Steven SpielbergWhen it came to the nominees for the Lifetime Achievement Award, both the Beliefnet community and the panel of judges had very firm opinions--though they strongly disagreed with each other. The community voted by a wide margin to give the People's Award to Mel Gibson, the man behind "The Passion of the Christ," while the panel voted just as strongly to give the Judge's Award to Steven Spielberg, whose body of work includes "Schidler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."

Interestingly, however, the community and the panelists agreed on one thing: Morgan Freeman came in second in both tallies.  Below, you will find our judge's profile of Spielberg. Click here for Gibson's.

Steven Spielberg: Our Collective Remembrance

I am on record calling to attention the deficiencies of "Munich," Steven Spielberg's take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in considering the possibilities for Beliefnet’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, it is clear that, among contemporary American filmmakers, Steven Spielberg is a man apart. Earlier in his career, Spielberg was derided (with some accuracy) as a technical virtuoso who found himself hopelessly adrift when confronted with real life or genuine suffering. Faced with the enormity of Nazi crimes, Spielberg offered the cackling baddies of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; his soggy adaptation of Alice Walker’s "The Color Purple" did little to assuage the naysayers. There were exceptions, as always--Robert Shaw’s recollection of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in "Jaws" is a spine-tingling piece of verbal theater in a film otherwise dedicated to scares of a more visceral brand. But when he took on "Schindler’s List," something changed inside Spielberg, inside the DNA of his work. By far the most rigorous film he had ever made, "Schindler’s List" is personal without being disrespectful to the enormity of the tragedy it partially chronicles.

Having previously remained defiantly childish in his outlook, Spielberg awoke to history, and there was no falling back asleep. Spielberg has never ceased to be optimistic, to seek the best in everything; what has changed is the nature of the stories he tells. His hopefulness, in "Schindler’s List," "Saving Private Ryan," "Amistad," and other films, is far more tenuous, partial, and hard-won. Spielberg’s optimism has remained, bloodied but unbowed, even when confronted with the Holocaust, slavery, and the Second World War, and this has come to appear no congenital defect, no residual trace of childish naivete, but a principled moral position. Even in the face of the worst, Spielberg finds--in the struggle for equality, for human decency, and for survival--traces of that higher calling that lifts us all, no matter what name we give to it.

Confronted with so much horror, Spielberg’s films consistently return to mundane, humdrum daily life as an Eden. It is an Eden always in danger of slipping away (remember the wonderful scene of Leonardo DiCaprio, on the lam from the police in "Catch Me If You Can," staring wistfully through the window at his family’s cozy Christmas), always challenged by the exigencies of a brutal world, and brutal individuals. It is to be cherished all the more, Spielberg warns us, for its seemingly inexhaustible quantities. As his characters know all too well, it can be snatched away at any moment.

Far from the Peter Pan his detractors once pegged him as, Spielberg has become our collective remembrance. Not all his films can hold up to the standard of "Schindler’s List," or "Saving Private Ryan," but whose can?

Here’s to hoping Steven Spielberg keeps insisting on tackling the very subjects everyone implores him to avoid.

--By Saul Austerlitz


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