The year 2008 was an important year in American history. It saw the lows of the Great Recession, as well as the highs of electing Barack Obama, our first black President, into office. To quote Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton before him, Obama’s popularity among voters was bolstered by widespread celebrity support. One of these celebrities was director Steven Spielberg, who didn’t pull any punches in singing Obama’s praises and helping him raise campaign funds.
Long considered the preeminent chronicler of American history in cinema, Spielberg had carved out a comfortable little niche for himself as our “resident filmmaker”. His natural patriotism made working with him for political gains quite the beneficial endeavor. For the 2008 Democratic Convention, Spielberg was commissioned to make a short documentary titled A TIMELESS CALL. It was to focus on the courage and sacrifice of our armed forces, at the time engaged in the quagmire of the Iraq War. Cynics could see this as a calculated move meant to placate the critics slandering Obama for his lack of military service and overt desire to end the Iraq War. The result of Spielberg’s work is an inspiring piece of propaganda (well-intentioned propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless) that paints our troops in a reverent, heroic light.
Since it was commissioned for a convention hall screen and not a movie theater, Spielberg shoots in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio to better fit the dimensions of a squarer screen. As to whether he shot on film, it’s hard to tell, as by this point in time it was near-impossible for the average moviegoer to distinguish between film and digital. However, knowing Spielberg’s aesthetic tendencies, I’d wager he shot on film. He follows the conventional documentary format, featuring talking head testimonies from members of the military as well as their families. These snippets form the emotional through-line of the piece, and are mixed in with still photographs and battle footage and wrapped up in a nice little package hosted by Spielberg’s patriotic avatar, Tom Hanks.
Right off the bat, the influence of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) is immediately felt—even down to the reverent horns and strings score by John Williams. While A TIMELESS CALL focuses squarely on the current conflict in which we were engaged, Spielberg can’t help but draw back the tradition of military sacrifice to World War 2 (his favorite historical period). There’s even a passing reference to the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day. Thankfully, Spielberg opts out of including any actual footage from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, whereas lesser directors might have found the temptation too great. Like 1999’s THE UNFINISHED JOURNEY, Spielberg uses the short documentary format to embrace his position as “America’s Filmmaker”, just like his patriotic forebears and influences, Frank Capra or John Ford.
Spielberg’s participation with A TIMELESS CALL ensures his legacy as a national treasure. As his profile diversified from filmmaking to include philanthropic pursuits and political support interests, he’s done more than his share of helping our nation get its first black President elected. He wasn’t just only recreating history inside of his art, now he was actively making it.
A TIMELESS CALL is currently available via this non-embeddable link.
Produced by: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, James Moll
Written by: Lorna Graham
Editor: Michael Mayhew
Composer: John Williams