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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

Spielberg & Identity Politics

To Be or Not to Be (Born): The Spielbergian Hero and the Uterine Challenges of the Digital Revolution1

Charles-Antoine Courcoux
Traduction de Franck Le Gac

Texte intégral

  • 1 Translated by Franck Le Gac.

1Concerns linked to the advent of digital technologies, with their social, political and economic effects, surfaced in North American cinema in the late 1990s. In a series of science fiction films marked by technophobic discourses, the feeling of decentering experienced by middle-class white men took the thematic form of a conflictual relationship between the protagonist and an all-powerful technological agent. Notable productions include The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), the Matrix trilogy (Lana and Lilly Wachowski, 1999–2003), the second trilogy of the Star Wars saga (Georges Lucas, 1999–2005), Minority Report, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003), I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004), Surrogates (J. Mostow, 2009), Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) and Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) (Courcoux 2017). The Matrix, the film that best epitomizes the anxiety generated by such discourses, also features one of its most potent metaphors: a womb. Drawing on the feminine connotations of the metaphor, the Wachowski brothers’ trilogy applies it to a computer program whose hallucinatory powers make it possible to subject human beings by maintaining them in a state of fetal sub-motivity (Tripp 2005). The “matrix” represents a disciplinary system from which the hero must liberate himself if he is to affirm his masculine superiority by providentially saving humankind.

2In this chapter, I argue that the films Spielberg directed in the first half of the 2000s—A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds and Munich—all rely on this paradigm, although not to the same extent. My thesis is that each of these productions mobilizes, in its own way and depending on the genre it belongs to, a “matricial” symbolism combining in-utero existence and technologization in order to redefine the subjectivity of a man—better suited, as a result, to confronting the “issues” of his time. Marked by the presence of pregnant women (four out of the six films) and run through by more or less explicit references to the gestational process and neonatal motifs, these movies make their protagonists undergo difficult journeys. The unspoken finality is to constitute them as singular enough (and thus at a distance from the feminine, imbued with connotations of reproduction), so that they can exist in a society dominated by digital technologies whose powers are often perceived as feminizing.

3The analogy between uterus and digital technology is, of course, historically situated. As I have argued elsewhere (Courcoux 2006), it proceeded from a change affecting the American cinematic imagery: under the influence of a transformation in the perception of technologies, the threat associated with the latter shifted from the hypermasculine representation of the 1970s and 1980s to a hyperfeminine representation in the mid-1990s. While the phallic and murderous machines or cyborgs that were HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), Darth Vader (Star Wars, 1977–1983), V’GER (Star Trek, 1979) and the Terminator (The Terminator, 1984) expressed a fear of castration and of the loss of bodily integrity, more engulfing and fluid systems such as VIKI (I, Robot, 2004), the T-X (Terminator 3, 2003), ARIA (Eagle Eye, 2008) and Sally (Oblivion, 2013) seem to convey an anxiety tied to the possible erasure—by submersion—of boundaries between identities. Despite her limited attention to historical context, Barbara Creed has provided useful definitions of the three phobias associated with uterine representations of monstrosity (43–58). Starting from Julia Kristeva’s theories of the abject, Creed first mentions the fear of a denied autonomy for one’s identity and its correlation to a continued relation of dependence on the mother. She also touches on the fact that women’s reproductive power refers “to the animal world and to the great cycle of birth, decay and death,” reminding man of “his mortality and of the fragility of the symbolic order” (47). Finally, she points to the literally “abject” collapse of the boundary between the inside and the outside of the body, a cornerstone in the antagonistic order of gender.

4I will focus on three starkly different films—Minority Report, The Terminal and Munich—in order to show how their male heroes cope with these fears. The methodology of my analysis is supported by Robert Connell’s conception of “hegemonic masculinity” (77). In Connell’s view, as the protagonist seeks to attain a legitimate form of social authority in the diegesis, he first has to inscribe this superiority within a hierarchical order and naturalize it through an association with his masculinity.

In the (Technological) Belly of the Beast: Minority Report

5Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s short story, Minority Report has as its main character John Anderton, the chief of a police unit that uses Precogs, mutants whose thoughts prophesy the future, to prevent murders. Anderton’s life changes dramatically when the Precogs predict that he is going to commit a murder. As with many Spielberg productions, the œdipal stakes of the film involve the possibility for the hero to reassert control over the technology which, in its shift from a status as utopia to a dystopian flip side, threatens to replace him at the top of the social order.

  • 2 As is well known, this is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s work, but also in the films of the “Movi (...)
  • 3 That Anderton is likened to a child is further reinforced by the explanation given by his ex-wife L (...)

6After an inaugural sequence showing a murder that is about to take place, Anderton takes center stage [2:25]. Entering the frame from the left side, he walks past the sliding door of the Department of Precrime and strides along on a footbridge, at which point a pregnant woman catches up with him and grabs hold of his jacket. She wishes him “good luck,” while he asks her in passing: “Any contractions?” The woman then responds: “Only the ones you give me.” This line, which contributes to the characterization of the protagonist as a man of action, would normally be considered as merely anecdotal. However, the uterine imagery and references later developed in the film endow it with added meaning: metaphorically speaking, Anderton is captive of the maternal womb. This intuition is soon confirmed by the way the verbal allusion resonates with the film’s plot. Indeed, the matricial metaphor anticipates, through a symbolic mechanism, the fact that Anderton is going to find himself under suspicion. He is determined by the conjectures produced by a technology with divinatory powers, which, significantly, is full of uterine connotations. The very early images of the film show the system of the Precogs to be a water basin located in a dark closed space. There, the character of Agatha, presented as “the more gifted of the three” Precogs, rules over the masculine (twin Precogs Arthur and Dashiell). Besides, Anderton’s “infantile” dependence, which Creed includes in the genealogy of the first phobia, finds several echoes in the film: the character’s addiction to drugs, his workaholism and his compulsive tendency to watch images of his missing son and of his wife, who has left him. The circumstances in which Anderton lost his son Sean are especially telling when it comes to the character’s dependent nature. In fact, halfway through the film, a dreamlike flashback reveals that Sean was kidnapped at a public swimming pool while his father was under water, trying to prove to him that he could hold his breath longer [73:58]. These circumstances, which associate the father’s immersion with the son’s disappearance, reinforce the feeling that the hero failed to assume his “traditional” role as a father2 (and husband), due to the fact that he still is captive in the amniotic liquid.3 The interpretation appears all the more convincing as, before and after the flashback, several scenes show the character immersed in water: in the ice bath after his eye operation (Fig. 1), in the Precogs’ pool at the beginning and during Agatha’s escape, but also through the recurring motif of the rain. As Lester Friedman has noted, “[t]he film is virtually awash in spoken references to and visual images of water” (50), not to mention the postoperative string used by Anderton in the apartment, similar to an umbilical cord. The (possibly “subliminal”) influence of The Matrix on Minority Report in terms of imagery and theme seems even more probable when differences between the two versions of the script for Spielberg’s film are considered. Like Dick’s short story, the first version, written by Jon Cohen in 1997, does not feature any allusions to water, a pool, a basin or even a pregnant woman, whereas Scott Frank’s version—written in 2001 after The Matrix had been released—includes countless details related to the element, and even an early scene in which a baby shower takes place at the Precrime headquarters as Anderton looks on from a distance (Frank 9, 47).

Fig. 1 — Minority Report: Anderton takes an ice bath after his operation.

Fig. 1 — Minority Report: Anderton takes an ice bath after his operation.
  • 4 The word “pregnant” appears in capital letters in the screenplay (Frank 164).

7The plot thus extends the uterine metaphor until the hero’s eventual victory over the fate he had been assigned (and therefore over the Precrime technology) is expressed in the actualization of a radically different relation to gestation and maternity. Indeed, the concluding shots of the film show Anderton in his apartment, reunited with his pregnant wife,4 gazing at the rain pouring outside [136:00]. Freed from the uterine system that claimed to determine him, the hero has finally (re)turned to the world and can appear as father and husband again. This is possible because he has, through his actions alone, not only demonstrated his free will by giving up on the murder he was supposed to commit, but also solved the mystery surrounding the killing of Agatha’s mother, which had justified the creation of the system exploited by Precrime. As far as gender relations are involved, the hero’s masculine superiority is implicitly naturalized thanks to the real and symbolic ascendancy of Anderton over the female and male characters presented as his rivals in the film: the three Precogs are freed thanks to him; Witwer, the U.S. Department of Justice agent investigating the viability of the Precrime program, dies for being too naive; and Burgess, a father figure who turns out to be the real culprit, proves unable to achieve the level of mastery displayed by Anderton. Unlike the hero, who asserts complete control over his fate and his drives (such as killing the man who presumably kidnapped his son), Burgess embodies the failure to do so. Besides being old, he is forced to trick the system of “divinatory” surveillance he has set up (Anderton, by contrast, does not need to elude it). As he attempts to defend his progeny (the Precrime machine, presented as his child), Burgess fails to contain the drive to kill.

8However, as Nigel Morris has noted, Minority Report, like other Dick adaptations such as Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990), also allows for an alternative reading of its ending (Morris 326–339), which would take as a starting point the hero’s incarceration, matricial to the point of caricature—a little like Neo in The Matrix, Anderton appears with his head shaved, returned to the state of a fetus and locked in a tubular electronic cell that disappears into the ground (Fig. 2). Moments before, his guard pointed out the secondary effects of his mode of detention: “It’s actually kind of a rush. They say you have visions. That your life flashes before your eyes. That all your dreams come true” [121:28]. In a more pessimistic manner than in the “dominant” ending of the film, the last part of Minority Report may be approached as a plot within the plot devoid of any enunciative markers, a dream within which Anderton projects the ideal resolution of the mystery that caused his failure in reality. Uterine reincorporation, as an allegory of technological subjection, is the opposite of the living, embodied nature of Anderton’s pregnant wife. It presents the nightmarish result of the enslavement of men by “liquid modernity,” to borrow Zygmunt Bauman’s (2000) expression.

Fig. 2 — Minority Report: Anderton locked in a tubular cell.

Fig. 2 — Minority Report: Anderton locked in a tubular cell.
  • 5 The long shot introducing the protagonist, Ray, shows the character operating a crane and emphasize (...)

9Three years later, War of the Worlds resorted to similar symbolism, though not one as all-encompassing. The pregnancy of Mary Ann, the hero’s ex-wife, and the fact that she is pregnant by another man, refers to the subtext of an altered Earth,5 subject to an intangible alien menace. Like the woman, the planet was impregnated by a foreign, artificial body threatening the symbolic order (Morris 357). The film features many situations in which the hero has to take refuge in subterranean/uterine spaces (under the kitchen table, in the basement of Mary Ann’s husband’s house, in the basement of the country house, in a tripod’s body). They last until he clears the Earth of the ill that inhabits it by exposing the female—and thus “vulnerable”—character of hysterical men (Harlan Ogilvy, Tim Robbins) and the tripods colonizing the planet. Even though he is infantilized at first, Ray is not so much the captive of a matrix, like Anderton, as he is under the threat of a reincorporation (the third fear mentioned by Creed). Accordingly, he has to confront it and come through if he is to reassert a “natural” gender hierarchy (Morris 357–358).

  • 6 Frederick Wasser mentions that Janusz Kaminski, the director of photography on Minority Report, dre (...)

10Given the considerable influence of The Matrix on science-fiction at the time, it may not be surprising to find such a shameless exploitation of uterine imagery as a symbol of technological enslavement in Minority Report6 and War of the Worlds. To put the relevance of my hypothesis to the test and grasp the multiplicity of uses to which Spielberg’s films put the metaphor, it is necessary to expand its study to productions that do not draw on the conventions of science fiction.

From Terminal Identity to Primal Masculinity: The Terminal

  • 7 Andrew Niccol worked as a scriptwriter on both films.
  • 8 On the anxiety of losing one’s masculinity, which the film associates with technology, see Freud 44 (...)

11Inspired by the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, The Terminal sticks to the script of a man disqualified by a modernity fraught with uterine connotations. The film actually does this so well that it may be considered as a transposition of the general structure of The Matrix into a classical Hollywood comedy. It follows a man, Viktor Navorski, who is forced to live in the technological, consumerist environment of an airport terminal, with television screens as his only access to the outside world. Little by little, he finds the means to free himself from this “matrix” by demonstrating the masculine—and American—nature of his deep self. Like Neo, Viktor not only loses his identity (his passport) and his ability to speak (with his very limited English) in the terminal, but runs the risk of staying captive in this impersonal space because of the revolution that has broken out in his country during his flight. Incapable of speaking English and now stateless, scrutinized by surveillance cameras in a site where screens are everywhere, Viktor expresses the decentering presumably experienced by modern man, as he walks down the corridors of this matricial allegory of global society. Like the matrix, though nowhere near as frightening, the terminal is represented as a dysfunctional space when it comes to gender difference and power relations. It is a place where women not only enjoy an authority and sexual freedom superior to those of men, but where janitors, undocumented travelers, black men and young girls can ridicule someone like Viktor, a place where technocrats rule supreme. Two characters, in particular, represent the injustice associated with this “order of things” in the film: Amelia, the woman Viktor takes a romantic interest in and who shows a compulsive tendency, fueled by her electronic pager, to seek men, whether single or married; and Frank, the terminal’s director who, like the figures of Christof in The Truman Show7 and the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded, operates from a room fitted with countless television sets that allow him to watch Viktor. With his bald pate and glasses, Frank embodies the caricature of an emasculated bureaucrat relying heavily on technological mediation. As an antagonist, he personifies the over-domesticated man, the material dependence Viktor aspires to free himself from.8 In this respect, it comes as no surprise that, once he has carried out his father’s wishes by travelling to New York, Viktor, like E.T., chooses to go back “home” in the end. At the peak of his agency, Tom Hanks’s character establishes himself as a fundamentally mobile man capable of circulating from one space to another without giving in to the pull of flows and terminals running through global society.

12Finally, the terminal’s building may be seen as the aseptic version of a “matrix” in the literal sense of the word: that is, a site marked by female reproduction and conducive to the loss of any distinctive identity, if we are to follow Creed’s categorization. Like the matrix, the terminal is represented as a humid, aquarium-like place: its walls are made of glass, the floor is often wet, and there are fish all around (the swordfish Frank carries or those painted on walls). The film also insists on the fact that Viktor’s specificity as a man tends to be denied by the terminal: windows are sometimes opaque at the beginning, and the character is backlit in some shots. Additionally, circular camera movements with short focal lenses are combined with low- and high-angle shots to convey the impression of a site dominated by confusion, masses and consumption, thus exacerbating the insignificance of the protagonist. The strategy is quite clear in the aerial track-out used at the moment when Viktor discovers the lobby, since the camera moves back to the point of making the protagonist disappear within the frame [13:33]. More suggestive still, Viktor manages to find his way out of the airport facility only after a period of nine months spent carrying out tasks or performing rites that attest to his masculinity.

  • 9 See Sébastien Lefait’s article in this volume.

13In this regard, there is a transformative dimension to Viktor’s journey: the plot underlines the fact that he has to learn to speak the language, find food, get clothes, make a living and work like a “real American” if he is to get out.9 As this process of maturation unfolds—sometimes running counter to the strictly anxious representation of technology at work in The Matrix and Minority Report—Viktor earns his credentials, showing that he belongs to the dominant norm. He takes part in homosocial activities like poker or construction work, which allow him to reestablish the conditions of a traditional heterosexual romance (with the man, not the woman, initiating seduction). In fact, only after proving himself in the typically manly realm of masonry work does Viktor succeed in seducing Amelia, interceding on behalf of Enrique with agent Torres, trading his cheap clothes for an attire typical of a higher social rank. Amelia and Viktor’s candlelight dinner is symptomatic of this mode of hierarchization, for it is the moment when each character close to him submits to his authority, whether by serving the couple at the table, cooking for them or entertaining them. In the end, The Terminal sends its hero on an initiatory journey that reveals the singularity and universality of his practices in a final chorus of praise where Americanness (being allowed on United States territory) goes hand in hand with masculinity (leaving behind the technological uterus, i.e., the terminal).

  • 10 Incidentally, one of Tom Hanks’s first film successes was Big (1988), cowritten by Spielberg’s sist (...)

14But if Viktor is to be celebrated as the representative of hegemonic masculinity, the plot still needs to underline the ontological dimension of his superiority. In other words, even as such superiority is shown to go against the initiatory aspect of the protagonist’s journey, the film manages to suggest that, despite his marginalization (his exclusion from the category of legitimate migrants, his relegation to the bottom of the social order, his ostracization, etc.), Viktor has always been the quintessential representative of American masculinity. This discursive work may be clearly identified on two levels. First, an intertextual strategy is developed. Casting Tom Hanks in the lead part creates decisive expectations as to the consolidation of this identity. Since his big hits of the 1990s (Sleepless in Seattle, 1993; You’ve Got Mail, 1998; Forrest Gump, 1994; Saving Private Ryan, 1998) and the awards he received at the time, the actor has come to represent the archetype of the nice guy and the embodiment of Americanness. Accordingly, as Viktor awaits permission to enter the U.S., the imprint of Hanks’s persona on a character already connoted as a typical American and a grown-up cannot be understated (Pfeil 2002).10

15The second strategy that contributes to naturalizing Viktor’s masculinity and Americanness is visible in the relation established by the film between the candidate to immigration and the surveillance system in the terminal. After his arrest by the customs chief agent and his “confinement” in the terminal, Viktor becomes an object of observation for Frank, who ceaselessly watches him on monitors. However, far from letting himself be objectified by a system that brings to mind a reality show on television, Viktor immediately compels recognition as an active subject. Like Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, he seems to have a “natural” ability to arouse the interest of the people around him on every occasion he gets, eventually turning the “actors” of a given place into spectators. Viktor’s capacity to resist the reifying effects of technology is well illustrated by the scene where he realizes for the first time that his every move is scrutinized by surveillance cameras [26:17]. Seemingly conscious of the dangers inherent in this type of mediation, the character stares back at one camera. Frank’s reaction, one of both astonishment and helplessness, points to the destabilization of his system’s objectifying power. The end of the narrative brings this logic to completion when, after nine months, all the occupants of the terminal get together to celebrate Viktor’s departure. At that point, the crowd’s unanimous feelings towards the protagonist are expressed in the gift of a policeman’s coat he receives from a black officer. The gift, which attests to his superiority in terms of gender and race, but also to his aptitude to embody the patriarchal norm, is a symbolic marker of the fact that he is now cleared to leave the “matrix.” The gendered signification of this action becomes even more transparent when Viktor walks past the terminal’s door just as Amelia is about to enter. On his way towards the adult male brotherhood of the world of jazz his father loved so much, Viktor paves the way for the restoration of a sound balance, one that involves the reintegration of the flighty woman within female space.

16By transposing questions usually limited to dystopian science fiction to the genre of the dramatic comedy, The Terminal noticeably moves away from uterine imagery as a source of anxiety. Far from the monstrous, hysteria-laden representation of technology in The Matrix and Minority Report, the film presents an ambivalent vision. The space of the airport appears as a restrictive site, but also as a site where the middle-class white man can learn to resist the pervasiveness of technology—and pass it off as an innate capacity for resistance.

The Terror of Television Technology: Munich

17Munich reintroduces frightening significations in the uterine metaphor, but in a more discrete and subtle way. The film’s realistic and “vintage” vein contributes to displacing the tensions caused by the development of digital technologies, which is reinterpreted and relegated to the status of past event. Freely adapted from Georges Jonas’s 1984 book Vengeance, Munich tells the story of a team secretly set up by the Mossad to eliminate the members of Black September, the group involved in the assassination of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. The final shot of the film, which shows the World Trade Center from the neighboring shores of New Jersey, points to one possible reading of Munich—as a work that considers the operating modes and consequences of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 [156:15]. Yet a striking aspect in Spielberg’s account of the Munich attack is the insistence on their mediation by television, which also echoes the way images of the 9/11 attacks spread. Indeed, while the story begins with the entrance of the terrorists in the Olympic village and the kidnapping of the Israeli athletes, focalization soon shifts to a mediated representation of the events. Shots of television newscasts on screens shown in ever larger numbers alternate with shots of journalists addressing television cameras or viewers gathering around television sets in a café, at a military base, in private homes, hypnotized by the news coming through [3:53–10:58]. The point seems clear enough: contemporary terrorism derives its power from the proliferation in the media of the “spectacle” it creates, and therefore from the reproductive capacities of audiovisual interfaces and their propensity to paralyze audiences with fear. Such a discourse on the stupefying power of televisual mediation should evidently be read in relation to the “viral” properties of contemporary digital media. With Spielberg, however, it seems to refer more fundamentally to depreciative traits associated with the feminine (passivity, deception, reproduction). According to the work of Patrice Petro (1986) and Lynn Spigel (1990), these have been linked to television since it entered the sphere of mass media. As Spigel explains, very early on, “television was often shown to rob men of their power, making them into passive, helpless women, or even children.... It threatened to make men into female spectators” (88).

Fig. 3 — Munich: Avner Kaufman and his wife Daphna watch the news on TV.

Fig. 3 — Munich: Avner Kaufman and his wife Daphna watch the news on TV.
  • 11 Still, the film plays down the reversal in the power relation between the two partners since, for t (...)

18The correlation between television and loss of manliness is clearly expressed as soon as Avner Kaufman is introduced. The character first appears after the sequence of newscast images of the attacks, sitting still on his living-room couch, his face reflecting the glow of the television screen and registering worry as he watches; his pregnant wife Daphna then joins him to follow the latest developments (Fig. 3) [9:58]. Shortly after the attacks, Avner, a former bodyguard of Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir, is chosen to lead the team that will track down the members of Black September. Although his father is a national hero, the protagonist is characterized in a way that systematically tends to belittle his stature. When General Kamir picks him up in front of his home and Avner recognizes him, the army officer tells him: “I don’t remember you. Of course, I know your father” [13:55]. As a character, Golda Meir also contributes to this symbolic emasculation, as she aligns Avner with the feminine at the end of their interview: “[T]ruth be told, you don’t look much like your father. Your mother is who you resemble” [16:12]. Besides, in keeping with strategies mobilized by Spielberg in his films of the time, Avner’s uncertain gender identity, which echoes his subordination to the television apparatus, is once more metaphorically related to a pregnancy—in this case, his wife’s. After having intercourse, in the early part of the film—in which Avner is shown lying behind her, in an unusually secondary position for the hero of a Hollywood production11—he asks Daphna, panting: “How late in the pregnancy before you have to stop having sex?” Her answer, “Labor,” conveys complicity and kindly expresses the sexual domination of the hero by his wife. It may also be understood as a way to signify the extent of the “labor” the character still needs to accomplish to enjoy a full-fledged masculine identity. What’s more, right after this sexual act, Daphna, who mentions that she is not “the hero’s nice wife,” tells Avner that, unconsciously, Israel is like a mother to him. The next day, in a response of sorts to this statement, the protagonist accepts the mission and experiences his first symbolic rebirth. Following the instructions given to him by his supervisor Ephraim as they meet in a very dark room, Avner renounces the links he still has with his “mother country” and prepares to leave his relatives to carry out his mission in Europe. The following scene significantly consists in a peaceful walk by the seashore with Ephraim, the sunlight irradiating the image—a stark contrast with the uterine backlighting privileged up to that point by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski [20:56]. Figuratively speaking, Avner then comes into the world for the first time.

  • 12 This also appears as a form of tribute to the famous scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversati (...)

19From then on, the initiatory journey of the hero is largely structured by the competition between two father figures in a chaotic world where knowing whom to trust proves tricky—including when it comes to information and technologies. The hero ends up distancing himself from Ephraim, the “bad father,” who is associated with the opacity of mediation, secrecy and often dysfunctional technologies (on a technical level, almost nothing works during the assassinations). Instead, he values his relationship with the character aptly nicknamed “Papa,” the “good father,” played by Michael Lonsdale. Unlike Ephraim, Papa is classically articulated around values such as community, family, loyalty, nature and... cooking (Avner’s hobby as well, a possible sign that his own connection to nature lives on). Symptomatically, however, and in keeping with the technophobic and misogynistic discourses already mentioned, Avner can truly distance himself from Ephraim only once he lets go of the matricial mediations associated with him and manages to neutralize the lethal powers of female sexuality—with the “abject” assassination of the professional female killer, whose dead body, naked, covered with blood and riddled with bullet wounds, is exhibited. The sway of technologies over Avner is patent in the scene that crosscuts between the death of the team’s explosives expert, killed by one of his devices, and the paranoia attack experienced by the hero in his hotel room, which he combs weapon in hand, before taking apart the devices (telephone, television) he suspects might be booby-trapped [128:12].12 A few scenes later, after being assured that Papa had nothing to do with the killing of his team members, Avner temporarily returns to Israel. He asserts his independence in the face of his “mother country,” refusing to betray Papa and answer Ephraim’s questions, as his supervisor tries to record on magnetic tape the names of people who helped him during his mission [138:43]. Framing and composition, as well as the use of a series of shots/reverse shots in the scene, point to the crucial part played by technique in Avner’s emancipation process. Indeed, the editing initially alternates two series of shots: the first features Ephraim in the background, juxtaposed with the tape recorder on the left side and a microphone in the foreground, at the center of the frame; the second features Avner, who also appears in the center of the frame but surrounded by Ephraim’s shoulder on the left and the recorder on the right (Fig. 4). It is only later, when Avner’s long silence leads Ephraim to turn off the recorder, that the protagonist can assert his autonomy in a close-up rid of the oppressive presence of both his supervisor and the machine. Avner then ironically repeats the words spoken by Ephraim at the start of the film to remind him that he cannot be forced to testify: he does not work for him and does not exist. Significantly, the following scene shows Avner saying goodbye to his mother (first linked to the television set in his living room) and leaving his country for good.

Fig. 4 — Munich: Ephraim recording as he interrogates Avner (in reverse shot).

Fig. 4 — Munich: Ephraim recording as he interrogates Avner (in reverse shot).

20Yet the film takes this logic of separation even further. After Papa recognizes his masculine identity as a son in their last telephone conversation, Avner goes to the Israeli Consulate in New York to threaten Ephraim indirectly with retaliation (he breaks a phone) if they don’t leave “[his] family alone” [146:51]. However, the hero’s quest for truth/masculinity is only complete with a second sex scene with his wife. This time, Daphna’s physical and sexual domination coincides—and alternates with—the complete and immediate vision (unmediated by television, as it was in the early part of the film) of the Munich attacks [147:45]. The use of crosscutting and the fact that Daphna is no longer pregnant further underline the feminizing power assumed by media technologies in Munich, and the need to free oneself from such power. Unlike the character of David, who in A.I. ends up embracing posthuman technologies and finds self-gratification in the regressive illusion that he could “sleep with his mother,” Avner seeks autonomy by keeping a distance between himself and a modern world whose matricial power threatens him with the loss of differentiation. In a last shot evoking the ashen and desolate landscapes of War of the Worlds, the hero is shown, after his words have sent Ephraim offscreen, standing at the center of a playground. Behind him, the Hudson River offers a natural separation from the urban concentration of New York City, visible in the distance [155:57].

Spielberg’s Cinema: Recycling to Be Better Reborn

  • 13 Spielberg himself endorsed this distinction in an interview on French TV channel Canal+, when he pr (...)
  • 14 See notably Péron 2003 and Lorrain 2003.
  • 15 To take the example of France, auteurism’s native land, Spielberg was dubbed a Knight of the Legion (...)
  • 16 In their reviews of Catch Me if You Can, Didier Péron (2003) portrayed Spielberg as “affected by th (...)
  • 17 The great majority of these books do, in fact, begin by considering the question of “ordinary resis (...)

21As exposed here, the diversified uses made in Spielberg’s films of the uterine metaphor in the process of maturation/masculinization of their heroes present a twofold interest. First, they may be among the factors contributing, unconsciously or not, to the process of cultural legitimization of the director since his 1990s historical dramas (Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan). The metaphor resonates with how the filmmaker had long been perceived by film critics and others as the perpetual “wonder boy,” who was expected to grow out of the system his own blockbusters had contributed to shape. The leitmotiv of Spielberg’s (emotional and cinematographic) maturity pervades the reviews of those of his films that are considered to be more serious (Schindler’s List, Munich, Lincoln, to name a few).13 It also haunts the depreciative comments on the films taken as puerile entertainment (E.T., the Indiana Jones franchise, Hook, Jurassic Park, etc.).14 Still, it can hardly be overlooked that, after the critical and often public success of his films in the first half of the 2000s, the filmmaker achieved a new degree of artistic respectability.15 The timing of this recognition goes beyond the sphere of film criticism alone since most academic studies devoted to Spielberg’s movies appeared after the release of the so-called films of “maturity,”16 i.e., Schindler’s List and those which run from Amistad to Munich.17

  • 18 In its time and in a rather similar manner, Jaws represented a productive hybridization between the (...)

22Yet the variety in the use of this metaphor may also be significant in another related way. In fact, studies of Spielberg’s œuvre reveal a diversity of angles of analysis (stylistic, cultural, political, philosophical, and so on). Unlike other New Hollywood filmmakers, like Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese, Spielberg does not seem—for now at least—to be the object of a consensus or even of a convergence as to what, besides established aesthetic or thematic choices, presumably makes the specificity or the popularity of his films. However, in my view, the fact that A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds and Munich rely on the matricial metaphor, precisely, reveals a distinctive aspect of his cinema: its capacity to recycle themes, motifs, an iconography or generic conventions already circulating, so as to develop and exploit them in a discourse that sticks to the issues of the times.18 Trite as the observation may seem, it was The Matrix, not these Spielberg films, which imposed the uterine imagery as a metaphor of the dangers tied to the rise of digital technologies. However, as we have seen, these works certainly offered the richest and most diverse expressions, starting from rather different questions and perspectives. This, it seems to me, points to the particular place of Spielberg’s films in the American cinematic landscape, split as they are between their functions as both products and privileged producers of that cinematic imaginary. Accordingly, they exist in an intermediate space that—among other reasons, because of the part of shameless compromise with the “machine” it supposes—hardly suits the demands of singularity and distance still governing the critical but also, sometimes, the academic reception of cinema.

23Still, as I noted in my first point, this series of films does seem to have allowed Spielberg to overcome the obstacle, in France at least. Thematizing the question of the relation to technology through the double motif of gestation and birth, these films may, indeed, have contributed to a reconsideration of the filmmaker as someone who is part of the “system” but free to use it as he sees fit. This discourse may be traced in the comparison, drawn by critics but also encouraged by Spielberg’s own statements at the time (Péron 2003; Lorrain 2003), between himself and Frank Abagnale Jr, the resourceful impostor played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can. If the manifest function of the comparison suggests a reading, based on the film, of Spielberg’s aptitude to appropriate any identity to meet all the infantile desires generated by the confrontation with the real, the latent function of the comparison is clearly to underline the director’s ability to show his natural maturity, whenever necessary. In the last minutes of the film, after his various performances, Abagnale does provide the bit of explanation his character had been missing to certify the innate aspect of his superiority. He tells FBI agent Carl Hanratty that he did not “cheat” to pass the Bar examination, but simply studied hard for two weeks. The confidence shows that Abagnale, not unlike Spielberg and his own comments about himself, is not locked in the reproductive and imitative logic that had seemingly conditioned him up to that point. He is, instead, a proper representative of adult, hegemonic masculinity and shows an ability to look like anything society expects him to be without ever losing his identity in the process. Recently, the filmmaker may have been drawing on a similar, ambivalent posture, as he declared on French radio station France Inter that, unlike Scorsese, De Palma or Coppola, he had “grown up in the studio system... at Universal, under contract to shoot episodes for TV series,” and that, even as he admired the independence of “authors,” he had “grown up in a business” and had “never imagined [himself] in the shoes [of an author]” (Masson and Delmas 2015, [19:40]). In an era that cultivates nostalgia, even towards industrial culture and the so-called prosperity associated with it, Spielberg has been pointing to the singularity of his belonging to the “system” and claiming a status as “vintage” akin to that of the first “auteurized” Hollywood directors (Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, etc.). This may, paradoxically, have created the conditions for his own “auteurization.”


A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Dreamworks Home Entertainment, 2002.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

Buckland, Warren. Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster. New York, London: Continuum, 2006.

Catch Me if You Can. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Dreamworks Home Entertainment, 2003.

Connell, Robert. Masculinities. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1995.

Courcoux, Charles-Antoine. “De la nécrose technologique au gouffre métallurgique. Darth Vader ou le choc de la conscience post-industrialisée.” Décadrages 8–9 (Fall 2006): 76–94.

Courcoux, Charles-Antoine. Des machines et des hommes. Masculinité et technologie dans le cinéma américain contemporain. Geneva: Georg, 2017.

Creed, Barbara. “Woman as Monstruous Womb.” The Monstrous-Feminine. Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London, New York: Routledge, 1993, 43–58.

Frank, Scott. Minority Report, revised draft, May 16, 2001. Accessed on 12 August 2017.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Trans. Joan Riviere. London: The Hogarth Press/The Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1946.

Friedman, Lester D. Citizen Spielberg. Urbana, Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2006.

Gordon, Andrew M. Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Jackson Lears, T.J. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920. Chicago, London: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Kendrick, James, Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg. New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Kowalski, Dean A., ed. Steven Spielberg and Philosophy: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Book. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2010.

Kushner, Tony and Eric Roth. Munich, revised draft. Accessed on 12 August 2017.

Lorrain, François-Guillaume. “La pause champagne.” Le Point 1586, 7 February 2003: 100.

Lyman, Rick. “Spielberg Challenges the Big Fluff of Summer.” The New York Times, June 16, 2002.

Masson, Christine and Laurent Delmas. “Steven Spielberg, on aura vraiment tout vu.” On aura tout vu, France Inter, 28 November 2015.

Minority Report. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Dreamworks Home Entertainment, 2002.

Morris, Nigel. The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light. London, New York: Wallflower Press, 2007.

Munich. Dir. Seven Spielberg. DVD. Universal, 2006.

Péron, Didier. “Spielberg sort du schéma. Arrête-moi si tu peux, comédie alerte et mélancolique sur les apparences.” Libération, 12 February 2003: 3.

Petro, Patrice. “Mass Culture and the Feminine: The ‘Place’ of Television in Film Studies.” Cinema Journal 25.3 (Spring 1986): 5–21.

Pfeil, Fred. “Getting Up There with Tom: the Politics of American ‘Nice.’” Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions. Ed. Judith Kegan Gardiner. New York: Columbia UP, 2002, 119–140.

Spigel, Lynn. “Television in the Family Circle. The Popular Reception of a New Medium.” Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Ed. Patricia Mellencamp. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990, 73–97.

The Terminal. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Dreamworks Home Entertainment, 2004.

Tripp, Daniel. “‘Wake Up’: Narratives of Masculine Epiphany in Millennial Cinema.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 22 (2005): 181–188.

Wasser, Frederick. Steven Spielberg’s America. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.

War of the Worlds. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DVD. Dreamworks Home Entertainment, 2005.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.


1 Translated by Franck Le Gac.

2 As is well known, this is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s work, but also in the films of the “Movie Brats.” In Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood writes of a “[r]estoration of the Father,” understood symbolically as well as literally as “the dominant project, ad infinitum and post nauseam, of the contemporary Hollywood cinema, a veritable thematic metasystem embracing all the available genres and all the current cycles” (172).

3 That Anderton is likened to a child is further reinforced by the explanation given by his ex-wife Lara to justify her leaving him: “I left him because every time I looked at him, I saw my son. Every time I got close to him, I smelled my little boy. That’s why I left him.” Logically, then, Lara is the one who “frees” Anderton from his state of fetal captivity in the prison at the end of the film.

4 The word “pregnant” appears in capital letters in the screenplay (Frank 164).

5 The long shot introducing the protagonist, Ray, shows the character operating a crane and emphasizes how the gigantic scale of the port area dwarfs him [2:41]. The same can be said of the film’s opening shots, which all focus on a vision of the Earth where automobile traffic, urban development and humans swarming have replaced a serene natural state figured immediately before by green foliage [1:15–2:10].

6 Frederick Wasser mentions that Janusz Kaminski, the director of photography on Minority Report, drew his inspiration from the “dark palette” of Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) and The Matrix (191). The influence of the Wachowskis’ film was, in fact, confirmed by Spielberg himself in an interview with Rick Lyman (2002).

7 Andrew Niccol worked as a scriptwriter on both films.

8 On the anxiety of losing one’s masculinity, which the film associates with technology, see Freud 44–49.

9 See Sébastien Lefait’s article in this volume.

10 Incidentally, one of Tom Hanks’s first film successes was Big (1988), cowritten by Spielberg’s sister, in which he played a child trapped in an adult body.

11 Still, the film plays down the reversal in the power relation between the two partners since, for this scene, the script mentions that Dafna “is on top” (Kushner and Roth 25).

12 This also appears as a form of tribute to the famous scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

13 Spielberg himself endorsed this distinction in an interview on French TV channel Canal+, when he presented The BFG at the Cannes film festival on May 16, 2016. Questioned by Augustin Trapenard on the necessity of “keeping a child’s perspective” to make films such as his, the director explained that he “does not stay that way all the time when making historical films... like Bridge of Spies or Munich.”

14 See notably Péron 2003 and Lorrain 2003.

15 To take the example of France, auteurism’s native land, Spielberg was dubbed a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 2004 and promoted to the rank of Officer in 2008. From January to March 2012, the director was honored by the Cinémathèque française with a retrospective entitled “Steven Spielberg: entre spectacle et spiritualité,” as well as a master class. The same year, the releases of both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse earned him the cover pages of almost all French film magazines, from Cahiers du cinéma to Première and Studio Ciné Live, not to mention special issues of Les Inrockuptibles and Mad Movies. Finally, Spielberg, who had attended the Cannes Film Festival only twice (in 1974 and 1982) in his thirty-year-long career, presented the fourth installment of Indiana Jones at the event in 2008, presided the jury in 2013, and returned for The BFG in 2016.

16 In their reviews of Catch Me if You Can, Didier Péron (2003) portrayed Spielberg as “affected by the melancholy of maturity,” while François-Guillaume Lorrain (2003) noted that the director was no longer “the entertainer or moneymaker of the 1970s and 1980s. He has matured.”

17 The great majority of these books do, in fact, begin by considering the question of “ordinary resistances” to the legitimacy of Spielberg’s work as an object of scholarly investigation (Morris 2; Gordon 1–2; Buckland 2006; Kendrick X-XI; Kowalski 2010).

18 In its time and in a rather similar manner, Jaws represented a productive hybridization between the codes of the disaster film and those of the horror film.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — Minority Report: Anderton takes an ice bath after his operation.
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Titre Fig. 2 — Minority Report: Anderton locked in a tubular cell.
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Titre Fig. 3 — Munich: Avner Kaufman and his wife Daphna watch the news on TV.
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Titre Fig. 4 — Munich: Ephraim recording as he interrogates Avner (in reverse shot).
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Université de Lausanne.

Charles-Antoine Courcoux is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Film History and Aesthetics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, whose Center for Film Studies (CFS) he heads. He has published several articles in journals such as Film & History, Décadrages, Poli and CinémAction, as well as in collected volumes devoted to science fiction, war films, fantasy and the archaeology of television. His main research interests include the representation of masculinity, feminist, queer and film theory, the reception of technologies and the practice of the remake. He is the author of Des machines et des hommes. Masculinité et technologie dans le cinéma américain contemporain (Georg, 2016). He is also the secretary general of the Swiss Cinema Network.

Franck Le Gac (Traducteur)

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