BMD Picks: Steven Spielberg’s Underrated Gems

Yes, even the Beard has a few works that go overlooked.

HBO entered Susan Lacy's Spielberg into the recent wave of filmmaker-centric cinephile docs this past weekend, and while its a decent primer for those unfamiliar with it's subject's sprawling body of commerical hits, the profile lacked a discernible amount of insight into the "deep cuts". Where were the gems - the entries that may not have been outright successes, or even landed with audiences upon initial release, but still possessed a unique charm or represented a distinct subsection of their creator's worldview? At two-and-a-half hours, there was certainly room for discussion regarding works beyond the staples (JawsClose EncountersET), but either Lacy or Spielberg himself seemed somewhat reluctant to go there. Hell, the two pretty much pretended Hook didn't even exist!

So, we here at BMD thought it pertinent to put together our list of Steven Spielberg's more underappreciated titles, so that they can be dissected with greater depth. Maybe this will lead you to fill a blind spot or two in your own viewing history. Lord knows, we all got 'em...

Munich [2005] (w. Tony Kushner & Eric Roth)

Munich is perhaps Spielberg's most maddening picture, the rare film in his canon that offers no easy answers or comfortable morality. It's urgent and challenging and messy, and those that dismiss it as "Lesser Spielberg" are perhaps missing the filmmaker's courage in offering such uncharacteristically bleak fare. Even taking aside its haunting questions of conscience and culpability, we're left with a visceral, riveting action thriller, featuring the bluntest and most primal cinematography in Janusz Kaminski's career. It's a movie that pushes not only the audience's boundaries, but the auteur's. That sex scene during the climax? Name me one other scene like that in any Spielberg movie. I'll wait. -- Meredith Borders

Catch Me If You Can [2002] (w. Jeff Nathanson) 

Spielberg’s two-movie years are always fascinating. Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List ('93); War of the Worlds and Munich ('05); hell, even Amistad and The Lost World ('97) offer intriguing pairings. Same goes for Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can ('02): it’s the only two-movie Spielberg year where the non-genre film isn’t a hyper-serious historical drama. In fact, it’s one of Spielberg’s funniest, breezing through Frank Abagnale's dubiously true con-man story with a deft touch inspired by the best ‘60s comedies. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks play off each other perfectly as a hotshot grifter on the run and a world-weary, humourless FBI agent, both demonstrating their screen charisma in wholly different ways. The film also grants us one of the best - and most - Christopher Walken performances; memorable turns from Martin Sheen and a then little-known Amy Adams; and a light, bouncy score that displays John Williams’ background in jazz. Underneath it all - even the frothy pop caper - is a pervasive sadness, a yearning for a childhood home to which cocky fugitive Abagnale can never return. Yet another “minor” Spielberg that outperforms most filmmakers’ finest work, it's a testament to the director's back catalogue that Catch Me If You Can often gets forgotten amongst the masterpieces. -- Andrew Todd 

Lincoln [2012] (w. Tony Kushner)

Spielberg will fondly (and rightly) be remembered as a director of awe and adventure, but his later years have given us the most interesting Spielberg yet. Lincoln may not be his first foray into political theatre, but it is perhaps his most political and most theatrical. A kinetic journey through the dirty backroom politics of one of American history’s proudest moments - that is to say, the undoing of some of its most shameful - all grounded in the complicated allure of a great historical figure. 

Daniel Day-Lewis plays a reserved, soft-spoken Abraham Lincoln, whose calm fortitude forms the grounding point for the entire affair. No matter the scene or circumstance, no matter who’s in the room or what they’re doing or saying, the camera centers the sixteenth president in its frame at almost all times, whether holding for him to finish a fable and connect it to current events, or swinging around a crowded room as an all-star cast of lawmakers move back and forth on the politics of humanity itself. But in all this, there is still the boyish Spielberg looking up at Lincoln’s fatherly warmth - not at the cost of a more complex portrait, but in spite of it - as his moment of victory is obscured from us by a curtain, witnessed only by his young son Thomas. Spielberg once recalled visiting the Lincoln Memorial as a child, at first frightened by its immensity before moving in slowly to feel captivated and comforted. Lincoln feels like re-experiencing that day alongside him. -- Siddhant Adlakha

Hook [1991] (w. James V. Hart & Malia Scotch Marmo)

It’s squishy and mushy, and that's exactly how I feel about the movie...

We all forget magic when we grow up. Some lose a little, some lose it all, but at the end of the day, nothing means what it does when you’re a kid. It’s good that folks grow and change, but if there’s not just a little bit of magic in your world, then what could you possibly be fighting for? Spielberg has a plethora of exceptional classics, but few mean what Hook does in terms of finding that magic again well after it’s been lost.

Taking a different look at Peter Pan’s story gave the filmmaker an opportunity to connect with both child and adult while telling a story that continues to mean the world to a generation decades after its release. It also takes time to show that magic exists in more ways than one, and that you can take it with you even after you leave Neverland. The message that love is the most powerful of magics might have been a little trite and overplayed (even in the 90s), but who doesn’t want to believe there’s magic all around us? Furthermore, wouldn't we all like to have just a little bit of control over it if we just believe? Bangarang, Peter. -- Amelia Emberwing

Bridge of Spies [2015] (w. Matt Charman, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) 

Spielberg’s 2015 film - a small, intimate, but also kind of monumental tale about what upholding American ideals really means in practice - was treated like a slighter work from the master. It’s a tiny film, maybe a little Capra-esque, but it was novel in that it reminded us that a “hero answers the call” story needn’t be dressed up in spandex or elf drag. It was about a real person (James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks), who did a really unpopular thing - defended a Russian spy (Mark Rylance) on trial - not because he wanted to, but because as a sworn defender of the Constitution, he knew he was bound by duty to do so. Lest Spielberg fall into too gray a moral area, defending the spy also led to an opportunity for Donovan to commit an absolute good - broker the release of a captured US pilot during what was called the “U2 Spy Plane Incident.”

That Spielberg tackled a historical event he lived through is also significant. Sure he remembered the events that inspired Munich, but he was off providing escapism for the world at that point. Occurring at the height of the Cold War, the incident must have loomed large in Spielberg’s childhood memories, and the film is rendered with a unique blend of reverence and humor that was unfairly overlooked upon release. Time will be kind to Bridge of Spies. -- Phil Nobile Jr. 

War of the Worlds [2005] (w. Josh Friedman & David Koepp)

I've written about my love for Spielberg's War Of The Worlds on more than one occasion, and I'm sure I'll do it again before the actual alien apocalypse gets here. 

The divided reaction is, quite frankly, baffling: what more could you want? You've got Spielberg delivering an up-close-and-personal (and exceptionally dark) take on the alien invasion genre, you've got Tom Cruise playing against type as an absentee bro-dad with a penchant for throwing things (baseballs, at his son; peanut butter sandwiches, at kitchen windows), you've got about a bajillion awe-inspiring shots of the Tripods in action (and at least one all-timer set piece). This movie owns.

I gather that much of the animosity surrounding the film revolves around the ending, which finds Cruise's deadbeat dad reuniting with his presumed-dead son on a picturesque street somewhere in Boston. I guess the complaint here is that Spielberg pulled a major punch, that War Of The Worlds would've been better had it ended with Cruise sobbing over his Medium Teen Son's grave. I submit to you that in a film which also features countless people being brutally snuffed out (mostly by marauding aliens, but also - in at least one case - by Cruise himself with a motherfucking fire axe) that maybe throwing the audience a bone wasn't the worst move Spielberg ever made (that'd be Hook, regardless of what Amelia says about it above).

Anyway, War Of The Worlds rules extremely hard and if you're not onboard with it, then we will never truly be friends (by the way, I suggest double-featuring WotW with Spielberg and Cruise's other knockout sci-fi blockbuster, Minority Report). -- Scott Wampler

Duel [1971] (w. Richard Matheson) 

While technically not his first feature film (made under contract while a TV director, for air on ABC - though it did play in cinemas overseas and get re-released Stateside), Duel is one of the most striking, commercially minded debuts ever committed to celluloid. Full of alientating shots of the American West, an average driver (Dennis Weaver) is menaced by a massive, rust brown tractor trailer. Spielberg was already subverting his love of Americana before he even had a filmography to upend. Duel is the work of an angry young man, who still felt like a stranger in his home country. Bullied growing up and taunted with shouts of "JEW" when he was a kid, Spielberg channels all the rage he felt toward the bigger, stronger kids who oppressed him, and places it inside this careening tanker. Weaver's disgruntled family man (who is unhappy with his homelife - a staple of Spielberg's filmography given his parents' tumultuous relationship he witnessed first hand) is alone and outmatched by the traditional forms of rugged masculinity he discovers in these roadside diners. Yet its Spielberg's eye for striking composition - sun dranched vistas and sweeping action movements - that convinced even George Lucas (who credits an early viewing as selling him on the auteur's greatness) of how brilliant he was at making money-minded movies. The angst came second to pure entertainment. -- Jacob Knight