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Steven Spielberg’s woke West Side Story is a self-contradictory disaster

(Image credit: CNS photo/Niko Tavernise, 20th Century Studios)

The original midcentury musical had its own problems, but this updated reboot, complete with untranslated Spanish, only makes things unintelligible and unintentionally funny.

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Steven Spielberg has recently made a number of movies nostalgic for midcentury liberalism, Bridge of Spies and The Post, especially, very mediocre stories that won him Oscar nominations and praise in the mainstream press at the price of the popularity he once enjoyed. Indeed, he has sacrificed his place as America’s most important director in pursuit of the respect of the Hollywood that has mostly ignored or even despised him. He’s now making an autobiographical movie, The Fabelmans, also a story set midcentury, but he’s meanwhile released another one—a complete flop, West Side Story, his first and, I hope, last musical.

The problem isn’t competence or passion. The young Spielberg’s very funny 1941 (1979) includes a bravura musical sequence set to Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing,” an expression of a liberal skepticism of American authority on behalf of a vibrant and free American people, somewhat chaotic, yes, but also eager to dance. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) began with another one, set to Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” a comment on the spread of American freedom across the world that presages the movie’s climactic fight against slavery in India. Wonderful scenes, but maybe nowadays he’d cut it, because the theme is Chinese and the noticeably white Kate Capshaw is singing in Mandarin—a kind of cultural appropriation Spielberg, once a real director, now rejects in favor of ideology. Perhaps old Spielberg would call the entire plot racist.

His West Side Story achieves pluperfect unconscious self-mockery as he refuses to subtitle Spanish in the name of equality, with the result that most people, even in his now small audience, don’t understand what’s being said. You cannot make musicals on the basis of this Babel multiculturalism, where people don’t understand each other in the name of showing “respect.” Spielberg is trying so hard to be pious, but about what exactly? Even more ridiculously, when the English is subtitled in other languages—I’ve seen this in French—the Spanish is still not subtitled, as though everyone around the world must participate in the crazy rituals of Progressive Americans. But the Puerto Rican characters, of course, speak English most of the time, which also makes a mockery of the pretense of honoring a different culture. One might say that the musical is just as good anyway, reduced to a mockery of blockbusters, so why not make it a little woke? Well, because it’s just a bunch of people dancing around—nobody can take that seriously as moral exhortation. More important, if the musical genre is dying, why pretend to use it for the public good when the public doesn’t care? Spielberg suffers from director’s dementia, apparently—he has no idea his nostalgia is unpopular, rather like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

In my Oscars series, I’ve already covered Francophilia with Wes Anderson and Italophilia with Ridley Scott. Now, as we turn to Hispanophilia, we see a different kind of examination of midcentury nostalgia, remarkable for moralism! Accordingly, Spielberg’s difficulties go beyond language problems. His West Side Story is very close to the musical, the same Romeo and Juliet story set among ethnic gangs in Manhattan. His special contribution, courtesy of writer Tony Kushner, is political partisanship intended to divide the country. In interviews, Spielberg has expressed his worries about racial problems since 2016, as though America had somehow changed back to segregation or slavery and not into elite liberalism. His movie confirms his worst fears, however. It starts with a sequence meant to make the Jets, the white boys, look like racist white trash, and the Sharks, who are not cursed by being white and are blessed as immigrants, seem innocent protectors of their thriving community—truly, America belongs to them and the locals are just unpleasant invaders.

So how can anyone enjoy the musical? Consider the school mixer dance scene where stars Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) first meet. Kushner’s script insists that Tony is one of the good white guys because he’s employed and guided by a “wise Latina.” He has also put his racist days behind him after going to jail for assault and learning the error of his ways. Then we see the dance, and the immigrants and the nonimmigrants, whatever the name might be for such people—one of the immigrants spits out the word “Americano”—make quite a spectacle together. But is it morally acceptable to appreciate the beauty of the white kids given their wicked racism? Is any amount of pious talk about Latinx casting enough to fix the problem? How is the audience supposed to feel?

The musical depends on a kind of harmony for its beauty—the choreography obviously demands it. Still, there’s competition between the two sides, which invites the audience to prefer either Jets or Sharks, but if you prefer the wrong one, you’re racist. Then, of course, there is a conflict between the boys and the girls. We used to talk about the war of the sexes, which also makes for drama and for interest, although of course we tend to stick up for our own. Yet is it possible at all to sympathize with the young men rather than the women? Would that not also be an unforgivable sin against feminism—“mansplaining” or “toxic masculinity,” in the vulgar jargon of social justice activists? It gets worse. Think of the famous “America” musical number, where the girls take the side of the commercial republic where they can make a living and make lives for themselves against the young men, immigrants, who damn America for its racial and class discrimination, very acceptably to the woke. What now? Spielberg’s solution is to add a trans-character, a girl who can beat up a bunch of boys as liberal fantasies now require. A minute later, the big “Gee, Officer Krupke” number comes, a satire on this very therapeutic liberalism. Spielberg and Kushner don’t even seem to realize they’re the butt of their own joke.

The attempt to blend midcentury liberalism and the contemporary woke variant is bound to fail. Previously, there was more humor, too, not just more willingness to see both sides, and that made the story more plausible, less partisan, more popular at least. Yet midcentury liberalism had its own contradictions, even excluding the questions of race. Setting Romeo and Juliet among the working and criminal classes is the mistake; the aristocratic character of the protagonists was essential to Shakespeare’s tragedy, as it separated audience and story. The delusion that we’re all Romeos, the democratization of tragedy, leads to absurdities—maybe the war of all against all. The musical unwisely threatens to democratize Shakespeare’s deadly lovers—all these murderous young men with their girls. The solution seems to be, since they’re now ordinary, that they will defer to special people like our protagonists. But what makes people special in a democracy? Martyrdom, apparently, for liberal tolerance! Sondheim et al. politicized love while pretending to uphold it against prejudice!

Spielberg and Kushner tried to uphold this inclusive liberal ethos—an America for everyone and individual choice ruling in each heart—even as they transformed the story into something that can no longer attract most Americans and doesn’t deserve to attract them, because it is too contemptuous of half the country. Spielberg has made bad movies before, but never one that’s so riven by a contradiction, and he’s never made so Progressive a movie. Making this story about two nice kids is boring. Young Rachel Zegler is beautiful and can sing, but she’s no good as Maria: She looks like she belongs in church and this is a liberal movie, so the Hispanic characters have never heard of Jesus. Ansel Elgort as Tony is even worse—he’s bland. In preparation for the weeping, they’ve been scrubbed so clean and embalmed as though they’re already corpses. They act the way you’d read about it in the liberal press about a preferred victim.

I don’t doubt Spielberg’s liberalism is sincere in his belief that only liberalism can give America peace and a future that’s just like the past. He seems desperate to believe that if he makes a beautiful movie, he’ll make a difference, that a love story about very innocent people suffering injustice would melt American hearts. It’s both naive and arrogant and confirms rumors that cinema is dead. The most successful director alive is now powerless. The audience is not angry with him, however, merely indifferent. He’s turned one of the biggest successes of midcentury musicals on stage and film into a complete failure. These are strange times, including for nostalgia.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.