[Movie Review] Spielberg’s West Side Story is a Masterpiece

I’ve spent many years studying and appreciating film. From my time in college and university diving deep into production and theory, I can without hesitation share that my fandom for Steven Spielberg was polarizing. Perhaps, this is because I was in post-secondary at a time when Dawson Creek was still on television, so any mention of Spielberg immediately reminded people of James Van Der Beek.

Regardless, I have distinct memories of sharing my admiration for Spielberg only to be encountered with indifference. From college production classes to the academic halls of university, Spielberg was not readily mentioned or studied. In fact, in all of my post-secondary studies, I never watched a Spielberg movie in lecture hall nor read any assigned literature for seminar. He was not spoken of.

Beyond my fandom, I found it strange that arguably cinema’s most significant contemporary filmmaker wasn’t valued or deemed worthy to discuss at any level. Odd not say the least.

It wasn’t until I read Mark O’Connell’s Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us (2018) that I found Spielberg finally being embraced for his cultural works. After all, his imprint on Hollywood film and thus Americana is undeniable. Anytime you see kids on a bike or the contrast between light and shadow, it’s hard not to think about Spielberg and movie’s like E.T.

I suppose, Spielberg’s commercial success and mass appeal didn’t fit within highbrow lecture halls or hip production grounds where film students craved to be the next indie darling. Regardless, Spielberg deserved a greater study and to this day remains a master filmmaker worthy of attention.

Frankly, his mastery and understanding of visual language and emotional storytelling is unparalleled and is etched in every frame of his reimagining of West Side Story.

The much heralded gymnasium scene (below) is just one example of his ability to frame without barriers, where the camera fully immerses his audience in the spectacle of sound, lighting and action. Perhaps, unlike any other filmmaker, Spielberg’s framing is uniquely immersive, reminding audiences that the big screen is all encapsulating. His “blocking” of action serves and directs the camera in a way that reminds us that movie magic is transformational and doesn’t require CGI.

The camera’s ability to capture scale and scope is clearly evident in West Side Story. From the opening sequence where the Jets and Sharks are first introduced to the Indiana Jones-like bridge scene where Tony tries to stop Riff from fighting Bernardo, there is no other film I’ve seen this year that creates pure spectacle like West Side Story.

Perhaps, Spielberg hasn’t been embraced in the halls of academia because his themes and politics aren’t deemed provocative enough. However, from his blockbuster Jaws which is an anti-Vietnam text where middle-aged bureaucrats are concerned more with capitalism than the well-being on their young, Spielberg has always been about exploring the anxiety of “everyday” including leaders, heroes, villains, family and what brings us together or divides us.

West Side Story is no different in that he explores the fallacy of the American dream in that it’s very notion is complicated, layered and displacing. Elliot experienced this displacement in E.T as the “bad men” came for his surrogate father and best friend. In West Side Story, the slums of New York are being reclaimed by the “bad men,” of government who rather destroy than revitalize with a commitment to those who live in and who are community. Thus, the elders (including fathers) fail the youth in a number of ways that leads to societal division and disenfranchisement. This is pure Spielberg with an internal meaning worth studying.

So, as I post this review on the eve of the 2002 Oscars, I implore you to give West Side Story the audience it deserves. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, West Side Story is a pure epic. A movie that reminds us that the cinema of a spectacular doesn’t have to involve masked heroes or cinematic universes.

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