2017
Steven Spielberg’s The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara, an adaptation of the 1997 book by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Kertzer, tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy in 1858.

After having been secretly baptized, he is forcibly taken from his family to be raised as a Christian. His parents’ struggle to free their son becomes a pivotal event in the collapse of the Vatican as a secular power and an example of how a single human fate changed the course of history.

Mark Rylance stars as Pope Pius IX. This is his third collaboration with Spielberg – having won the Best Supporting Oscar for Bridge Of Spies (2015) and portrayed the title character in The BFG (2016). The cast is joined by Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

The Bridge Of Spies producing team of Spielberg, Marc Platt and Kristie Macosko Krieger serve as producers.

The screenplay is written by Tony Kushner who also penned the scripts for Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012). He gave a copy of David Kertzer’s book to Steven Spielberg who read it twice and was convinced it would make a great movie.

The Amblin Entertainment production is slated for early 2017 – when Ready Player One will have wrapped – with an intended release in the fourth quarter of 2017, a perfect slot for awards season…

Steven Spielberg has often released double-salvos of films in one year. Now he seems to turn into a kind of “Woody Allen”, bringing out one film per year: Bridge of Spies in 2015, The BFG in 2016, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara in 2017, Ready Player One in 2018, and Indiana Jones 5 in 2019.

Artwork: © Amblin Entertainment

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2012
Steven Spielberg
’s masterpiece Lincoln covers the final few months of US President Abraham Lincoln’s life, focusing on his efforts to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution passed by the House of Representatives – resulting in the abolition of slavery in the United States of America. Lincoln is teaching us how to reach a consensus and succeed in backstage politics when pressing issues of society need to be solved. So, in essence, it’s a contemporary story told in a historic setting.

The film is produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, the screenplay is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg on his motivation to do the film:

“The
Lincoln project is something that I have been fascinated with all my
life. Like the kid in Minority Report, I used to cut out the profiles of
Presidents in third grade. Lincoln was my favorite profile. (…) As I
got older, I began reading history books and I became like a history
major. I never really majored in history in school but it was my most
favorite subject. (…) I realized that Lincoln changed the history of
the world.”

Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly portrays President Abraham Lincoln, leading a formidable cast that includes Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Lukas Haas, and Tommy Lee Jones

Adam Driver – who will be cast as the villain in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – plays Washington war-room telegraph officer Samuel Beckwith. Kevin Kline makes a cameo appearance as a wounded soldier.

In preparation for The Unfinished Journey (1999) – a 21-minute short film directed by Spielberg and screened at the 2000 Millennium Gala in Washington DC, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial – Spielberg consults historians such as Stephen Ambrose, and Doris Goodwin. Asked about her current projects, Goodwin tells Spielberg that she is writing a book called “Team of Rivals” about Lincoln and his cabinet. Spielberg buys the film rights on the spot.

In the early stages of development, John Logan signs on to write a first draft. It is rewritten by playwright Paul Webb. He prefers to cover the entirety of Lincoln’s term as President. Due to Spielberg’s dissatisfaction with the script, the filming is delayed. He assigns another playwright who impressed Spielberg with his script for Munich (2005): Tony Kushner.

Kushner finds the Lincoln script assignment daunting because “I don’t understand what he did any more than I understand how William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet or Mozart wrote Così fan tutte.” Kushner’s initial 491-page draft focuses on four months in the life of Lincoln, and by 2009 he rewrites it to mostly cover two months in Lincoln’s life when he is preoccupied with adopting the Thirteenth Amendment.

Initially, Liam Neeson is cast as Lincoln, having previously worked with Spielberg in Schindler’s List (1993). In preparation for the role, Neeson studies Lincoln extensively – but leaves the project in 2010, stating that he realized during a table read that the part was not right for him. Neeson suggests Daniel Day-Lewis as his replacement and personally argues him into accepting the part. Spielberg and Kushner fly to Ireland to meet with Day-Lewis, followed by more rewrites before the actor finally agrees (after some more encouragement from Leonardo DiCaprio).

Financing the film takes nearly three years. Spielberg pitches the movie at Paramount, following the purchase of DreamWorks by Paramount’s parent company Viacom, in 2006, but the studio complains the budget, even pared to $50 million, is too high and its subject too close to Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), one of his least commercially successful movies.

Frustrated by the financing problems, Spielberg admits Lincoln came “this close” to premiering on HBO as opposed to premiering in theaters. When DreamWorks sets up a new distribution arrangement with The Walt Disney Company, the studio agrees to take North American rights. 20th Century Fox takes international rights, putting up half the production cost. To lay off some risk, DreamWorks turns to another frequent partner, Participant Media, and the film can finally be made.

Principal photography is completed in 64 days, most of it taking place in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg, Virginia. A former AMF Bowling plant in Mechanicsville, is used for a set that re-creates the interiors of the White House. “We worked hard to be as historically accurate as possible, all the way to the room where Mary and Lincoln had their scenes,” says production designer Rick Carter. “The wallpaper, rugs, everything was as accurate as it could possibly be.”

According to Director of Photography Janusz Kamiński, he and Spielberg agree on the first day to go for dim lighting that would reflect the use of candles and gaslight in the era. “We knew this was a haunted movie about a man carrying a tremendous burden,” says Rick Carter. “We wanted to go with almost a black-and-white photo yet always be able to pick out what was important in the frame.” The low light is a tool to direct the viewer’s eye. “I wanted to create depth of Lincoln’s character through lighting,” says Kamiński. “In group shots in his office, I set the light so your eye would go to Lincoln.” In later scenes, while the amendment is passed, Kamiński seeks to play against Lincoln’s iconic image. The result is an angelic but natural shot of Lincoln bathed in light. “I wanted to create a very intimate image of this man on the most important day of his life: He’s still a father, and he’s still allocating time to be with his family and his son.”

On set, cast and crew act reverential towards the subject at hand: Conversations between scenes are kept to a whisper, and no one talks to Day-Lewis unless it is necessary. Spielberg, whose typical attire when directing is a baseball cap and jeans, wears suits and ties. He not only addresses Day-Lewis as “Mr. President” but also calls many of the actors by their characters’ names as he immerses himself in American history.

Describing his experience playing Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis says, “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that’s, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him… I wish he had stayed [with me] forever.”

“The toughest part about actually making the film,” says Spielberg, “was that it was eventually going to come to an end. After the first day of shooting, I started mourning the last day of shooting. (…) It’s rare that this has ever happened. E.T. might be the only other time.”

Lincoln is shot on 35mm film and cut on Avid, marking the third time that Michael Kahn edits digitally for Spielberg. “Steven saw how efficient it was, how it saved it a lot of time, so we’ve been on Avid ever since,” says Kahn, who was noted for his speed on the Moviola and KEM. He admits that he’s never cut a film comparable to Lincoln before. “This picture has more dialogue, more getting into people’s heads. A lot of editors say dialogue is the hardest thing to make work, and after Lincoln I have to agree. Audiences won’t see our decisions to cut or not to cut, but the decisions are there.”

For his restrained and respectful composition of the film score, John Williams continues to laboriously write his notes by hand with pencil and paper at a piano – rejecting modern technologies and still managing to yield music of his established, superior quality.

Lincoln receives widespread critical acclaim, with major praise directed to the acting, especially Day-Lewis’ performance, as well as the direction and production merits.

Roger Ebert gives the film 4 out of 4 stars and says in his review, “The hallmark of the man, performed so powerfully by Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, is calm self-confidence, patience and a willingness to play politics in a realistic way.”

A. O. Scott from The New York Times states the film “is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognize the full and equal humanity of black people” and concludes that the movie is “a rough and noble democratic masterpiece” – a portrait that is “intimate but also decorous, drawn with extraordinary sensitivity and insight and focused, above all, on Lincoln’s character as a politician. This is, in other words, less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson that is energetically staged and alive with moral energy.”

Despite its running time of 150 minutes, the film is also a huge commercial success, proving that a lot of moviegoers approach it as more than just a dull history lesson. In only its first four weekends of wide release, Lincoln grosses more than $275 million worldwide (against a budget of $65 million). Washington insiders see the film as an object lesson in how a president should work with Congress (the film is screened at the White House and the Senate).

The film is nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director for Spielberg, winning Best Actor (Motion Picture – Drama) for Daniel Day-Lewis.

At the Academy Awards, the film is nominated for 12 Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning for Best Production Design and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis – becoming the very first actor to win an acting Oscar for a movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

2005
Steven Spielberg
’s political thriller Munich follows a squad of Mossad assassins as they track down and kill alleged supporters of the group Black September, which is responsible for the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Eric Bana stars as the leader of the assassins group, Avner Kaufman. The international cast includes actors such as Ciarán Hinds, Omar Metwally, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Gila Almagor, Karim Saleh, Ziad Adwan, Moritz Bleibtreu, and Meret Becker. The film also stars a future James Bond actor (Daniel Craig) plus actors of a former (Michael Lonsdale) and a later (Mathieu Amalric) Bond villain.

The role of Ephraim (played by Geoffrey Rush) is originally intended for Ben Kingsley but he has to opt out due to a reshoot of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) which causes the start of the production for Munich to be pushed back a few weeks later, thus conflicting with Kingsley’s work schedule on Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005).

After six years of preparation, Spielberg directs his most ambitious project since Schindler ’s List, fully aware that he is risking his reputation as a filmmaker and his capital of mass audience appeal, but determined to speak his mind on a subject that deeply concerns him. In his portrayal about the opening days of the perpetual cycle of terror-styled violence between Israelis and Palestinians, he does his best to tell the story in an unbiased manner, giving both a voice and condemning the deadly attacks on both sides. 

The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, is based on George Jonas’ controversial book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team (published in 1984), after Producer Kathleen Kennedy brought the book to Spielberg’s attention. After acquiring the film rights, Spielberg commissions three scripts: one from David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, one from Charles Randolph, and one from Eric Roth, eventually selecting Roth’s script which is revised by Tony Kushner. In order to clarify that the film is a dramatization of historic and fictional events it begins with an opening title saying “Inspired by real events“.

Spielberg asserts that many people would have felt more comfortable if he made a film that said all targeted assassinations are a bad or a good thing:

"But the movie doesn’t take either of those positions. It refuses to. Many of those pundits on the left and right would love the film to land somewhere definite. It puts a real burden on the audience to figure out for themselves how they feel about these issues. There are no easy answers to the most complex story of the last 50 years. (…) What I’m trying to say is, if this movie bothers you, frightens you, upsets you, maybe it’s not a good idea to ignore that. Maybe you need to think about why you’re having that reaction.”

As Spielberg puts it, there are “unintended consequences“ in everything that has to do with violence, and in his film he depicts the growing disproportions of the counterterrorism response. The assassins’ futile attempts at minimizing collateral damage and the deaths of innocents is summed up in a Hitchcock-inspired sequence (videoclip) where the team must coordinate the bombing of a target in Paris without killing the man’s wife and child: A truck obscures the car holding the Mossad assassins, preventing them from seeing the man’s daughter return and pick up the rigged phone meant to kill her father. This time, they barely manage to deactivate the trigger, though once the girl leaves again, they set off the explosive without compunction. It’s a brief show of moral superiority to terrorists who put civilians in harm’s way, but it doesn’t last. Similar to Schindler’s List, Spielberg uses the little girl (again dressed in red) as a metaphor, representing the people that are accidentally killed during the mission.

According to Spielberg, Munich is “the most European film I have ever made“, drawing inspiration from classics such as Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973), and William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). Director of Photography, Janusz Kamiński applies the long lenses and zooms as well as the colors typical for that period of film. Kamiński on the notorious sex scene featuring Eric Bana, intercut with the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes as he orgasms: “It’s almost over-the-top to some degree, right?” (…) “It’s not a delicate little scene,” Kaminski says. “It is what it is, and [Spielberg] wanted to take this chance because it reflected the movie: his anger, his primal fear, his primal desire to be alive.” And his feeling of trauma and guilt that strips him of his own humanity in service of a dubious “an eye for an eye” scheme…

Spielberg calls Munich his Prayer for Peace, exploring his conflicts and concerns about how a nation should respond to terrorist attacks. By depicting the Twin Towers of the New York World Trade Center in the film’s final shot, Spielberg links Munich’s subtext to the present, i.e. the US government’s response to the 9/11 attacks, with Spielberg questioning it as excessive and a potential trigger for another perpetual cycle of terror in the Middle East.

The time span between the start of production to the film’s release date is less than six months. Principal photography takes place in Malta, Budapest, Paris, New York, and Munich. In order to finish the film on time, Michael Kahn edits all of the scenes shot in Malta and Hungary on the spot. Each day Spielberg reviews an edited scene that has been shot two days earlier. Two copies of the edited material are sent out, one to John Williams as reference for his composition and the other to Ben Burtt for sound effects. The Paris and New York scenes are edited two weeks after wrapping, and the final cut is completed after another two weeks.

The film’s mournful atmosphere and melancholy between both the Israelis and Palestinians is interpreted by John Williams’ magnificent score, sharing musical themes across cultures, with restrained beauty and subtle instrumentation.

The film is a critical success but is also one of Spielberg’s lowest-grossing films, earning $130.4 million at the worldwide box office (against a budget of $70 million). Conservative circles in Israel and the US attack Munich for what they call the film’s equating the Israeli assassins with “terrorists”. The heated discussion results in the depiction of Spielberg’s face on the covers of Time magazine, Germany’s DER SPIEGEL and other international media.

Munich receives five Academy Awards nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay (Kushner and Roth), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn) and Best Original Score (John Williams), winning none.

In his review, Roger Ebert concludes: “With this film [Spielberg] has dramatically opened a wider dialogue, helping to make the inarguable into the debatable.“ 

Ian Nathan writes in his review for Empire: Munich is Steven Spielberg’s most difficult film. It arrives already inflamed by controversy… This is Spielberg operating at his peak — an exceptionally made, provocative and vital film for our times.“

Munich concludes Spielberg’s 2005 double salvo of films which can both be read as parables on the nation’s mindset after 9/11.