The Master of Consensual Manipulation

Contribution to The Question Spielberg: A Symposium

The films of Steven Spielberg are often derided for their populist appeal. However this quick judgement is often made without an attempt to examine why Spielberg has maintained such a high level of box office success over the past three decades. Prominent in Spielberg’s filmic style is his mastery of techniques of cinematic manipulation, techniques that paradoxically have made his work both commercially successful and critically undervalued. Yet Spielberg’s trademark use of swelling music, emotive dialogue and intimate close-ups, and his thematic concern with family trauma, innocent children in a hostile world, and the child who never grew up, contribute to a powerfully engaging and satisfying filmic experience.

The off-hand dismissal of Spielberg’s films says much about how cinema is defined as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ There is a prevalent attitude that the emotional impact of a film should never be taken into account when the film is being seriously analysed or critiqued. A film that emotionally moves us is regarded as manipulative. This is the criticism that is most often attached to Spielberg’s work. The fact that Spielberg has been able to repeatedly exhilarate, terrify and move audiences en masse does not seem to be a strong enough indication of his status as a cinematic artist.

Yet isn’t all cinema manipulative? After all, we assume that films are made to reach an audience, not just to indulge the director. The only way to reach an audience and entice them on a journey is to somehow manipulate the way the audience thinks and feels. Regardless of whether the film has challenged the way we view the world, empowered, disgusted, upset, moved us, made us politically aware or amazed us with its ability to transcend traditional notions of cinema – it is all a form of manipulation.

Films that are obviously manipulative are considered ‘bad films’ while films that better disguise how they are emotionally or intellectually moving the audience are regarded as ‘good films.’ Spielberg’s films are obviously manipulative; however, Spielberg engages with the audience to the point where they consent to his manipulation. Spielberg’s thematic concerns and stylistic techniques are almost proudly simple; the audience recognises that Spielberg is not concealing his intentions to make them think or feel a certain way, and they become willing to enter a type of contract to let him take them on the emotional journey that he has created. This is in fact an extremely difficult response to elicit from audiences, yet Spielberg has done it numerous times and for this is worthy of much admiration. When audiences see a Spielberg film they consent to the obvious manipulation and the sign of a good Spielberg film is how well he rewards their consent and whether he can sustain their consent throughout the duration of the film.

Obviously not all of Spielberg’s films are successful in sustaining that consent. Artificial Intelligence: AI and Minority Report overestimated how far audiences were willing to go along with his themes of family unity and suspension of disbelief, and hence lost the consent of many audiences in their concluding passages. However there are many examples of Spielberg films where the audience is successfully primed by the bulk of the film to surrender themselves totally to the climactic ending. Emotionally satisfying endings such as the showdown between human and shark in Jaws, the apocalyptic destruction of Nazis by the fury of God in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the teary farewell between child and alien in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and even the symbolic father/son partnership between FBI man and ex-criminal child in Catch Me If You Can would have appeared ridiculous if the rest of the film had not so carefully established the chain of events and nurtured the emotional needs of the audience.

The greatest example of an overblown yet brilliantly emotional ending of a Spielberg film is the final half hour of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where music, special effects and Spielberg’s recurring theme of family bonds create a total wash of ‘feel-good’ cinema. After the abducted child, broken family and military conspiracies of the bulk of the narrative, the final magical encounter with the kind childlike aliens acts as the emotional reward for the audience.

Spielberg not only makes his manipulative intentions obvious, he asks for the audience’s permission and they willingly submit to go wherever he takes them. Spielberg’s mastery of consensual manipulation makes his films worthy of more than simply being dismissed as guilty pleasures.


Originally appeared here on Senses of Cinema Issue No. 27, July – August 2003

© Thomas Caldwell, 2003