Having won his second Directing Oscar for the deeply American story of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), director Steven Spielberg had positioned himself as something of America’s Filmmaker In Residence—the cinematic ambassador to the world tasked with chronicling America’s legacy and character. Around this time, the twentieth century—known colloquially as the American Century—was coming to a close, and people were eagerly looking forward to the future. They were on the precipice of not only a new year, or even a new century, but a new millennium. Massive celebrations were planned around the country to ring in the year 2000, despite the creeping threat of Y2K, which predicted a computational apocalypse that would throw us back into the Stone Age (and never happened, judging by the fact that I’m typing this on a computer right now). For a big celebration in Washington DC, Spielberg was commissioned to create a short film celebrating the American spirit, which would accompany a live musical performance conducted and composed by John Williams. It wasn’t a surprising choice—Spielberg’s work had always dealt with the fabric of American life—but what was surprising was how his twenty-one minute short, THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY (1999), managed to stitch Spielberg himself into that very fabric.
THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY is unlike a traditional short, in that its effectiveness lies in its unconventional presentation. The most immediate aspect of this was the fact that it was a one-time, live performance. Spielberg’s main contribution was an edited montage projected onto a large screen, with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra playing the live score. A pair of speakers accompany the presentation and read aloud a combination of prose, poetry, and famous speeches from influential American identities. The recorded part of the presentation also employs the voice talents of President Bill Clinton, Edward James Olmos, and Sam Waterston. In making this film, Spielberg attempts to tell the great story of the twentieth century, starting with the promise of America signified by the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, continuing on to the progress of the early years before reflecting on the difficulty of the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement, and then finishing with the impressive technological and social advances of the latter half. These events are not necessarily presented in chronological order, but Spielberg instead opts to group things together by theme for added potency. What results is an earnest, optimistic look at our accomplishments and shortcomings over the last century as we prepare to enter a new one that promises unlimited possibilities.
THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY is packed to the brim with Spielberg’s visual and thematic preoccupations, which is appropriate given the occasion. The piece starts off with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, foreshadowing Spielberg’s future involvement with LINCOLN (2012), as well as being evidence of his long-held desire to do so. The inclusion of famous footage from the Civil Rights movement and subsequent rioting is indicative of his sympathies for people in persecution. His fascination with aviation is also touched upon, with a lengthy sequence depicting the evolution of flight– from the Wright Brothers, to Charles Lindbergh, to commercial jets, and finally to the moon landing and space-bound rockets. Overall, there’s a child-like optimism to the proceedings, an eagerness directed towards the future alongsidea reverence for what came before.
While an unconventional project of sorts for Spielberg, the subject matter is well within his wheelhouse. Because it isn’t a feature film or traditional short, THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY’s very existence is suggestive of Spielberg’s desire to give back to the public that has helped to elevate his own stature in American pop culture. It’s a recognition of the importance of his voice in the American Conversation, as well as the responsibility he bears as an influential artist to chronicle the ongoing American Story while it plays out against this brave new world.
A segment of THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY is currently available via the Youtube embed above.