It bears repeating that Spielberg's reputation as an unchallenging filmmaker for the masses has been around for thirty years or so. Looking back on his first decade of mainstream film making (let's say 1974-1984), it is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial that stood out then, and arguably still today as the quintessential Spielberg film. While it certainly stood then and now as one of his most personal films, it's astonishing success (highest-grossing film of all time for 15 years) basically branded Spielberg as a director whose every film contained the kind of small-town nostalgia and overtly tear-jerking emotionalism that made E.T. such a smash hit. It's a meme that has followed Spielberg for the last thirty years. And going through his filmography it's apparent that it's not entirely a fair assessment of his career. From 1974 until 2011, Spielberg has shown viewers the darkness at least as much, if not more so, than he has shown them the light.
Jaws is a brutally violent horror drama that offers little good-cheer other than the cathartic final triumph. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a disturbing character study about a husband/father who slowly goes insane and eventually ditches his family to go on a ride with interstellar beings (those same being who have been abducting random people for centuries, that they arbitrarily return them at the climax doesn't make them 'the good guys'). The first two Indiana Jones pictures are relentlessly violent, cynical, and relatively cold-hearted in their casual disregard for human life. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is so grotesque that it helped create a new MPAA classification, along with Gremlins (a darkly chaotic suburban horror comedy produced by... guess who?). These films are of course 'fun', but they are not sweeping testaments to the inherent decency of humanity E.T. was arguably his first overly sentimental and 'feel-good' film, and I would argue that its record-shattering success is the sole reason why critics (especially detractors) consider Spielberg to be a producer of mainstream feel-good bubblegum fantasies.
But the Steven Spielberg who directed E.T. is also the Steven Spielberg who directed Schindler's List, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, War of the Worlds, Munich, and yes War Horse. These are dark, painful, and often cynical films that show humanity at their darkest hours, and often at their worst. Sure War of the Worlds has a slightly upbeat finale, but does the final two minutes cancel out the proceeding 105 minutes of unrelenting horror and hopeless pessimism about humanity's ability to survive (morally and literally) its attempted extinction? Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan both end of notes of relative 'hope', but the narratives sandwiched between their prologues and epilogues are tales of war, genocide, and inherent human immorality. War Horse ends on a somewhat upbeat note, but the surviving characters have to go through the literal hell of war to get there, and they are no doubt scared and hardened by their experiences. The film is more than just a 'boy and his horse' fable, it is a bleak and unapologetic anti-war drama delivered through the bloodstained and arbitrary mass-slaughter that was World War I. It is arguably an even stronger anti-war film than Saving Private Ryan because it does not attempt to explain (and thus justify) the wanton slaughter. I don't think I have to explain the inherent pessimism and darkness of Munich (which on a given day is probably my favorite Spielberg film, natch).
That does not mean that Spielberg is incapable of genuinely 'light' mainstream entertainment. He is still the man who made Hook, The Terminal, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Catch Me If You Can, and The Adventures of Tintin (review). But even some of his 'lighter' entertainments have dark undercurrents and most of them have genuine depth below the big-budget razzle-dazzle. Indy III and Catch Me If You Can are arguably about Spielberg working out long-simmering issues with his father, Hook is a parable for Spielberg's struggles to be a globe-trotting filmmaker and an active/participatory parent, while Indy IV is basically Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford asking themselves if what should they do once their prime film-making years are behind them. Minority Report is an exciting and intelligent science-fiction thriller, yet there is ample reason to believe that it's inexplicably upbeat finale is itself a hallucination. Yes everyone whines about the allegedly 'happy' ending in the otherwise relentlessly bleak (and often brilliant) AI: Artificial Intelligence, but what exactly is so happy about a machine being given the gift of hearing the lie that he has spent his life wanting to hear before he can die? Even his two Jurassic Park pictures promise 'wonder and awe' but in the end deliver terror and death. The flawed-but-morally complex The Lost World ends on a 'Let's save the animals!' note but first offers a pitch-black narrative where the 'good guy environmentalists' have blood on their hands and the most sympathetic character (Richard Schiff) is heartlessly dispatched in the first act following an act of uncommon bravery.
What's ironic is that the films that most closely skew toward the 'stereotypical' Spielberg film are not among those he directed, but rather among the many films he has produced. The Goonies, Back to the Future, An American Tail, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Men In Black, The Mask of Zorro, Transformers; these audience-pleasing mainstream entertainments, most of them quite good, were all among films he produced, but he did not direct any of them. Doubly-ironic is that the one iconic 1980s film that he produced but is long-suspected of directing, Tobe Hopper's Poltergeist, fits far more into the wheelhouse of Spielberg's darker entertainments. It would seem that, along with ET, the critical reputation of Steven Spielberg is drawn not from the films he has directed but rather those he has merely produced. Steven Spielberg the director is a man who has dabbled in many genres, but his critical reputation is based less on the body of work he has directed but rather simplistic misconceptions based on a single incredibly successful and deeply personal project that he happened to direct near the beginning of his long career, along with some more-overtly crowd-pleasing fantasy pictures he has produced over the decades.
Those that write-off Steven Spielberg as the creator of easily-digestible feel-good slop do themselves, their readers, and film criticism in general a disservice. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was a terrific example of Spielberg indulging in tear-jerking, audience-pleasing melodrama to maximum critical and financial effect. But it is just one very good film that Spielberg happened to make back in 1982. Whether you like Spielberg or not, you must admit that the Spielberg who directed Munich is just as much (if not more so) the real Spielberg as the one who directed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The same man directed Catch Me If You Can and Empire of the Sun. Steven Spielberg's year-end 2011 output stands as a shining example of 'light Spielberg' and 'dark Spielberg'. We cannot and should not write off Steven Spielberg as a one-trick pony purely based on just one of his more popular films. He is indeed one of the most successful mainstream directors in the history of the medium. But it is arguably because his films were often challenging, insightful, and willing to go to darker places that they captured the imagination of the last few generations of moviegoers. It is, give or take a few false steps over the last 40 years, his unwillingness to pander that has made him as popular as he is today.