Spielberg’s Running Men: A Master Taking Chances

Yeah, I’ll stand by what I said in the title: Steven Spielberg is a master of moviemaking. His work might be too mainstream or hopeful for a lot of cinephiles, but the amount of craft on display shouldn’t be denied. And the weight of his impact on the art form is immeasurable. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park are among my all-time favorite films, and movies like Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List and Jaws… I mean, come ON, how do you argue with that resume!?!? But to me, I think my favorite section of his career came right around the turn of the 21st century, with the three movies that have become collectively known as the Running Man Trilogy: A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can.

(Spoilers for all three, and Close Encounters, after the jump)

As the calendar turned to the 2000s, Spielberg was riding high off Saving Private Ryan, which was a huge success and considered to be one of his best films yet. And then Spielberg did what any good filmmaker should do when he’s coming off a huge hit: he started taking some chances. None bigger than with A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which saw him not just bridging into a different kind of science-fiction film than his previous efforts, but doing so with a project left to him by Stanley Kubrick. The resulting film was certainly flawed, and saw Spielberg being criticized for “ruining” Kubrick’s vision with his sentimental touches, but it was also a very daring and relatively uncommercial work for him. Spielberg then followed it up only a year later with Minority Report, which continued the scifi angle but with a more straightforward blockbuster action approach, and it was much more successful, critically and commercially. And only six months after that, Spielberg wrapped the trilogy up with Catch Me If You Can, which still stands as his (and Leonardo DiCaprio’s) highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes, and saw him branch out once again with his period con man adventure.

Now, on the surface, the only similarity between these three movies is that they’re all fugitive-on-the-run stories. But I think that there’s more to it than that. Throughout Spielberg’s career, his movies have usually fallen into one of two categories: the Big Adventure Blockbuster and the Big Historical epic. Very few of his films deviate from these categories (Duel, Always, 1941, The Terminal) and most of those are not remembered too fondly. But with the Running Man Trilogy, Spielberg branched out and was much more successful in doing so.

Primarily, and most obviously, Spielberg was exploring genres that are relatively unique to his filmography: science fiction and caper/crime story. And yes, he has Close Encounters and E.T. but I would argue that those films are more fantasies that happen to involve aliens, as opposed to hard science fiction with a commentary (actually the next closest movie of his to this category is Jurassic Park). But here, both A.I. and Minority Report were heady, mature explorations of serious themes. And there’s really nothing like Catch Me If You Can in the rest of Spielberg’s filmography; a breezy period con man story would be more expected from the likes of Soderbergh than from the elder Steven.

Stylistically, too, the films were a departure: Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kasminski really expanded their usual aesthetics to fit with the different type of movies they were making. Minority Report carries a silvery, shadowy style that emphasizes both the sleek future world of 2054 while also playing into the murky, noirish waters of the story (it’s also, incidentally, one of my favorite works of cinematography ever). A.I. on the other hand, starts with a much more naturalistic style before becoming increasingly garish and neon-drenched as the story goes along; Rouge City looks like something out of Blade Runner. And Catch Me If You Can has a slightly washed-out, sepia vibe to it, subconsciously reinforcing the 1960s setting. All three films look completely different, both from each other and from Spielberg’s filmography overall, something that can’t be said too often of a filmmaker as established and recognizable as Spielberg.

Another exciting change for me is the added level of darkness to the stories being told. Especially while making movies that could easily be simple, broad crowd-pleasers, it’s admirable to me that Spielberg would embrace the more morose or seedy parts of the world at hand, rather than try and brighten things up. This is particularly true of the endings, which are still derided by many as being too positive, which I think is a very surface-level reaction. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank loses his father and never reunites with his mother, left to gaze longingly through her window on Christmas to see the family life he lost. In Minority Report, the Precogs might’ve been freed, but the Precrime program that’s been shown to be a great resource has been shut down altogether, a reminder that we must sacrifice potential security for the sake of our freedoms. And in A.I., the much-vilified flashforward ending (which, I must admit I’ve always found somewhat extraneous myself) is not the Happily Ever After people seem to think. It’s a massive illusion constructed for David to give him the semblance of closure, when in reality Monica is dead and has been for a long time, and David never truly did obtain the love that he wanted from her. There’s a certain morose resignation to the films’ endings, where the happier parts of the ending (Frank and Carl becoming friends and working together, John and Lara reuniting and having a new kid, the robots eventually growing into a successful race of their own) do not, in my mind, overlap the grim reality of the world around them.

However, I think the biggest and most exciting differences here are not where Spielberg departed completely from what he’d done before, but from where he evolved his usual themes to something more mature, and that evolution is rooted in what matters to me the most: the script. The work from writers Ian Watson, Scott Frank & Jon Cohen, and Jeff Nathanson (as well as Spielberg himself, who garnered his first screenplay credit in almost 20 years for A.I.) provides a more-nuanced-than-usual basis for Spielberg’s directorial work, particularly in the thematic area that is probably Spielberg’s most consistent: the absentee father.

It’s been widely noted and remarked-on that Spielberg has his daddy issues plastered all over his filmography, and the vast majority of the time it is very basic and one-sided. The fathers are inattentive or unavailable, and the protagonists need to come to grips with that or confront the father about it (what makes Close Encounters so great for me is that it ends with Roy leaving his family instead of deciding they’re more important; it’s a very harsh and honest ending from Spielberg, and probably one of his best). However, in this trilogy, the fathers are depicted in varyingly better terms, while the mothers are put under the microscope for the first time, and given equal blame for the familial issues that drive each movie. Minority Report is probably the most low-key of the three: John Anderton feels responsible for his son’s disappearance, but I don’t think anyone, including his ex-wife Lara, would actually consider him at fault. Lara, on the other hand, is the one who abandons John rather than try and cope alongside him. Both parents’ grief is understandable though, and neither comes off as particularly bad in any way; theirs is probably one of the more positive marriages in Spielberg’s work, oddly enough. In A.I., it’s a little bit murkier: the father Henry is certainly the usual kind of Spielberg father, distant and unsupportive. But the mother Monica is, in my mind, not much better. She selfishly turns to David for fulfillment and companionship, and loses patience with him when her real son returns. In the end, Monica abandons him in the wilderness, and even if it’s to let him “live” it’s far from a Mother Of The Year move. The fact that David’s quest is to secure his mother’s love, not his father’s, is in itself a departure from Spielberg’s norm. But the biggest difference is in Catch Me If You Can.

In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Sr is an incredibly flawed and sad character, a man who is so desperate to maintain his pursuit of the American Dream that he treats every conversation like a hustle, and indoctrinates Frank Jr in that mentality. And once Frank Jr turns to his life of crime, Frank Sr does nothing to turn him straight, even when Frank Jr asks him to; Frank Sr wants to live vicariously through his son and encourages his bad behavior. But in the end, Frank Sr is just running away from the pain of his reality, just like his son is. But the source of that pain, particularly for Frank Jr, is his mother Paula. Once things start going sour for Frank Sr, Paula cheats on him with his friend and then divorces him, deciding that she would rather walk away from her family to be with someone more successful. It is this familial collapse that drives Frank Jr to run away in the first place, and the dream that he clings to for so long is the chance to get his parents back together and have them be a family again. While Frank Sr is still plenty culpable in the dissolution of the family, Paula is just as responsible. It’s this sort of balanced depiction of a flawed marriage that has avoided Spielberg for most of his career, and what makes the Running Man trilogy stand out for me.

While I do still have a soft spot in my heart for some of his classic adventure films, I think that collectively the Running Man trilogy is my favorite of Spielberg’s work. Dystopian futures, jazzy con artistry, heroes on the run both from the law but also from their own realities; all of it is right up my alley, even before you consider the high-level craft involved and the sheer ambition of it all. Some terrific movies from an all-time great filmmaker, no matter what anyone might say. Now if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here, loudly defending War of the Worlds


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