Fran Del Pizzo Lists Another Five Great Steven Spielberg MomentsViktor the Goat (The Terminal, 2004)
Steven Spielberg’s uplifting and charming 2004 film The Terminal follows middle-eastern tourist Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who becomes stranded at JFK airport after civil war in his home country of Krakozhia renders his passport invalid. When a disgruntled passenger is denied permission to take (what we can assume from his reaction to be life-saving) medicine for his father out of the United States due to not having the proper forms, Viktor steps in as an interpreter and bridges the language gap that exists between Milodragovich (Valery Nikolaev) and Dixon (Stanley Tucci), the stern airport official who refuses to be swayed in his decision.
Viktor no doubt relates to Milodragovich’s determination to help his Dad, given that Viktor himself is driven by a desire to fulfil a promise he made to his own father who has sadly passed away - this promise being the entire reason for his visit to New York. Being the incredibly gracious person that he is (seriously, he is one of the sweetest characters in all of film), Viktor also wants to help this stranger in order to show others the kindness he had to wait so long to receive himself. After Viktor first arrives on American soil, no-one steps in to help the stricken traveller use the payphone, nor do they show much courtesy to him in general as he tries to navigate this strange new world with little understanding of the language. Where Dixon shows authority and blind determination to follow the rules no matter what, Viktor displays compassion, thinking first of the human being behind the situation unfolding in front of him before anything else. As Milodragovich is being dragged away, Viktor remembers that animal medicine doesn’t require the documentation that human medicine does, coaxing Milodragovich into lying and stating that the pills are actually for a goat, thereby allowing him to take the medicine home. Having spent days in immigration unsuccessfully trying to get a Visa, Viktor is now an expert in the various convoluted rules regarding many facets of commercial airline travel. By using such knowledge to undermine the more unfair bureaucratic regulations in place, it allows Viktor to both adapt to the new world he’s in as well as make it a more humanised place.
From this point on, Viktor is an idol in the eyes of the employees at JFK airport, who recount his goat story with wide eyed wonder (and exaggeration), particularly the janitor Gupta (Kumar Pallana), a man who was initially hostile but is to later make an enormous sacrifice to ensure Viktor achieves his goal. Whereas at one point Viktor was lied to, laughed at and turned away by the different shopkeepers in the terminal when job-hunting, the same people now regard him with awe and esteem as he heroically walks past them. The fact that Viktor has a slightly embarrassed reaction to this new reputation suggests that he sees nothing remarkable about his own thoughtful actions, making him even more of an empathetic character. This warmth even rubs off on Dixon by the end of the picture, when he is redeemed by refusing to chase our hero down. Perhaps it's as simple as realising his personal feud with Viktor is meaningless, or maybe he is moved by the reaction that Viktor elicits, even from his own security officials, when he finally walks to the entry doors of the United States. Nonetheless, it’s a heartwarming thought to consider that Viktor wins against the ‘villain’ of the picture not necessarily by outsmarting him but simply by showing consideration for others, who all return the favour when he needs it most.
The Terminal is a very relevant watch at the moment. It’s fair to say that we are all somewhat like Viktor, trapped inside our own mini version of JFK airport. When you consider that all we can do ourselves is sit out this unfamiliar experience until life returns to normal, it’s also easy to relate to the waiting motif of the movie. This is something so key to its narrative that it provides the focus of the film’s tagline: “Life is waiting”. Perhaps most importantly, we should remember that Viktor is helped in his journey by the multi-cultured employees that make up the workforce of the terminal. The airport itself, which resembles a modern Ellis Island, is able to function because of its melting pot of hard workers who come from many different backgrounds - a symbol of America itself. The lessons of tolerance towards outsiders that the film teaches us is important at a time when the Coronavirus has created unfair anxiety and xenophobia towards certain groups, the same type of fear present in The Terminal’s post-9/11 setting.
Find out more about The Terminal here.
Pan American Airways (Catch Me If You Can, 2002)
Set during the golden age of air travel, this scene from Catch Me If You Can perfectly demonstrates the ingenuity, confidence and resourcefulness of its lead character Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), while at the same time paying homage to a cultural icon of American history. After his personal forged checks are rejected from several banks, Frank has a brainwave after seeing a group of Pan American Airways’ employees exiting a taxi. Witnessing the admiration that they receive from people all around, he poses as a high school pupil writing an article on the famous airline, allowing him to enter the headquarters on Park Avenue and learn all the intricacies necessary to allow him to imitate a pilot himself. After realising he is able to cash more money from payroll cheques, he has the bright idea of peeling the Pan Am logo off a model plane and carefully placing it on the top left corner of the paper; a process which requires him to soak said model in a bathtub for several minutes. After establishing this, Spielberg then is able to show us the progression and growing success of Frank’s clever plan in an original and unique way. Soon, Frank’s bathtub is filled to capacity with tiny planes, whilst a patch of his hotel floor is barely visible underneath the growing collection of Pan Am cheques being left out to dry!
In the 2011 BBC documentary Come Fly With Me: The Story of Pan Am, the real Frank Abagnale recounts the time when he first saw a Pan Am flight crew leaving a hotel in New York: “I was so impressed with the pilots and all the respect and heads they turned… had I walked into a bank with that Pan Am cheque I had made up and handed it to someone, they’d have laughed me out of the bank, but because I walked in with the uniform of the Pan Am pilot, they didn’t think anything about it. They weren’t paying attention to the cheque, they were only paying attention to me”. No carrier was more emblematic of the glamorous period of aviation which existed in the 1950s & 60s than Pan American Airways; something Spielberg excellently captures here. This is partly why the scene is so enjoyable, since it feels like a nostalgic tribute to a time gone by, when pilots were royalty and innovations in air travel had opened the world up for people to explore like never before (even the film’s poster campaign as well as its Saul Bass-like credit sequence has an emphasis on the colour blue, the same colour worn by the air stewardesses in perhaps the film’s most famous scene).
Although we know Abagnale is an imposter, he has such a presence whilst wearing the iconic outfit that his already charismatic persona is enhanced even more. His new found status cemented when the bank boss who had previously rejected his personal cheque becomes honoured at the mere presence of someone with such a profession in his establishment. The scene also acts as a successor to the advice Frank received from his father, who spoke about the importance of outward presentation if his son was to succeed in his endeavours: “You know why the Yankees always win?…. because the other team can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes”.
Despite being a criminal, we are rooting for Abagnale at almost every step. It’s difficult not to admire someone with such creativity and mastery over his chosen profession, especially considering his gift at such a young age and the fact that he’s an individual greatly suffering from the emotional effects of his parents’ divorce (not to mention that by the end of the film, he goes straight and uses his experience as a con man to help the FBI). Even Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the persistent FBI agent on his tail sometimes can’t help but smile or display quiet admiration when he’s been tricked over by the youngster, eventually becoming somewhat of a father figure to him. Many critics have noted the parallels between Abagnale’s narrative and that of Spielberg himself, namely the legendary stories of his nerve to mischievously jump off the tram tour and roam around the Universal lot, as well as his dogged determination and obvious talent on display even as a teenager. Catch Me If You Can acts as an interesting precursor to The Terminal which followed. Frank’s globetrotting adventures dead-heading (flying free of charge) on flights is a marked difference from Viktor’s plight at JFK airport in a post 9/11 America, when security and paranoia created a practically unrecognisable world compared to Frank’s experiences of elegance and freedom.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (Always, 1989)
Despite having already written about this film and scene in particular, I couldn’t resist the temptation to include it again on this list. Spielberg’s adaptation of Victor Fleming’s fantasy romantic drama A Guy Named Joe is a film which definitely has an under-the-radar following of dedicated fans despite its perception as a forgotten Spielberg movie. While it’s far from his most famous or critically acclaimed picture, it has charm and an old-fashioned quality which makes you smile, cry and relate to its universal themes. A minor Spielberg, yes, but that is by no means a bad thing. In this short sequence, Dorinda (Holly Hunter) dances to The Platters’ track Smoke Gets In Your Eyes whilst the unseen ghost of Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) dances with her. It has been several months since the loss of the man she loves, and her inability to let go of the memories she has of Pete means she is unable to truly connect with her new romantic interest, Ted (Brad Johnson). Out of context, this sequence may not be as moving as it is to those who have seen the film, but that’s just the reason why more people should watch Always!
Earlier on in the picture, we see that this track is a meaningful one for Pete and Dorinda, it’s “their” song which they dance to just after Pete has gifted her the very dress she is wearing again in this scene. When we hear it being played later on, we know she is thinking of him. We don’t need a monologue or an obvious cue such as Dorinda staring longingly at a photo to realise this. In Always, it’s something as subtle as hearing a plane fly overhead or witnessing someone display a quirky mannerism which shows us that Dorinda sees reminders of Pete everywhere (Dorinda notices that Ted exhibits some of the same tics that Pete had).
Spielberg films the dance beautifully, constantly reminding us of the hole that Dorinda still has in her heart by removing Pete from the frame in certain shots and leaving only her solitary figure as she dances alone. The abrupt nature of the way in which the dance ends is another heart breaking moment too, it shows how fleeting their relationship was and how Pete was taken from her in a split second. Much more serious than people give it credit for, biographer Joseph McBride describes Always as a movie about Spielberg’s acceptance of loss at a point in his career when he was dealing with several different personal issues himself. This might be why the film feels as genuine as it does when it comes to the ways in which it deals with the more serious themes of grief and loss. Call me sappy but I earnestly believe it’s one of the most beautiful scenes Spielberg has ever made and it’s one that makes me cry every single time.
For a more in depth look at Always please feel free to take a look at my post from last year.
The Phone Bomb (Munich, 2005)
In Susan Lacy’s 2017 biopic documentary, Martin Scorsese reveals that he sometimes enjoys watching Spielberg’s films with the sound off, simply to appreciate the visual storytelling on display. This scene from Spielberg’s controversial thriller Munich feels very much like the perfect encapsulation of his talent in composing a richly compelling story with very few words. An account of the events of Operation Wrath of God, this particular scene follows the Mossad agents as they work to assassinate Mahmoud Hamshari (Igal Naor) in Paris, one of the 11 men suspected of playing a role in the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre.
Taking three days to shoot, Spielberg wanted to make sure that the sequence first and foremost gave audiences a clear understanding of the geography of the surroundings. He therefore made sure to shoot it from the different points-of-view of those involved: Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the man in the booth who dials the number of their target, the three men in the car who are to detonate the bomb once they receive the red light and finally, the film’s main character, Avner (Eric Bana) who signals Carl to make the call. The mechanism of the assassination feels extremely Hitchcockian due to the Dial M For Murder-esque rotary phone which, like in Hitchcock’s film, is what will doom the individual on the other end of the line (a rotary phone feels incredibly cinematic in a tense scene like this as they are so much more laborious to use than a modern phone). It also puts into play one of Hitchock’s most recognisable techniques that he believed differentiated suspense from mere mystery: making audiences aware of information that the characters aren’t. The tension in this scene comes from the unexpected return of Mahmoud’s daughter and the fact that Spielberg has set in motion a chain of events which causes each character to be unaware of this innocent presence. He has already established that Carl’s phone booth is out of view of those in the car, meaning that he has no quick way of signalling his men to abort the mission should a problem arise. Meanwhile, a removal truck has parked in front of those in the car, leading Avner to question them on whether the detonator’s signal is now compromised, leaving every single agent oblivious to anyone entering or exiting Mahmoud’s apartment.
We all know Spielberg is an expert at making the audience feel anxious (there’s a reason people still refuse to swim in the sea 45 years on from Jaws). This skill lies in his ability to show restraint and exercise patience to slowly build towards a fulfilling climax (think of the nail biting, drawn-out nature of the exchange on Glienicke Bridge in Bridge of Spies). To emphasise what is at stake in this sequence, Spielberg mutes the sound and saves an extreme close up for the moment when Carl realises that it is not their target who has answered the phone, but a young girl. It’s a scene that some may not think is particularly remarkable on the first watch, but only because Spielberg makes everything look so effortless, such as the way he manages to establish the positioning of each crew member as well at the location of their target in one single dynamic shot. One can only watch and imagine the regret of those who rejected the young director into film school!
The Schindler Jews Today (Schindler’s List, 1993)
Not only Spielberg’s most important film but one of the most important films ever made. Spielberg believed the Holocaust to be of such utter incomprehension that only those who experienced its horrors could truly understand the magnitude. Taking on the immense responsibility of directing Schindler’s List was not only his attempt to try and comprehend the events himself, but also his way of educating others at a time when denial was high and world events in Bosnia were echoing what happened to Jews in Europe during WWII. In the epilogue of his 1993 masterpiece, the real Schindler Jews walk hand in hand and place stones on the grave of Oskar Schindler. Accompanied by the actors who portrayed them in the film, Spielberg puts a name to the men and women, giving these survivors the identity and individuality which was stolen from them during the war.
In his long-overdue Oscar acceptance speech, Spielberg spoke of the survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, and how his determination in making his own story heard was the reason the film exists, going on to describe him as “a man of complete obscurity who makes us wish and hope for Oskar Schindlers in all of our lives”. Indeed, this ending brings light and literal colour into the darkest of historic moments, while some argue that this very focus on the people who survived instead of those who perished is a flaw of the film, Roger Ebert observes that it acts as an affirmation of an important message: resistance to evil like that performed by Oskar Schindler is possible even in the most dire of circumstances. This scene wasn’t originally planned when filming began, but Spielberg realised towards the end of the shoot that those “who’ve seen Schindler’s List might not believe Schindler’s List”. We are not only reminded that we have just witnessed a reconstruction of events that did really happen, but also that the reverberations of Schindler’s bravery can be seen today. Despite all of this, it’s difficult to agree with the criticism that in choosing to focus on the story that he did, Spielberg made an “uplifting” film about the Holocaust, like some have suggested. It’s easy to forget that the film goes back to its monochromatic look in its end credits, never forgetting the obscene tragedy at the heart of its historical retelling as it shows us the gravestones which had so callously been removed earlier in the picture. Although he made a film about hope, Spielberg never abandoned his aim in bringing the atrocities of the time into the public conscious once more, so that they may never be repeated.
By using the real survivors, the scene acts as a prelude to a project that Spielberg sees as something more important than his filmmaking career: the establishment of the USC Shoah Foundation, which not only preserves and archives the testimonies of survivors but uses them as a teaching resource. Upon Schindler’s List’s UK theatrical re-release last year on Holocaust Memorial Day, a Guardian article was published which revealed a shameful fact: 1 in 20 Britons were deniers even today. This is why the film and its legacy in the establishing of the Shoah Foundation are just as important now as they were 25 years ago - Schindler’s List gives us a window into a moment in history which should never be forgotten, but the fact that it exists because of such people is also a statement on how dangerous ignorance can be. Spielberg himself remarked on the timing of his decision to re-release the picture, explaining that it was an attempt to combat this continued ignorance and teach the empathy necessary to counter the anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism which has been rising around the world. Spielberg has been creating indelible images for his whole career, but with Schindler’s List he crafted a timeless film (you can even argue, a historical source) brave enough to show events which elicit not just compassion and sadness but pure anger on the part of the audience. It's the film he deserves to be remembered for the most, and one that absolutely everyone should see.
Guest post by Fran Del Pizzo: http://dialmformovies.co.uk/
If you enjoyed Fran's guest post, why not read this amazing article on Steven Spielberg's Always which is also written by Fran Del Pizzo?
You can also read Fran's previous five great Steven Spielberg moments here.
You can also read Fran's previous five great Steven Spielberg moments here.
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.