Thursday, April 16, 2009

Empire of the Sun: Spielberg's Masterpiece

I have a constantly edited and updated list, about three pages long (and yes, if you're asking, I still write and save everything as Word Perfect files; sue me), of movies that I want or need to see. I put new stuff on there that seems interesting, add old films which I haven't yet got around the watching, and then, as I make my way through the list, delete them one by one. Sometimes I'll put a film on there because, though I've seen it before, I can't remember it as well as I think I ought to, or because somebody suggested something about the movie which I'd missed. I can't remember which one of these, if either, caused me to put Stephen Spielberg's 1987 epic, Empire of the Sun, a film I hadn't watched in probably close to 20 years, on there, but whatever the reason, I'm glad I did. I just slipped that dvd back into its Netflix sleeve, and I have to say: I'm blown away. Was this Spielberg's greatest film ever? It just may be.

I was never much of a Spielberg basher--I mean, sure, just about anyone who took films seriously in the 1980s and 90s occasionally partook in grousing about the way the man would join his terrific storytelling and efficient use of the camera to sometimes impossibly maudlin and manipulative scenes (E.T., I'm looking at you), and I probably wasn't above that. But to this day, I stand by my fondness for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Color Purple, and Jurassic Park as entertainments that were in turn intense, dramatic, and sometimes hilarious, and which made good use of those sometimes predictable "Spielberg" moments, or at least didn't allow them to break up the film. I haven't seen some of his more recent work (Munich is on my list to see one of these days, but the reviews for Indiana Jones and the Impossibly Long Subtitle kept me away), so I don't know to what degree he may have left those tendencies behind him: Schindler's List and War of the Worlds were both, appropriately, mostly brutal and unsentimental and free of narrative slickness, while Catch Me If You Can was so smart, frothy, and adult that it seemed to have been made by a different director entirely. Anyway, my point is, wherever Spielberg's has gone as a director over the past twenty years, Empire of the Sun is very much part of his 80s oeuvre: the Spielberg touches--the sunsets, the close-ups, the cute reveals, the sudden tears--abound. But here's the thing: it holds together brilliantly--maybe more brilliantly than anything else the man has ever done.

Upon watching it, I was reminded that it really was an epic film: a huge, two-and-a-half hour, panoramic retelling of the Japanese invasion and occupation of China, somehow all encapsulated in the story and the point-of-view of one character, Jamie Graham, the privileged, high-church educated son of a wealthy British expatriate family, who find their enclave on Englishness in Shanghai shut down by the Japanese occupation. Spielberg had two tremendous resources to work with in making this film, and the first was the brilliant performance by Christian Bale as Jamie. His many subsequent film projects have demonstrated a lot of range and talent, but I'm not sure I've seen him do anything in any other film yet that Spielberg didn't enable him to do, and do superbly well, in this movie when he was only twelve years old.

The demands of a true film epic are, I think, different from any other kind of cinematic story-telling; the main character has to be in every scene, has to be able to pull those scenes together through their own expressions and dialogue and actions, and yet not become some sort of passive synecdoche that supposedly "represents" the whole tale. Few ostensibly "epic" films really pull off this kind of story-telling: David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia certainly did, because Lean knew how to present the alternately expansive and intensely contained emotionality of Peter O'Toole's performance on the screen. Spielberg did the same with Bale. Go watch (or re-watch) the film, and look at how Bale's eyes skittishly (and sometimes shrewdly) jump from character to character during the chaos and violence of those opening scenes, as the Japanese soldiers, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, march into the Shanghai International Settlement and cart everyone off to civilian internment camps. You've got panic there; you've got desperation, hunger, delirium, but also thought. I can count on one hand the number of movie actors and actresses that can, when the scene is set up right, really communicate thinking to me in the audience; most of the time, we're just told that characters are smart, and that's it, or else their "thinking" about their situation is announced by lame shots of brows furrowed or whatever. But Spielberg saw in Bale someone who could express--or be taught to express; it was only Bale's second feature film--a boy who was using, or who would use, the same imaginative power that led him to idolize Japanese pilots and run about with toy airplanes to, when the time came, convince some layabout merchant marines to take him in and feed him, or to make himself essential to the smooth operating of the prison camp, or pick up some essential (and ultimately life-saving) Japanese phrases and rituals, or to sneak through barbed wire literally under the guns of the Japanese guards. I just sat their watching, thinking: "This kid is so damn smart!" I bought it completely; it worked, and because it worked, all the other hokey flourishes Spielberg used to translate the whole tale into one child's visionary experience--Jamie saluting some Japanese soldiers, and them solemnly standing at attention and saluting back; Jamie being made an honorary American in the camp, and walking about with aviator glasses and a cigar in his mouth; or, most outrageously (or triumphantly?), in the scene below, Jamie hysterically celebrating an American bombing run on the camp and watching a pilot wave to him in slow motion as he flies by, before collapsing in exhaustion...well, it all worked to, coming together into one sprawling, sometimes surreal, sometimes scary, consistently astonishing story-telling whole.

The look of the film is tremendous, which almost goes without saying: Spielberg has always known how to work with people to create beautiful, haunting, terrific sets. Beyond Bale, he had a great cast to work with, none more important to the story than John Malkovich as Basie, the American ship steward that becomes a cynical alter ego/father figure to Jamie throughout the film. He provides a fabulous antipode to Bale's Jamie, with his always-thinking earnestness: Malkovich plays Basie as calm, purposefully and even pretentiously undramatic, lethargic and cool. He comes to understand Jamie's energy, defends it, trusts in it, and is willing to abuse it (such as when he undramatically lies to send Jamie on a mission under the wires which ring the camp, just to find out if there on any mines planted out of sight). Basie is never Jamie's friend--he could never be a friend to a teen-age boy; that is clear from just watching him--but it's marvellous to see Malkovich present us with an adult who is tempted by Jamie's energy, who is almost willing to make the way and the starvation and horror which attends it into an enveloping playground the way this boy did. After Basie is beaten by a camp commander (his second ugly beating of the movie) and is taken to the camp hospital, Jamie visits him, and they come very close to a real heart-to-heart talk about their hopes...and then Basie suddenly stops and stares at Jamie, hard and curious, like the boy is a strange bug he'd just picked up off the floor. He pulls himself back, asks him brusquely why isn't Jamie watching his stuff, making sure it isn't stolen. From a possible confident to a tool, in a short brutal scene; I'm not sure anything else Spielberg has filmed has been as efficient at laying open the neediness and exploitation that come with deprivation. Jamie's last words to Basie? "You taught me that people will do anything for a potato." The words of boy who had spent years fighting the intrusion of reality into his well-tended, excitable dreams. Again, I bought it completely; I felt like I was quite accurately hearing what every and any civilian survivor of World War II would have said...if there happened to be someone as skilled as Spielberg (and the movie's screenwriters, of course!) to get those words voiced.

I'm leaving out a lot (like Jamie's final moments in the abandoned camp, bicycling like mad through the dusty, empty hovels, laughing crazily, the camera circling him wildly, then all of sudden stopping dead on a troop of solid American soldiers, the adult world finally putting a stop to Jamie's desperation once and for all). All I can say is what I said above: I really think this may be the greatest Spielberg film of them all, his true masterpiece. Maybe not his single greatest cinematic achievement (I would give that to the stunning, horrifying, first twenty minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan; look here if you don't remember), but as a complete package? I can't think of anything The Beard has done which beats what he and his team put together, more than 20 years ago. Give Empire a look, whether or not you have before. Maybe you'll be blown away, like me.


Bob said...


Excellent post and very timely in view of the announcement of J G Ballards death.

You are spot in about Christian Bale's performance in the film and I have to agree that that it would be a pretty close run thing to find a better Speilberg film.

On a lighter note, I don't use Word Perfect these days but my wish lists etc are still hand written in my Filofax and some of the pages are original notes from the time of purchase circa 1990! We are all entitled to be Luddite occassionally!

David Petersen said...

I agree! If I will have to recommend a movie of Spielberg, I will definitely let them watch this one first. Moving. Read the book?