No other American filmmaker has as mighty a track record of combining artistic ambition with popular success as Steven Spielberg. A multiple Oscar winner as well as, somewhat divisively, the co-inventor of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg and his films have left an enormous footprint on moviemaking and pop culture.
So why, given all the space his work and the discussion of it already occupies, does Spielberg now merit a new, two-and-a-half hour HBO documentary, premiering Saturday, that looks back at those films and his methods and is called, appropriately, “Spielberg”?
Because, to cross genres for a moment, the documentary-industrial complex surrounding the likes of the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and others has proved that nothing inspires a thorough, even celebratory, look back quite like massive success. And in Spielberg, director Susan Lacy (creator of the musician-heavy PBS biography series “American Masters”), has a subject with such a far-reaching influence that you practically have to venture to the titans of classic rock for a comparison.
In a way, it’s that massive success that is one of the biggest challenges for “Spielberg.” How do you cast new light on Spielberg’s story when so much of it has already been thoroughly examined by both cinephiles and casual fans ?
It’s not a balance the film always gets right. But it’s a testimony to Spielberg’s career that a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on his life and work could both feel too long in some places and yet oddly inadequate in others.
While much of the first half of the film is structured around the creation of landmark films — “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and that weapons-grade emotion-wringing machine, “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” — the early footage of Spielberg the teenage auteur is a fascinating look at how an obsession can become a life.
Drawn to the camera as a means of navigating a childhood in Phoenix marked by an absent father, schoolyard bullying and low self-esteem, Spielberg tells us, “When I was able to say ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ I wrested control of my life.”
The film then shows some of his shockingly sophisticated teenage 8mm movies, one of which featured his friends climbing into WWII-era planes from a local airstrip cut with actual war footage (shot by, the ever-obsessive Spielberg reminds us, John Ford). “The production value was off the charts!” the 70-year-old Spielberg says, still giddy at the memory, and in that we see the energy and childlike enthusiasm his career was built upon.
Spielberg also indulges in some mythmaking of his own in remembering that his rise at Universal began with his sneaking off the tour tram (a detail that seems a bit “Catch Me If You Can”), and, studio chief and mentor Sid Sheinberg, Richard Dreyfuss and James Brolin coyly talk of his keeping a secret office on the lot as a teenager. David Geffen brushes aside the idea, but references “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and says, “When the legend is bigger than the facts, print the legend,” which offers a small hint at where the documentary is coming from.
Spielberg’s time as a young filmmaking phenom is recounted by his ‘70s contemporaries who, backed by some amusing home movie footage, offer interesting glimpses of their impressions. Future “Indiana Jones” collaborator George Lucas admits he found Spielberg “too Hollywood-y” before seeing his man-versus-truck debut feature “Duel,” and Francis Ford Coppola, in an ever-so-slightly backhanded compliment, describes Spielberg as “a creature of the studio” and “fortunate that the kind of movie he really had a sense for was also the kind of movie that the audience had a sense for.”
The bulk of the documentary focuses on where that connection between Spielberg and the audience was strongest. He still sounds a little wounded by his greatest box-office failure, the oddball 1979 comedy “1941,” but it’s ushered to the wings quickly. Later films like “Hook,” “The Terminal,” “Warhorse” and “The BFG” are relegated to montage, and his TV work is brushed aside entirely.
That’s partly a necessity of time but also a shame because the moments where the documentary examines Spielberg’s blind spots are its most revealing. In discussing his Oscar-nominated 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” the director says he was “too timid” to handle the book’s sexual material, an admission that speaks to one of his long-held on-screen difficulties. Along with a few film writers on hand, Tom Stoppard also offers one of the film’s few notes of criticism with what he considered the “unnecessary softness” in 1987’s “Empire of the Sun.”
And for all of Spielberg and Lucas’ enthusiasm in remembering the advances that made “Jurassic Park” possible in 1993, only production designer Rick Carter recognizes the parallel between the film’s cautionary tale about unchecked technology and how the movie helped usher in an era when digital effects were the new stars of summer blockbusters.
With widescreen spectacle Spielberg’s stock-in-trade, digital was a natural draw for the director, and the odd juxtaposition in “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” being released the same year is not overlooked. Filmed on location in Kraków, Poland, with a harrowing intimacy, the film acts as testimony of Spielberg’s obsessive sense of detail, from using hand-held cameras to Liam Neeson confessing that he, at times, felt like a puppet under his direction.
While the words “intuitive” and “natural” keep cropping up among Lacy’s subjects in their impressions of Spielberg, the documentary examines some of what fuels him in the impact of his parents’ divorce and subsequent reconnection (even “Lincoln,” Spielberg admits with a laugh, is a story of a family torn apart and coming back together). “I’ve avoided therapy because movies are my therapy,” he says.
Does this explain how Spielberg knew to build tension from a floating barrel in “Jaws” or a ripple through a glass of water in “Jurassic Park”? Not really, but no documentary could. But for fans who have followed him through an unparalleled career that saw an ever-growing mystique surround his biggest films, “Spielberg” offers some insight into a rare filmmaker who became a genre unto himself.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.