Sat. Oct 31st, 2020

A renewed appreciation for ‘Always,’ Spielberg’s least-noticed, but most heartfelt film

As we all breathlessly anticipate director Steven Spielberg’s take on West Side Story, which is currently still aiming for a December 18 release date, I found myself reminiscing about the one Spielberg movie that didn’t leave the world breathless, the one movie of his that hardly anyone noticed at all:  Always (1989).  Even the movies Spielberg made that are objectively bad, like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull or Hook, at least made waves—and money.  Always, however, suffered an almost worst fate than not living up to excessively hyped expectations…it simply came and went.  And, I have to tell you, I’ve never understood why. 

I adore this movie, and I’ve never understood why critics barely liked it (64% on Rotten Tomatoes) and why the box office hated it, barely pulling in just $73 million worldwide, making it the third worst money-maker of Spielberg’s career, after Amistad (1997) and Empire of the Sun (1987).  At least the lack of mainstream appeal for those two films was somewhat understandable, as they are each serious, historical movies (and were each nominated for multiple Oscars).  But Always had no such cache, as it is a romantic comedy/fantasy with a sentimental soul.  But maybe that’s the problem.  Not only did Always have to compete with the other Spielberg movie that came out in 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it had to compete with predetermined ideas of what a Spielberg movie should be.  A Spielberg movie had to be either a mainstream action/adventure/thrill ride (Jaws) or ultra-serious historical Oscar bait (The Color Purple).  It’s rare, even to this day, that a Spielberg film doesn’t fall into one of these categories, so it’s easy to understand audience confusion when Always came out, a movie unlike anything they’d seen before from their favorite action movie director.

What people missed by not paying attention to Always, however, is that it IS an action movie.  There is so much exciting, riveting and anxiety-inducing action in this film, alongside its humor and heart, it’s hard to put it into any one category or box.  But it’s the action in this film that has brought it to the forefront of my mind in recent days.  The massive wildfires that are consuming the West Coast, including my home state of California, have brought a renewed love for Always, which is a movie about firefighters—-more specifically, aerial pilots who fight forest fires.  Always is a remake of the 1943 Victor Fleming film A Guy Named Joe, starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson (screenplay by Dalton Trumbo), which took place during World War II.  Spielberg and writer Jerry Belson relocate the Always plot to modern-day Colorado, specifically the home base for firemen and pilots who fight forest fires. 

Richard Dreyfuss plays Pete, a hotshot pilot who thinks he’s invincible, until the day that he dies while saving his buddy Al’s (John Goodman) bacon after his plane catches on fire.  After he dies, Pete meets an angelic woman named Hap, played by Audrey Hepburn (in her last movie), who tells Pete that his only purpose now is to serve as inspiration for another pilot, to keep him safe.  He is assigned to Ted (Brad Johnson), an awkward and inexperienced pilot whom he helps to become a gifted aerial firefighter in his own right.  What Pete isn’t expecting is for Ted to fall in love with his girlfriend, Dorinda, played by Holly Hunter, resulting in the most bizarre love triangle ever.  Pete must learn how to let go and Dorinda must learn how to let love into her life again.  The themes are poetic and meaningful, even if slightly over-earnest.

But the film’s saccharine sentimentality is offset by its mega doses of charm and humor which come courtesy of the brilliant cast, who not only play every emotion with ease, but hit every single moment out of the park.  I loved this movie the first time I saw it and I love it every time I watch it again.  If I say John Goodman and Holly Hunter have never been better, that’s quite a statement, right?  Well, John Goodman and Holly Hunter have never been better than they are in this film.  Period.  Goodman and Hunter are both massively gifted comic and dramatic performers and Spielberg uses every color in their individual palettes.  While Dreyfuss is the ostensible star of this film and it is his story, Goodman and Hunter play the characters who stick with you, who you really root for and care about.  Spielberg finds ways to wring something special out of every moment each of them is on screen.  The two had worked together two years earlier in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, so there was a chemistry already there between them that surges off the screen. 

There is similar chemistry between Hunter and Dreyfuss, the likes of which remind me of Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, a wry, witty and gently combative combination that lights up the room.  Dreyfuss and Hunter are so good together, director Lasse Hallstrom cast them as a couple two years later in another underappreciated gem, Once Around.  But it is in Always where they truly spark. 

But, today, this week, and this year, what brings Always back to my mind and heart is its portrayal of the danger and the bravery in action by the heroic men and women who fight wildfires, the most brutal and unpredictable of disasters, heroes not often shown on screen, but who deserve so much more than just our gratitude.  Steven Spielberg is perhaps the only one who could put us in the cockpit and on the ground with those who are in the middle of a raging forest fire and all its devastation.  The action sequences, both in the air and on the ground, are spine-tingling and intense.  Spielberg has mastered every kind of war movie, and this one is no exception.  If you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan and War Horse, you owe it to yourself to see Always, a film with a different kind of hero, but one no less significant, especially today.

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