*** out of ****
(for some strong language, adult themes, sexual references)
Released: October 7, 2017
Runtime: 147 minutes
Director: Susan Lucy
Starring: Steven Spielberg and various collaborators
For a director as influential as Steven Spielberg – with so many movies to examine and dissect – the HBO documentary Spielberg is about as comprehensive as a broad overview from 30,000 feet can get.
Director Susan Lucy occasionally dives deeper for closer flybys, and those moments offer fascinating detail, but overall this is an entertaining highlight reel of the most influential American filmmaker from the last forty years.
Spielberg nerds, like myself, who’ve read or heard the stories and lore countless times over from various and sundry profiles, will find little that’s revelatory here. But Lucy has packaged these gems all into one narrative – from the influence of his parents’ divorce, to sneaking onto the Universal lot as a green upstart, to how George Lucas rescued him from his greatest failure, and more – and that certainly counts for something.
However, for those who aren’t familiar with these anecdotes and behind-the-scenes histories, or haven’t studied his movies beyond their entertainment value, Spielberg is an absolute treasure trove.
Indeed, we probably get the most personal accounting of those milestones than has ever been seen, all culled from over thirty hours of interviews with the wunderkind himself (a feat in its own right) which, in part, works as a “Who wore it best?” contest between Spielberg and himself with his various scarf accessories.
It’s fun to hear him reflect on his early days in the 1970s as part of the revolutionary Movie Brats – Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and De Palma (to name a few) – and how they made one another better (even working anonymously on each other’s films, like the classic scene in Scarface that Spielberg essentially staged and shot), complete with his own archival film footage of the young geniuses hanging out together.
We also hear from famous collaborators throughout his career, all glowing of course, but perspectives like one from Lincoln’s Sally Field – “Steven has a part of him that wants to see the good in the darkest of the dark.” – aren’t just warm sentiments; they’re legitimate insights that hold up under examination of his entire career.
The portrait it paints remains a hagiography (DreamWorks, for example, is mentioned but not as the struggling endeavor it was), yet it’s still a worthwhile one, even insightful, especially in those rare moments when Spielberg talks about the actual craft and not just a specific movie or influence.
In them we learn, for example, how nervous he is before every shot, even to this day. The pressure that comes from being the one person on set who bears the responsibility of being able to see the whole thing before it’s actually been made.
There’s a comfort in this confession, a reassurance to us lesser beings, showing that even for a certified master it’s still a mysterious art, not an exact science. The film could’ve used a lot more personal candor like that.
Even so, to touch on nearly every film Spielberg has ever made is well worth the two-and-a-half hour sit, especially as it’s buoyed by the scores of John Williams. It’s smartly broken into sections. Act 1, essentially, explores his populist beginnings. Act 2, his maturation. Act 3, his legacy.
Lucy does a superb job of placing his achievements in context. There’s perhaps no better example of this than 1993. That summer, Spielberg advanced blockbuster cinema by showing us what was possible with technology in Jurassic Park. Six months later, he showed us what was possible for him as an artist in Schindler’s List. In the history of the movies, it’s hard to find another filmmaker who achieved so much in a single year.
There are other things we get an appreciation for, too, not the least of which is the influence of his wife Kate Capshaw. Known to most as the shrill Indy babe from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (who couldn’t hold a whiskey shot to Karen Allen’s Marion), Spielberg helps us to understand in credible terms of genuine gratitude how Capshaw was the person that made Steven’s maturation as a filmmaker possible.
There are also more honest yet still loving appraisals from Spielberg’s siblings. The family background helps illuminate a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which Spielberg also wrote the screenplay for. A fair, new reading of that film – and of Roy Neary in particular – is that it’s Spielberg extending grace, empathy, and forgiveness toward his own father, who he perceived as “leaving” the family when his parents divorced.
It’s telling what movies are bypassed, some without nary a single clip. Always and The Lost World: Jurassic Park are ignored completely, while Hook, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tintin, and War Horse get little more than fleeting glimpses at best (but no commentary). No doubt those references were left to the original 4-hour cut, some deservedly and others unfortunately.
The primary beneficiary of that neglect, however, is Munich, Spielberg’s 2005 thriller about Israel’s retaliation against the PLO for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. It’s a film that remains the best, most complex cinematic reflection on our post-9/11 War on Terror, and its toll on our personal and collective soul.
It’s also the most underappreciated masterpiece of Spielberg’s oeuvre, especially now that 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is getting its due. Lucy studies Munich at length; inspiring people to give it another look may be the best virtue her documentary can boast.
It’s virtually impossible to sum up a career like Spielberg’s in one movie and actually do the man’s work justice. But to Lucy’s credit, Spielberg helps us to appreciate in full what her film can only scratch the surface of, an inherent truth best summed up by actor Bob Balaban: “He doesn’t want to make little personal movies. He wants to make big personal movies.”
And each one, in its own way, is a close encounter.
You can read my reviews of every Steven Spielberg film ever made, and see how I rank them, in The Spielberg Canon.