caper, part touching family story, it follows the life of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio) and the FBI agent charged with bringing him in (Hanks) and it’s easily one of the best of his late career films. Without incongruous shifts in tone Spielberg manages to move between the funny, light moments where DiCaprio learns his trade and Hanks’ stuffy agent fails to stop him, and heartfelt moments between Abagnale and his father. Played with Herculean pathos by Christopher Walken, their relationship is the heart of the film and it would take a hard heart not to be moved by him.
With a cool 60s setting which is never overbearing or cheesy, there are some brilliant images throughout: the camera follows the drawn guns of FBI agents back and forward; a tornado of money spills from a suitcase; Abagnale walks a seemingly endless airport corridor towards the camera. The contrasting setting of Frank’s illicit hotel lifestyle, his family’s tiny flat, and the chaotic FBI offices keeps things interesting, and seeing the minutiae of Abagnale’s fledgling cheque fraud is a guilty pleasure. DiCaprio cements his post-Titanic determination to avoid shit rom coms with a fine performance, and Hanks plays against type, avoiding the affable everyman shtick that’s made his career. The real star is Walken, whose doomed determination and “Where are you headed, Frank?” exit from the film are enough to make tears happen to grown men.
He followed this up with a relatively minor ($60m budget) film in 2004’s The Terminal. Reunited with Hanks for a third outing, this is one of his stranger films. Loosely based on the real story of an Iranian refugee who spent 18 years living in the departure lounge of Charles De Gaulle Airport, The Terminal restores Hanks to everyman duties (although an everyman from a fictional Eastern European state) as Victor Navorski. Stranded in the eponymous airport terminal (an impressive set), the film follows his efforts to leave and see New York for reasons that become clear as the film progresses. During his stay he selflessly helps the airport workers with their lives and attempts to woo Catherine Zeta Jones’ lovelorn flight attendant.
It’s an oddly non-narrative film, more episodic than the usual Spielberg output; light and comedic in tone, and full of his trademark gracenotes. It is also occasionally very heavy handed, with Zeta Jones trying manfully to breathe life into a kind-of love interest role, and Stanley Tucci making a one-dimensional bureaucrat villain a wee bit more interesting. Her role is a shade too obvious; the Napoleon anecdotes not doing enough to hide a flighty (pun intended), I’m-too-much-of-a-mess-for-a-nice-guy-like-you cliché. His is better; while solely there to offer dramatic tension, in the hands of a lesser actor we could be in panto territory. John Williams’ scores seem to become more and more obtrusive as time goes on, and The Terminal suffers because of it. There are some overblown scenes here and there, and Spielberg simply can’t resist a mushy ending; Barry Henley’s security chief handing Hanks a coat rather than handcuffs is too implausible to really be sweet.
I’m quite the fan of single-location films; from the sweaty confines of the jury room in 12 Angry Men to Die Hard’s iconic Nakatomi Tower, I love a film that establishes a sense of place and space. What The Terminal does well is create a world for Navorski to inhabit; it feels like a genuine place, and this helps the sketched out supporting characters seem a bit more real.
Kudos to Spielberg for trying something new; it’s better than his last attempt at a romantic comedy (Always) and scores extra points for not being actually that romantic. It loses points, however, for Spielberg’s inability to resist a happy ending, and every part from where Novorski moves to leave the terminal feels kind of false. It’s a shame, because there is a lot to like in what went before. Still not sure about Hanks’ accent, though.
Having made his name early on with films about benevolent aliens, Spielberg’s decision to adapt H.G Wells’ War Of The Worlds might have been done with a wink towards the audience. The result, however, is bereft of irony. Full of carnage and whipping by at a pace that Tom Cruise himself would struggle to run away from, War Of The Worlds is by turns exhilarating, bleak, exciting, unsatisfying and maddeningly slight.
Reunited with Tom Cruise (an underrated actor IMHO), who remains impressively unheroic throughout, Spielberg sketches out a decent broken family dynamic before the action begins. This adds some peril to the proceedings, although Cruise’s surly emo dick of a son (Justin Chatwin) and air raid siren daughter (Dakota Fanning) occasionally make you root for the aliens. The plot amounts to running away and surviving through a series of increasingly desperate situations, with only elements taken from the original novel. Dramatically-speaking, none of this would work if it was just Cruise doing his running thing (see this year’s The Mummy for evidence of that), but the addition of his kids puts something at stake.
The structure makes the film feel disjointed: they run away from a plane crash, then a ferry crash, then a battle, then a crazy man’s (Tim Robbins’ Ogilvy, one of the highlights of the book, reduced to tin foil hat and crazy eyes here but given a nicely dark ending) basement. Admittedly, it’s a blessed relief when Chatwin’s character buggers off to join the battle and apparently die, but not really explained other than in the scene immediately preceding it. After the suitably tense Ogilvy sequence, we move into the nightmarish Red Weed scene and after an alien tripod is downed by some nifty hand grenade action, the film kind of just lurches to an end as the aliens get sick and die. This is, after all, how it happened in the book but Tom Cruise explaining to a marine that their shields were down feels like a cheap concession to star power.
I loved War Of The Worlds when I first saw it, but reviewed now it feels rushed, disjointed, and has a hugely unsatisfying finale. Not his worst but far from his best. There are some suitably horrific scenes: the opening alien attack is an impressive adrenaline rush; the bodies-floating-downstream part is suitably horrific; and the scenes where people are scarier than aliens are the best ones. And yes, to address the elephant in the room. Personally, I don’t think one bad element can tarnish a whole film: Batman’s voice does not spoil The Dark Knight; the rubber shark didn’t ruin Jaws; and the presence of Cruise’s son, alive and well at the end does not ruin War Of The Worlds. It’s cheap, it’s an unnecessary piece of sentiment, and it’s something that is sadly now associated with Spielberg. After such a strong ending to Catch Me If You Can, it’s such a shame that he did this. But did it ruin the film? No, there were enough problems with what went before to call it ruined.