There is an episode of Dawson’s Creek, that stalwart of ‘90s television, where Dawson submits a movie to a college film festival. At the registration table, he is asked to provide some information, including the following gem:
Nikki: Uh, favorite director?
Nikki: (looking up at him) You’re kidding?
(She looks almost embarrassed. She takes Dawson’s film reel over to another table as he follows.)
Nikki: Steven Spielberg. Undoubtedly a gifted filmmaker, but I mean, come on, where’s the edge?
Steven Spielberg, for all his contributions to cinema, is rarely placed in the upper echelon of auteurs like Welles, Ford, or Hitchcock. Adding insult to injury, his work is offered up to be sneered at by fictional college students on a mediocre TV show perhaps best remembered for a meme of its star blubbering. If Spielberg, twice a winner of the Academy Award for Best Director, can be dismissed so easily, how much more might cinephiles write off directors considered derivative of him?
Perhaps chief among these ranks Ron Howard, himself an Oscar winner and director of nearly thirty feature-length films. Howard’s films range from frothy comedies to bloated epics to extraterrestrial geriatric drama, but in his own way, he has defined himself as one of cinema’s premier chroniclers of human perseverance. A look at some of his most well-regarded films—Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Cinderella Man—demonstrates that Howard is drawn to projects that examine both the triumph of the human spirit and the sometimes-negative fallout of persevering through struggle.
Despite his success, Howard seems too often compared to Spielberg: for example, his early fantasy hits Splash and Cocoon came in the wake of Spielberg’s landmark E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Furthermore, they both seem to have shown interest in the years since to turning their cameras toward humanistic stories and away from more fantastical elements (though they’re each doggedly stubborn in maintaining the Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones franchises, respectively). To present Howard as merely a Spielberg knockoff or protégé, though, is unfair to his development: Howard’s style and narrative preferences grew quite independent of Spielberg’s arc, and the two now present an intriguing parallel in examining humanistic themes.
Spielberg’s more humanistic efforts, particularly in films like Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, revolve mainly around major and far-reaching acts of incredible courage: saving Jews from the jaws of the Holocaust, passing the 13th Amendment amid a war-torn nation, or negotiating a prisoner exchange in a hostile Cold War environment. Howard, on the other hand, seems more concerned with emphasizing everyday people who achieve small victories over incredible odds through acts of endurance. Cinderella Man’s Jim Braddock doesn’t end the Great Depression; his main objective is to put food on the table for his wife and children. In that struggle, though, he becomes an Everyman symbol of persistence in crippling poverty. A Beautiful Mind does not chronicle a man who found a cure for schizophrenia, but a single individual who learned to push beyond the disease to make personal breakthroughs. Even Apollo 13 essentially boils down to a story of a core NASA team trying to ensure three men get home safely. This is the difference between Howard’s heroes and Spielberg’s: the stakes are often considerably lower in Howard’s films, but no less noble in their depiction of heroism.
The trend continues even to the more fantastical efforts of each director. Roy Neary, protagonist of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, leaves behind his life on Earth following an obsessive and isolating search for alien activity, stemming from a harrowing “close encounter.” Spielberg implies that Neary may have been called, in a way, by the extraterrestrial beings, and Neary finds more fulfillment in his quest to discover the truth behind a government-sealed national monument than in his home life. When Neary finally steps into the alien ship, his wife and children are nowhere to be found. Spielberg may have a reputation for “cheese,” but particularly in his early films, he goes all-in on the wonder of the unknown at the expense of human relationships.
Compare this to the characters of Howard’s Cocoon. Though they also decide to leave Earth with their alien guests, the emotional stakes are wildly different. Having promised not to reveal their intentions beyond vague references to leaving forever, characters are presented with the moral dilemma of weighing the cost of their decisions as they break the news to loved ones. Howard’s film does not allow for easy goodbyes, even at the enticing possibility of immortality and discovery of new dimensions, because the emphasis lies on the characters as living in a complex world of relationships and commitments.
Recently, Howard’s films have explored more cynically the effects of determination. Talk-show host David Frost gets the scoop he wants from the former president in Frost/Nixon, but at what cost to a man who has already been humiliated? The protagonists of Rush take their racing rivalry to the point of obsession and eventually severe injury. The whalers of In the Heart of the Sea are pushed to the limit of psychological torture and physical exposure to the elements. Nevertheless, Howard’s primary motivation is to take each character’s drive to its logical conclusion and demonstrate the effects of single-minded devotion in the face of adversarial surroundings.
In this way, Howard has established himself as cinema’s premier auteur in the area of human determination and spirit. Far from being derivative of Spielberg—or that famous all-American chronicler of the Everyman, Frank Capra—Howard is unafraid to show both the positive and negative effects of such a will. It may be time to reevaluate Howard as a true and pure voice in cinema—especially as growing cries for the acceptance of Michael Bay as a singular auteur grow—and one whose thematic signature continues to leave its mark on the silver screen.