Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Fifty

#50 — Always (Steven Spielberg, 1989)
If you want a snapshot of who I was at the age of nineteen, Always is as good a place as any to start. Like a lot of people who grew up during the seventies and eighties, Steven Spielberg was one of my touchstone filmmakers, a guy who built his movies with engrossing sleekness and deep reservoirs of emotion. With Always, he embraced his love of classic Hollywood by remaking the 1943 weepie A Guy Named Joe, about a World War II bomber pilot who dies in action then returns as an unseen ghost to serve as a sort of guardian angel and guiding force to a young airman. Matters are complicated when the upstart falls in love with his spectral mentor’s heartbroken, mourning girl. Spielberg and screenwriters Jerry Belson and Diane Thomas update the story to contemporary times, transferring the action from wartime airspace to forest firefighting, a change made in part because the director wasn’t interested in making a World War II movie, an inclination that would obviously change in the years ahead.

The film is awash in a doomed romanticism, an unashamed adoration of the pleasure in sadness that comes from the grandest melodrama. The risky hotshot pilot, played here by Richard Dreyfuss, is enthralled by the danger that he faces in his job, and Spielberg’s film follows the character’s lead in that it is constantly seeking to establish equilibrium through chasing the most potent emotions. It’s a precarious methodology for maintaining balance, but Spielberg’s most deliriously effective showmanship has always manifested as a mastery of working churning feelings like plates spinning furiously atop tall pikes. It would be unbearably manipulative (and for some, it is) if it weren’t for the fact that it’s also deeply felt. There’s nothing crass about Spielberg’s sentimentality. He takes the audience on the very journeys that he himself loves most in the movies, the late show open-hearted passion that drew him to his chosen profession in the first place. Lots of movies have heart; Spielberg’s have a racing pulse, a welcome sense that lifeblood is driving the whole endeavor, keeping every scene moving forward.

Spielberg’s never really made any other love stories (though it could argued that’s a significant element of the dreadfully flat 2004 film The Terminal) and he largely eschews any sex scenes, arguing that they compromise the momentum of the story, a theory he proved correct when he inserted one into 2005’s Munich. In some ways, then, Always stands as his sole cinematic statement on the power of romantic love, making it not especially surprising that it’s less interested in the messiness of real life in favor of the bliss and tragedy of the version that exists primarily in the movies, all sharp banter and cooed monologues, where trouble announces itself clearly as a forbidding glow on the horizon. As the woman left behind who achingly rebuilds her life, Holly Hunter merges these high emotions with the relentless naturalism that she couldn’t shake from her acting style if she tried, helping Spielberg bring his lofty instincts closer to terra firma. That she does it while playing some of her weightiest scenes in near silence, conveying that she’s hearing the tender comments of her otherworldly lost lover as if they were her own thoughts, only makes her work that much more impressive.

And if the film’s depiction of the ways in which romance intersects with life is a little simplistic, a little idealized, a little gushy in its forlorn beauty, it suited me fine in the waning moments of my teenage years. There was a time when I believed in all that with the same conviction that Spielberg brought to it. I just knew that there was incomparable strength in happiness dashed and love deferred, and it could all be encompassed in a single song with personal value that chipped away at the heart every time it was heard. Or, for that matter, a movie.