There was something very telling watching Steven Spielberg at the AFI Fest last year introducing TinTin. He did two things. He downplayed our expectations of the movie we were about to see and he breathlessly announced he was still in Virginia filming Lincoln. His enthusiasm for his subject matter might just be the thing that keeps him fumbling towards greatness nearly every year. He was releasing two films — TinTin and War Horse and yet the thing he wanted to talk about more was Lincoln.
In a recent Q&A about Lincoln held on Yahoo Movies, Spielberg was asked whether he had any fear taking on the daunting subject of Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg said,
“I require fear in order to run towards something. Fear never makes me run away from anything but the more scared I am, the more frightened I am I have to run into what’s scaring me to try to figure out what it is because it has power, it has sway over me, fear. It has a certain kind of power and I don’t like losing control so things that frighten me make me go to it, to embrace it, to understand it, which gives me a better understanding of myself and in that case, the work that I’m most proudest of is the work that I’m afraid of.”
His best films, in his mind, were those he was most afraid of making. By all accounts, Jaws was a difficult production that he — at the age of 28 — just barely pulled off. Everyone, including Richard Dreyfuss, was convinced it would bomb. And yet, it became arguably the best film of his career. When naming the best films of Spielberg’s career after being asked where I thought Lincoln stood in his collection, I named the solid canon, Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., Raiders and Schindler’s List. I put Lincoln ahead of Saving Private Ryan, though I know for many that’s sacrilege. You see, Spielberg’s classics have winnowed themselves through us, all the way through to our bones. They’re part of the mortar between the bricks that we’ve built over the last thirty-seven years, in Hollywood and in our own lives. But then that’s my own generation’s eye view.