Early in Steven Spielberg’s 1971 debut feature, the made-for-television Duel, the camera is directed at David (Dennis Weaver) from outside the red Plymouth Valiant he’s driving. He is on a mountainous SoCal highway seemingly on his way back into Los Angeles, if the young filmmaker’s southwesterly mise en scene is any indication. The camera speeds past David at a moment when the cat-and-mouse game between him and an anonymous oil-rig driver is growing increasingly dangerous. As the Godzilla-on-wheels tanker truck enters the frame, the sedan and its driver are no longer the focal points. Quickly, the truck’s menacing bug- and tar-splattered smiling grill takes up most of the image as the director swings his lens to the front of this highway sociopath and his mechanical behemoth, dwarfing David and his car behind it.
This shot isn’t just a tossed-off display from an emerging talent attempting to prove his preternatural directing abilities. It has a purpose. The virtuosic yet simple move details the relationship of people and objects to each other and the transference of power between them, with a carefully constructed drip of information to buttress the visual ideas. From a similar, albeit self-referential, shot in Jurassic Park (1993) of a side-view mirror calling out the director’s play with object sizes, to a grandiose crane backward that reveals the central refugee’s (Tom Hanks) now-permanent home of The Terminal (2004), movement has always been paramount to Spielberg’s filmmaking. Stating so seems redundant: Now in his fifth decade in the game, he’s the most well-known, studied, written-about, and omnipresent film director alive.
So why would the filmmaker remaking West Side Story, the modern Romeo and Juliet musical set amid a NYC street-gang war, be such a question mark for such a long time – including its year-long release delay due to the pandemic. Spielberg’s motivation to mount a second go at one of the Great White Way’s most beloved properties – and the 1961 big-screen adaptation that snagged a Best Picture Oscar, among others – should have been obvious. He can put hundreds of soldiers on a Normandy beach, array dozens of people-zapping space ships, or have a tiny car race a big ol’ truck, but these perpetual-motion machines will never be quite the logistical challenge of filming dozens of bodies in synchronous dance in the New York City streets.
After three films that have all but disappeared from the popular consciousness, The BFG (2016), The Post (2017), and Ready Player One (2018), Spielberg’s first musical serves as a reminder of the reasons for his critical and popular dominance. With images, both static and moving, that rank among his most expressive and uncannily inventive, West Side Story is Spielberg’s most invigorating work since the underrated The Adventures of Tintin released a decade ago.
Apparently, the form provides the same sense of limitless creativity that animation afforded him in Tintin. As one tends to do with an artist so self-mythologizing, it’s easy to imagine little Stevie in awe of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ version, so beloved by his father and many others and canonized as an all-time great by folks who vote on those AFI lists. The film by Wise, a journeyman director with some solid hits under his belt, and Robbins, the stage show’s choreographer, is already quite a feast for the eyes: a joyously color-splashed Hollywood product released just as the dismantling of the traditional studios was underway. At the same time, it's occasionally a ploddingly slavish translation. The 1961 version does contain some of the greatest dance sequences in the medium’s history, but its less inspired stretches feel like point-and-shoot jobs.
Spielberg isn’t capable of the latter. For better or worse, he’s a showman, and here that directorial brawn is matched with an acute intelligence aided by slight modulations in the refreshed script by renowned playwright Tony Kushner. Not only is their “I Feel Pretty” situated better in this tried-and-true story, taking place at a point where María’s (“and introducing” Rachel Zegler) ignorant bliss contains much more narrative conflict, but in nearly every detail, its tragic irony is reinforced visually. The camera whips and zips to frame multiple tableaux of María and her department-store-cleaning cohorts using luxury-item-wearing (and White) mannequins as props. Her exultation here is more heavily shaded with the innate cynicism of the outwardly upbeat number. The capitalism-aided family fantasy that moves her here is exactly the same one that oppresses her. By the sequence’s end, she’s in front of fitting-room mirrors forced to reckon with the splintered idealized versions of herself. Spielberg may come from the school of Hitchcock, but Douglas Sirk might also be proud.
Spielberg’s vision for putting West Side Story in head-spinning motion aside, this “update” takes steps to justify its existence by modulating the original’s wonky sociopolitical perspective, only occasionally misstepping into ahistorical rewriting of its time and place. The original’s now outmoded social politics surely seemed progressive in midcentury America, if just for simply showing underseen Latinx characters. However, it was chock-full of brownface performers, including the Eastern European Natalie Wood playing María, the Puerto Rican female lead, and its narration favors the Jets over the Sharks.
Kushner, who also penned Spielberg’s 2012 Oscar winner Lincoln, nudges Ernest Lehman’s original script, faithfully based on Arthur Laurents’ book for the stage, in complex directions more palatable and pertinent to modern audiences. The writer shades the Anglo Jets as undeniably racist, often putting MAGA rhetoric directly into their mouths. They’re appropriately closer aligned with the Upper Manhattan police (yes, Officer Krupkie included) rather than targeted by them, as previously depicted. The two share a common enemy, after all, in the Puerto Rican community they see as impinging on the turf they’ve shared for decades. In Kushner and Spielberg’s West Side, the Jets are only surrogates for White audience members who might find themselves thinking the same dangerous thoughts of unearned entitlement.
In another course correction, the Sharks and their ilk are played by Latinx performers, often speaking in the characters’ native tongue sans subtitles. With this decision and a fulsome depiction of the Puerto Rican peoples’ lifestyle, the ideological and social half of the narrative and Spanish-speaking audiences are allowed to own their representation. Their livelihoods are finally rendered palpable, not just an impetus for the personal tragedy that befalls the star-crossed Tony (Asnel Elgort here) and María.
With all of these changes in total, Tony and María’s story feels slightly less central to this West Side Story, even though it's roughly the same length as its predecessor (still probably too long) and contains roughly the same scenes and beats. It’s a welcome recalculation and not just for thematic deepening but as a depiction of individuals in a community torn asunder. Other than a returning Rita Moreno – who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita in 1962 and here plays Valentina, widow to the original film’s Doc – the players are mostly newcomers. Balancing the newfound grit of Kushner and Spielberg’s vision with the old-fashioned earnestness present in the source isn’t an easy task, but they’re largely successful doing so. Ariana DeBose’s turn as Anita fills Moreno’s shoes well, carrying her own brand of sparkling zest with a graceful solemnity. Mike Faist turns Tony’s right hand, Riff, into a rattling powder keg of volatility, but it's Zegler who breathes life into her character, turning what’s been an archetype into a credible teenager whose heart is full and resilient, even though it’s destined to break.
However, within the cast of West Side Story lies its major flaw. Elgort, who’s already proved his capable singing voice, should work well as the reformed Jet, Tony. The actor, however, carries heavy baggage with him in the form of accusations of sexual misconduct toward underage women. It would be difficult to recommend a new film of his with this knowledge, but that’s not even mentioning what’s actually in the film: the actor’s smarm makes squaring his character’s borderline-obsessive attraction to María with her mutual attraction to him difficult. Elsewhere, he’s tasked with great emotional weight he can’t quite carry, particularly in the scenes he shares with Moreno, which he ultimately renders phony. Although one is admittedly not the film’s fault, both reasons cast an uneasy pall on one of the too-few justifications for the continued existence of the Hollywood Dream Factory.
West Side Story opens in theaters everywhere on Dec. 10.