Spielberg's Boyish Wonder Illuminates 'Tintin,' 'War Horse'

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

For those of us who grew up on the movies of Steven Spielberg, it's hard not to still think of him as a boy wonder. He is, after all, the director laureate of the Peter Pan generation, and we've all never grown up alongside him. He was still a kid in his 20s when he made Jaws, the film that redefined the concept of the summer movie, and a mere seven years later he had Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. under his championship belt. If he'd never made another movie he'd still be counted one of the most successful, influential, and beloved—though not in all quarters—filmmakers in the world. Is there anyone who goes to the movies who doesn't know his name? Judged solely in economic terms, Spielberg has no peers: the films he's directed—never mind the 130 or so movies and TV projects that bear his name as a producer—have generated an unprecedented $3.8 billion in box-office revenue, and that's just in the U.S.

Spielberg, who's just turning 65, is now in the fourth decade of his career. At that age many of the early giants of Hollywood were entering the last phases of their directing careers, telling tales imbued with an autumnal spirit. Billy Wilder was about the same age when he made The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; Hitchcock made Marnie and would shoot only four more features in his lifetime; Howard Hawks directed Rio Bravo, then slowed to a crawl. But there is nothing autumnal about the two ambitious movies Spielberg has coming out this holiday season. The Adventures of Tintin, which has already proved a hit in Europe, where audiences are familiar with the Hergé comic strips that inspired it, is his first venture into motion-capture animation and 3-D. War Horse, based on the award-winning play set during World War I, has an episodic epic structure unlike anything he's attempted before. At the moment he's in the midst of filming Lincoln in Richmond, Va., with Daniel Day-Lewis playing the president in the last four years of his life, from a screenplay by Tony Kushner. And he'll follow that with yet another change of pace, Robopocalypse, a futuristic thriller about a robot uprising. This is not a man with his eyes on the finish line. He's deep in an extended midcareer, maintaining a sprinter's pace, with no signs of fatigue.

Well, actually, he has the flu, which has been spreading like wildfire through the Lincoln crew. Spielberg is sitting in a vast, empty antechamber of the capitol building in Richmond, built in 1788, which is doubling as the White House and the Congress. He's wearing black boots, a tightly fit black woolen jacket, and a black cap that gives him the air of an equestrian competitor. Why, at a point in life when many men would be slowing down, does he keep up the unflagging pace? A recent New York Times article asked the "What Makes Steven Run?" question and posited the theory that he was driven by fear, a fear that was the residue of a child's panic (Spielberg has said he was born a nervous wreck), a fear that permeated the themes of his films. Spielberg is having none of it. "I disagree with that," he says emphatically. "Fear isn't what drives creative people. It's more trust, and hope, and the challenge of doing something you haven't done before. It's not fear so much as it's confidence."

There's a simpler explanation for what makes Steven run: nothing gives him more pleasure than making movies. "I just love being on the floor filming things. I miss it when I'm not doing it. Because producing is not the same thing. Running a studio [DreamWorks] is not the same thing. Physically working with crews and actors—there's nothing like it!"

A friend of his had told me that Steven was "a bit of a nerd, but when he's on a set he's transformed." And watching him at work proves the point. He's directing a complicated scene for Lincoln in which the members of Congress are shouting each other down as they debate the passage of the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery. He calls out to his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski exactly what lens he wants for a shot, where the camera should move. He's in his element, in total control. He likes to work fast (one reason he loves the speedy Kaminski and his trusted editor Michael Kahn, also known for his alacrity). His crews love him because, unlike some directors, he knows everything there is to know about the technology of making a movie.

"He hires the best, then gets out of their way," says an associate who worked with him for many years. "He can be incredibly demanding—he's impatient—but he's always the smartest guy in the room and the most hardworking." He intuitively knows what his actors need from him: usually he'll watch a scene unfold from behind the monitor, but while working with Tom Cruise on Minority Report he sensed that his star wanted him to be in his sight lines, so he stood next to the camera for his scenes. "Movies are always in a state of locomotion," Spielberg explains. "You start with a general idea of how it should feel and then you find you've got a runaway train. You have to race to catch up: the movie is telling you what it wants to become, and when that happens there's no greater feeling."

Spielberg won't single out a favorite among his movies, but the one he was most dissatisfied with was Hook. "It never achieved what I was hoping for. Neverland was too theatrical, it was too much like a Broadway show." His two most underappreciated films? Always and The Terminal, he says. He thinks the fanboys were "sharpening their knives" for the last Indiana Jones movie as soon as they heard that he was mixing genres and adding aliens into the brew. Add to that the failure of Cowboys & Aliens, on which he served as an executive producer, and he allows, with a smile, "I think I'll be winding down my involvement with extraterrestrials."

The former boy wonder is playing with a whole new set of technological toys in The Adventures of Tintin, and you can see his delight up on the screen. The freedom of motion-capture animation unleashes his imagination. Taken from The Secret of the Unicorn and two other Hergé graphic novellas, this globe-trotting adventure follows the intrepid young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell), whose purchase of an old model sailing ship at a flea market puts his life in peril. For hidden inside the model is a clue that will lead to a long-lost shipwrecked treasure. Kidnapped along with his faithful terrier, Snowy (a CGI triumph), by the archvillain Sakharine (Daniel Craig), he finds himself imprisoned aboard a tanker, where he encounters the rowdy, booze-loving Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Together, the straight-arrow hero and the reprobate captain become unlikely partners as they try to stay alive long enough to solve a centuries-old riddle. Teemingly inventive, Tintin has some of the playful Rube Goldberg–ish propulsion of Spielberg's 1941, but without that movie's strenuous comic overkill. Tintin (whose earnest, deadpan visage is more Jude Law than Jamie Bell) and the wild, alcoholic Haddock find themselves in the mythical Moroccan town of Bagghar, where Spielberg pulls off a swooping, breathtaking single-shot chase sequence—one that would have been impossible to film in live action—that ranks among his greatest virtuoso set pieces.

Tintin's second half may be too relentlessly frenetic for some tastes (I would have enjoyed the 17th-century flashbacks aboard the good ship Unicorn more had all those rotten Pirates of the Caribbean sequels not spoiled my appetite for pirates). But no matter how feverishly complex the action becomes, you always know where you're located and who's doing what to whom. In this era of incoherently staged mayhem (Quantum of Solace, anyone?), Spielberg's classicism is a gift. Nor does he use 3-D for stick-'em-in-the-eye cheap thrills. Spielberg, in fact, is not a gung-ho 3-D fan. "James [Cameron] and Jeffrey [Katzenberg] hate it when I say this, but 3-D isn't right for every film. It's best for animation. When it's not done right it gets in the way of seeing deeply into the story. 3-D doesn't pull your heart."

If Tintin is a movie that could only have been made in the digital 21st century, War Horse harks back to '40s Hollywood, with its glossy Gone With the Wind sunsets and, in its leisurely first hour in Devonshire, England, its stately John Ford rhythms. Stylistically, it's as determinedly old-fashioned as Tintin is up-to-the-minute. And where Tintin has little time for the touchy-feely, War Horse unabashedly works to pull your heartstrings.

It's the story of a boy (Jeremy Irvine), a horse, and war. The horse, Joey, is a thoroughbred recklessly bought at a country auction by the lad's farmer father (Peter Mullan), though he's not built to plow a field. The boy, Albert, falls in love with the horse, trains him, and then has his heart broken when his drunken, impoverished dad sells him to a cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston) setting off for war. We then follow Joey through the horrors of World War I, as he is passed from owner to owner. After the captain is killed in combat—a terrifying scene in which the 19th-century cavalry charges foolhardily into the 20th-century fire of machine guns—he falls into the hands of two young German soldier brothers, then into the possession of an old French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his sickly granddaughter, then a German horse master. Ultimately he lands at the Battle of the Somme, where Albert, now old enough to be a soldier, has been commissioned. In the most spectacular sequence, a riderless Joey runs wild through the trenches and the corpse-ridden mud of the battlefield, where he is entangled and brought to ground in a web of barbed wire. This is Spielberg at his visceral best: poetic and fierce.

But War Horse is an oddly disjointed experience, an uneasy shotgun wedding of National Velvet and Paths of Glory. The episodic structure (the script is by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, taking off from Nick Stafford's stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's young-adult novel) gives the narrative a stop-start feeling, as we're repeatedly introduced to new characters we barely get to know—and some, like that sickly French granddaughter, we're happy to leave. By the time Albert has reappeared in the story, after a long absence, the sentimental contrivances of the plot stick out like sore hooves. I wanted to be devastated—how can you miss with a horse and a boy?—and was surprised not to be. Here, Spielberg's prodigious technique and unlimited resources actually get in the way; the movie feels overproduced and overlong. The story cries out for a fablelike simplicity, but austerity may be one color that's not in the director's paint box.

It's always been remarkable how Spielberg could bounce back and forth with equal enthusiasm between deeply personal projects like Schindler's List or Munich and his crowd-pleasing Jurassic Park movies or a light romp like Catch Me if You Can.

He operates out of a genuine sense of responsibility toward his investors. He'll make one for them, and one for himself. But not cynically: the artist and the businessman reside in harmony inside him, which has enabled him to be a mogul, a producer, and a filmmaker simultaneously and comfortably. His filmmaking career has been built on his uncanny gut instincts—his choices inspired by a book or script that excites him, or, in the case of War Horse, being brought to tears by the stage production in London. He scooped up the rights and figured he had an eight-month window to make the movie during the time Peter Jackson's Weta Digital company in New Zealand was painstakingly transforming his Tintin footage into animation (each frame took five hours to animate). And lo and behold: two new Spielberg movies for the holidays. He may no longer be a boy wonder, but his boyish wonderment never ceases.

Spielberg's Boyish Wonder Illuminates 'Tintin,' 'War Horse' | Culture