EW Staff
December 24, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

The sheer audacity of his visual imagination is breathtaking. Aman slipping between the jaws of a great white shark. E.T.’smagically incandescent fingertip. The overpowering grandeur ofthe Mother Ship hovering above Devils Tower. Indiana Jones in aring of vipers. A child’s bike ride across the face of the moon.Throughout his singular career, Steven Spielberg has alwaysalmost casually dazzled. His images have the purity ofinspiration, but he is also the master of cinematic crescendo.He startles and pleases, promises and teases until the moviegoerexpects an unexpected delight — and then he astonishes with atranscendent wonder. He has put more perception-changing images,more pictures into the minds of more people than any directorwho has ever lived.

But all that was prelude. Steven Spielberg’s accomplishment thispast year allowed him to top himself as an entertainer andredefine himself as an artist. First he astounded the world withthe brilliant thrill machine Jurassic Park, a vivid visualizationof Michael Crichton’s book, whose visceral frights have shakenloose some $850 million worldwide at the box office. It is,simply, the most commercially successful movie ever made,surpassing Spielberg’s own previous works to snag that title.Now, only seven months later, he has released another movie aboutreptilian brutality, but Schindler’s List, an examination of theNazi Holocaust, also carries within it an almost unbearablydelicate observation of human pain. The boldness of Schindler’sconception and the confidence of its execution mark it as amasterpiece. Either film would have been a career-definingaccomplishment for any director. That one person has brought forthboth in one year is as unprecedented as it is unbelievable. Andit is an achievement unlikely ever to be duplicated.

That’s why it’s tough to believe that until this year, expertswere declaring the Spielberg blockbuster extinct. Not that hisfamily was going to starve — his pictures had already grossed morethan $3 billion, and he earns an estimated 10 to 15 percent rightoff the top of most of them. But recent critical hits like Empireof the Sun didn’t do big box office, and the midlife-crisis movieHook cost so much that Newsday critic Jack Mathews trumpeted, ”TheSpielberg Era is over!”

Then came the little bitty Jurassic Park. Its thunder lizardsscored the most awesome special-effects coup since Terminator 2and spurred a cultural stampede among moviegoing mammals.Spielberg no longer seemed an imperiled stegosaurus, but T. rexwith a brain.

Even so, some wondered, would he really turn out to be in the sameleague with Primo Levi and Marcel Ophuls as an artist of theHolocaust? Schindler proves he is. Probably the only film to wina pre-release presidential directive that every citizen should gosee it, Schindler may well be the sole 1993 film that will stillbe news in 1994.

It is a cliche of film criticism that directors’ personalitiescan be discerned in their work, and it’s easy to spot Spielberg.He is the E.T. kid staring in wonder at the alien, Indy dodgingrocks, Jurassic Park impresario John Hammond surveying histourist attraction (soon to be re-created at Universal’s Floridatheme park). Most notoriously of all, Spielberg is Peter Pan,the man once dubbed (by pundit Aaron Latham) ”the director whonever grew up.”

This year, he did. But in seeking his personality in Schindler,we find that he is everywhere and nowhere. Sternly purged of allhis trademark stylistic pyrotechnics — light could not be enchantedthe way it is elsewhere in Spielberg’s cosmos, because in theHolocaust, light came from unholy fire — Schindler shows Spielbergdistributing himself among his characters like a true artist.Schindler, the direktor of a Polish war factory who saved thelives of more than 1,000 Jewish employees, is a model of the filmdirector: a towering powerhouse conducting the swirl of events,a hedonist weighed down by responsibility, a mischievous boy onthe make who manages to make himself a man. Spielberg also speaks,in a sense, for every Jew in the film, but surely he identifiesespecially with Ben Kingsley’s character — the brooding, inward,incorruptible, utterly brilliant juggler of money and materialswho is Schindler’s accountant and the actual auteur of the lifefactory.

Most startlingly, and most impressively, Spielberg projectshimself imaginatively into the Nazi death-camp commandant AmonGoeth. He shows us the face of Satan — and Satan turns out to bethe ultimate Lost Boy. The rap on Spielberg is that he can’tdirect actors, only robots, kids, cartoon figures. In Goeth’shorribly fascinating encounters with his saintly Jewish maid,and with Schindler, Spielberg creates characters whosecomplexities are not mechanical.

Given his past successes, it seems silly that the sole plauditHollywood has given Spielberg is a consolation prize, the IrvingG. Thalberg Award. It also seems trivial to speculate aboutwhether Schindler will finally nab Spielberg that Oscar he’s beenlong denied. The wreath he laid at the Auschwitz memorial countsfor much more.

His latest project is to make sure this isn’t the last Holocaustmovie. ”There’s 20 years left in most of the survivors’ lives,”he says. ”I’m working on a program to get witnesses’ testimonybefore it’s too late.”

Even Spielberg’s ’93 failures didn’t slow his momentum. Hissubmarine TV series, seaQuest DSV, has had shoddy plot holes thesize of the Mariana Trench, and his TV ‘toon Family Dog was anuncharacteristic plunge into the creative abyss. Still, thisonly shows that it’s not time for him to ”scale down”: At 46, heremains essentially a merchant of big-screen dreams.

And nightmares. Jurassic proved he can still frighten us likenobody else in the business, and Schindler showed he candramatize actual events that are so frightening they’re almostbeyond the reach of art. For the first time in a long time, it’spossible to speculate that Spielberg’s best work may be ahead ofhim.

— Tim Appelo

He reclaimed his title as king of the blockbuster with’Jurassic’ and explored mankind’s dark side in ‘Schindler.’

[BOX]

He reclaimed his title as king of the blockbuster with’Jurassic’ and explored mankind’s dark side in ‘Schindler.’

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