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Spielberg’s Best and Worst Can Be Found in His Endings

The final moments of ‘The Post’ are a curious misstep from a director who typically handles the final moments of his films with panache

Two men paddling back to shore in the ‘Jaws’ ending Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

This might be the worst thing he’s ever filmed. These were my thoughts during the final scene of The Post, a movie I found flawed and unconvincing but never truly bad until the last 45 seconds, at which point I sort of wanted to hide under my seat in the movie theater. Seeing a brilliant filmmaker screw up that badly will do that you.

My favorite Steven Spielberg movie is Jaws, and my favorite part of Jaws is the ending. Not the moment when the water-phobic Chief Martin Brody finally kills the shark by shooting a tank of compressed air crammed into its massive maw, or even the beautifully gory aftermath, with the great white’s now forcibly detached dorsal fin slicing through bloody water. What I love is the static, real-time master shot of Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss paddling their way to shore on a makeshift raft, which is held for the entire duration of the end credits.

The final scene of Jaws is not especially complex from either a technical or an intellectual point of view. Its genius lies in the contrast between its slow, serene beauty and the relentless pacing of the action that precedes it. After expertly playing us like a piano for two hours, the director hits upon a gentle grace note. It’s clear at this point that the monster has been vanquished and that our heroes are perfectly safe. But Spielberg wants to show them make landfall anyway. He needs us to know that everything is going to be OK.

Spielberg’s need to placate the audience is part and parcel of his role as American cinema’s grand popular entertainer, a mantle that he’s held with dignity (and without any credible challengers) since the Orca sank back in 1975. In Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss’s everyman makes the selfish and even terrifying decision to abandon his family for a sojourn on a massive spaceship, and Spielberg bathes the scene in enough technicolor euphoria that any anxiety fades away; in the inverse-mirror ending of E.T., Elliott’s inevitable abandonment by his extraterrestrial pal is framed as a coming-of-age moment. These scenes are effective, emotional and indelible; they’re as persuasive an argument for moviegoing as manipulation as you’ll ever find. They feel good.

As long as Hollywood’s most successful director was crafting escapist fables about great whites and beatific little aliens, the bliss-out quality of his climaxes was excusable and even exquisite. But as Spielberg began taking on more serious projects — historical dramas like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Schindler’s List — his tendency to end things on a high note started to seem like a bug rather than a feature. The choice to add a full-color, documentary coda to the immaculate black-and-white period re-creation of Schindler’s List was an attempt to bridge the gap between fiction and reality, but it arguably imposed uplift on subject matter beyond such sentiment. The similarly cemetery-set fade out of Saving Private Ryan, with its aged veteran asking for absolution as a “good man” on behalf of the greatest generation, tempers the near-surrealist horror of the film’s combat sequences.

Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are powerful, enduring works in spite of their tidiness. What’s fascinating is how the endings of some of the films Spielberg has made since those two fully canonized, Oscar-winning triumphs highlight his ambiguous side. Not that they’ve always gotten credit for their complexity.

Take Catch Me If You Can (2002), a propulsive, fact-based picaresque about the youthful con man Frank Abagnale Jr., who scammed his way across America in the early 1960s by adopting a series of ersatz personas. It’s a jazzy, clever movie driven by the illicit but innocent sensation of getting away with something. It represents the peak of Spielberg’s eternal identification with precocious troublemakers. The final scenes are more ambivalent than they initially seem, however. After leading the FB — embodied by Tom Hanks’s gruff, determined agent Carl Hanratty — on a wild goose chase, Frank (wonderfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is recruited by the bureau via the logic that it “takes one to catch one.”

From one angle, it’s a sweetly affirmative windup, with a wayward boy learning to straighten up and fly right and getting a new surrogate father figure in the bargain in his protective, grudgingly admiring new boss. But the way the film visualizes Frank’s new role is weirdly troubling: a swift, magisterial reverse-tracking shot past rows of desks, reducing a free spirit to a grateful, anonymous cog in the machine. The shot calls back to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), where the power of the almighty was remanded to a U.S. Army facility for storage.

Back then, critics were more apt back to note the obvious homage to Citizen Kane (with the ark the director’s version of Rosebud) than consider whether or not the image of Pandora’s box filed away for future use wasn’t a veiled, anxious critique of an approaching atomic age.

It’s telling that Susan Lacey’s recent HBO documentary, Spielberg, doesn’t quite know what to do with most of its subject’s 21st-century output, focusing mostly on Munich and Lincoln at the expense of genre work that is harder to parse. For me, none of Spielberg’s movies have been as misunderstood as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which gets only cursory mention in Lacey’s doc and is generally described more as an incomplete Stanley Kubrick production than as one of Spielberg’s triumphs. Author Brian Aldiss, who wrote the 1969 short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long, upon which the script (worked over for years by multiple writers but credited to Spielberg) famously said that “the ending indicates Spielberg adding some sugar to Kubrick’s wine,” — in effect accusing the director of peddling Manischewitz instead of something stronger.

I’d say the ending of A.I. is 40 proof. After arriving in a flooded-out New York City to meet his maker (a scientist played wonderfully by WIlliam Hurt), David gets his Pinocchio moment; he confronts an amusement-park statue of the Blue Fairy, who he believes will grant him real boyhood. She can’t make that happen — she’s just an icon after all — but Spielberg provides his own sort of (dis)enchantment. After 2,000 years of waiting beneath the waves, David is rescued by a race of silicon-based robots who put him out of his misery. He’s reanimated just long enough climb into bed with a re-creation of his mother, whose touch sends him off to sleep for the last time.

That old cynic Kubrick might have appreciated the wicked Freudian joke here, but Spielberg deserves credit for going further than his friend and master. However mysterious the last shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey may seem, the Star Child’s presence suggests rebirth; rather than ape Kubrick, Spielberg found his own deceptively devastating way to hint at the end of the world as we know it.

The list goes on. Message boards are full of theories about how the apparently conventional conclusion of Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise’s “PreCrime” fighter exposes an evil conspiracy and triumphs over it, is a sinister variation on the old “it was all a dream” trope, à la Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. By setting up the possibility that Cruise’s character is hallucinating his happily-ever-after — and letting the fantasy play out at length without ever clarifying things one way or the other — Spielberg plays chicken with audience expectations and his own reputation as a benevolent dreamweaver. (Spielberg’s Eurotrash peer Paul Verhoeven did the exact same thing in his own Philip K. Dick adaptation, Total Recall, but he didn’t do it better.)

There’s an even more subversive kick to War of the Worlds, which concludes with Cruise prevented from entering the townhouse where he’s safely delivered his (partially estranged) children from certain death in the form of an alien invasion. Spielberg shoots him standing outside his ex-wife’s homestead, excluded from the family reunion he’s engineered, just like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers; the equation of the brutal frontiersman with the weary civilian parent is ambitious and risky, but it works. The moral and ethical dynamics are similar to those in Saving Private Ryan (as its title suggests, War of the Worlds is a combat film, riffing on modern, technocratic weapons of mass destruction) but the difference is that nobody tells Cruise’s Ray Ferrier that he’s a good man: His isolation is total.

Not all of Spielberg’s recent endings open themselves up so beautifully to interpretation. The final image of Munich, with the circa-1970s New York skyline framed so that the World Trade Center towers can be glimpsed in the background, is unsettling but also rather on the nose. Samuel L. Jackson trashed the ending of Lincoln, carping that he had “no idea” why Spielberg included its namesake’s death throes. He’s got a point, on top of which I think the last moments of The Hateful Eight, which finds an African American and a white racist chucking ruefully in the presence of a forged letter credited to the Great Emancipator are, in a horrible way, more resonant in a President Donald Trump–era zeitgeist than Spielberg’s optimistic Lincoln-as-Obama subtext.

What’s funny about the last scene of The Post is that it in its way, it works identically to the final shot of Jaws. There’s plenty to take issue with in terms of how Spielberg chooses to show Richard Nixon raging against Graham and the reporters of The Washington Post after the publication of the Pentagon Papers (on Twitter, a colleague compared the weirdly artificial staging to Seinfeld’s depiction of George Steinbrenner), and also the way that he alludes to the Watergate break-in with all the subtlety of Forrest Gump.

What’s really damning though, is how the same impulse that Spielberg displayed in the mid-’70s — to let the audience he’d terrorized know things were going to be alright — feels inappropriate and inadequate in 2017 when applied to the same time period. The Post ends by reminding us that Nixon didn’t just lose the battle over the Pentagon Papers, but also the war; if it’s meant as reassurance that our own Woodward and Bernstein are waiting in the wings (or maybe that somewhere, our Deep Throat is about to upload the pee tape to YouTube) it rings oddly false. If it’s true that Spielberg’s endings are more complicated than they seem, then there may be some way of reading The Post’s final moments that will redeem them, but for now, the fact that a movie allegorizing the battle between journalism and governmental censorship strives to make us feel good strikes me as fake news.