America’s never been great, but that’s not entirely America’s fault. No country is inherently great. No constitution, no matter who writes it, guarantees a country’s success. The constitution of the United States of America is no different, but that doesn’t prevent its citizens from being obsessed with it. America, in many ways, is obsessed with itself. Almost every controversy in this country is followed by commentators, politicians, and celebrities philosophizing on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an American. “This is not who we are”, “This isn’t the image America should give to the world”, “America is better than this.” We can debate whether this “American exceptionalism” does more harm or good, but there is no question that most Americans believe in it.
The ability to believe in this message of exceptionalism while simultaneously examining -even questioning- the machines that make it work is what makes the recent work of Steven Spielberg so fascinating. Judging by his movies, Spielberg is a believer in America’s ability to be a force for good. Moreover, he believes that the American constitution is a perfectly fine blueprint for achieving this greater good. At the same time, however, he understands that the constitution isn’t perfect, and more importantly, is not going to uphold itself. Being a force for good is possible, but it’s not an easy job. It’s not that the constitution magically created a great country. The constitution is important, but even more important is the belief behind its creation, that a country could be great.
In order to explore this question, Spielberg’s made a trilogy of films that serve as a lesson in American civics. Each of these movies interrogates the idealism of the constitution by focusing on the practical. Each movie shows what it looks like for a different democratic institution to try to uphold the ideals behind this founding document. The first movie of the trilogy is Lincoln, which chronicles the process of passing the 13th amendment that ended slavery and was integral step toward actualizing the “all men are created equal” element of the constitution. Lincoln deals directly with the notion that it’s not the constitution itself, but people’s interpretation of it, that creates equality. It also shows that achieving something as great as the passage of an invaluable amendment can be an extremely tricky process.
President Lincoln -portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis- is a wise and charismatic man; he’s also a cunning strategist. A large chunk of the movie focuses on the unorthodox methods Lincoln used in order to convince congress to pass the bill. Not everything that was done was ethical, not everything that was done was legal. There was extensive trickery, and lies, involved. But such is the democratic process, the movie argues. The juxtaposes the idealism of one of the brightest moments in American history with the down and dirty reality of the political machine. John Williams’s heroic score can swell while Lincoln gives a speech, and still the movie understands that idealism is nothing without action.
The second movie in the trilogy, Bridge of Spies, focuses on the judiciary. All-American Tom Hanks plays attorney James B. Donovan, who takes the job of defending a captured Soviet spy. The first half of the movie includes a lot of Donovan speechifying about how granting this man -no matter his crime- is the right, American, thing to do. Not doing so, according to Donovan, would be forgetting the ideals of the constitution, lowering the standards up to which American Democracy holds itself. This is very much a movie about the cost of idealism. Doing what’s right turns Donovan (and his family) into pariahs. So much so that instead of throwing rocks at his house, an angry mob decides to shoot at it.
But Donovan just has to do what’s right. In the second half, he is unexpectedly called to East Berlin, where he has to negotiate the release of two Americans who have been imprisoned by the Soviet and East German governments respectively. Donovan, as played by Hanks, is the most heroic character in this trilogy. He is an everyman who is thrown into impossible situations in which he simply has to what’s right. Donovan’s time in East Berlin is, simply, excruciating. He must deal with two corrupt governments, impossible bureaucracy, a lack of sleep, and the fact that he has a cold. In Bridge of Spies, upholding the constitution and doing what’t right is physically exhausting. But it’s what’s got to be done. Donovan refers to the constitution as “the rulebook.” Adhering to the rules, he claims, is “what makes us American”
The trilogy closes out this year, with The Post, which is currently playing in theaters and might just be the perfect capper. The last entry in the series feels like a much more urgent film than the ones that preceded it, and for obvious reasons. Famously, Spielberg first read the script for The Post in February. Less than ten months later, the movie was screening for critics. To say that the movie was inspired by last year’s presidential election would be an understatement. The movie focuses on the publication of classified information known as The Pentagon Papers, and the subsequent lawsuit that the executive branch of government filed against the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is a movie about how the freedom of the press is essential in a democratic government.
The Post not only deals with the Executive Branch, but with the “Fourth Estate” that is meant to hold it accountable. It’s interesting that the movie chooses to focus on the people working at the Washington Post. The New York Times was the first paper to publish classified material that made clear the government was lying to the public about the Vietnam War, but focusing on The Post allows Spielberg to put the focus on the underdogs. Not only because the Post was a relatively small regional paper at the time, but because he finds a very fascinating hero in the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep).
Graham is a very unusual heroine. On the one hand, she is an underdog. She is a woman in a position of power at a time in which such things were more than uncommon (and she only got ownership of the paper after her husband died). As such, she has a hard time getting the men around her to fully respect her, and is incredibly doubtful about her decisions. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong and courageous woman. If anything, it means the opposite, that a woman raised in a system that was overwhelmingly against her agency forged on to defy the U.S. President is outstanding. On the other hand, Graham is a privileged woman. She’s a wealthy socialite who spends a lot of her time at fancy dinner parties.
Because she is a Washington socialite, Graham is friends with many politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When she first hears about the possibility of publishing the papers, she thinks of her friend of Bob, of what this whole situation will do to him and his reputation. One of the most effective moments in the movie comes when Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), go on about their friendships to ex-Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Were they softer on them than they should have been? How are the people meant to hold the President accountable be the President’s friend?
And at the same time, you have a whole group of reporters at the Post working hard to find and publish these papers. Graham might be at the center of the story, responsible for the ultimate decision to publish, but this is a team effort. It’s not just one person, it’s not even just one paper. It’s, again, a movie about doing what’s right on the face of fear. The things at stake are money, power, reputation. Those are all things that America loves, but those are not the thing behind the ideals of the constitution. That’s what Spielberg has been trying to get at in this section of his career. What does it mean to do the right thing?
At a time when culture is focused on nostalgia for the past. At a time where movies and tv shows insist on recycling the magic of the movies Spielberg made in the nineties, Spielberg has decided to go on a fully opposite direction. He’s making movies that have a classical sheen, following the legacy of Frank Capra and John Ford. That movies, in this day and age, can be bold and earnest about the thing they are about. That they can be transparently idealistic and incredibly honest at the same time. That there is a director like Spielberg, who can make these movies with such directorial aplomb. All of these things make me happy. All of these things, I celebrate.