What else is there left to say about Steven Spielberg that hasn’t already been said? The myth is gigantic. Whiz kid. Tastemaker. Protean. Brand name. Reinventor of photography. Daring career choices. Daddy issues. The death of cinema. The life of cinema, too. But really, who is Steven Spielberg? And how could any documentary successfully encapsulate the life and times of an American master?
By catching the man, now 70, on camera, referring to his regulars as his “peeps”.
Hey, it’s a decent start.
Spielberg’s a nerd, everyone. To be certain, he’s a specialist in grandeur with mass appeal as well. But the most appealing takeaway from Susan Lacy’s new documentary is that he really was, and still is, a film nerd’s film nerd. A guy who grins while mimicking the score to Jaws with da-da’s. A brat with a camera who loved “blowing shit up” on the set of 1941, and who loved De Palma’s Scarface for that same reason. An artist, no doubt, and one still filled with crippling doubt – but one seen here in home movies doing a hammy Julia Child impersonation as well. Through the legend and the lore, we get a kind notion of Spielberg, the excitable boy. And all that dweeby, neurotic, and mindful passion comes to the top in snappy fashion during Spielberg, a sincere effort at pinning down one of the greats.
We open not on him, but on his vision. Or rather, his obsession: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Spielberg, in hyperbolic fashion, confesses in voiceover that Lean’s epic nearly made him want to give up. He was 16. He saw it more than once. In his mind, he knew he could never top this perfect movie. He was obsessed with its imagery, its presentation, and how Lean’s direction just elevated everything. T.E. Lawrence’s fetishistic handling of a knife wasn’t just a motif to Spielberg – it was a wakeup call to visual storytelling and the power that it holds. So maybe a thanks to David Lean is in order. Or else, you know, no E.T.
Flipppancy aside, this is Spielberg at its most illuminating. With unfettered access to Spielberg, his peers, his casts, his crews, his critics, and his friends, the doc delivers a stacked series of clips and ruminations. Get your trivia brain ready. There’s George Lucas, chummily bragging that he goaded Spielberg in order to get Raiders of the Lost Ark made (and how studios supposedly wouldn’t touch Spielberg after running over budget so many times). Martin Scorsese hypes Spielberg’s efficiency and knack for getting what’s needed in two-or-three takes. Francis Ford Coppola backhandedly compliments Spielberg’s appeal with acidic praise. Tom Hanks exhaustively rambles about the boot camp vérité of Saving Private Ryan (he was warned that he’d better be able to swim). Spielberg even recalls the desire to reinvent himself, or rather, mine his personal history in order to put together something truly unique with Schindler’s List, a film that he directed solely on feel – no storyboards, which is insane for a picture of that size. (Liam Neeson almost angrily describing himself as a puppet for Spielberg to maneuver is something else.) It’s geeky, and even makes for a little bit of inside baseball. But as they say, it’s the magic of the movies.
When Spielberg waxes effusive, talking about the camera choices in Munich, or how Bridge of Spies and Lincoln appeal to his unabashed patriotism, you see a dreamer, an optimist, and a man to be envied. He’s doing what he loves, every day of his life. And to that end, the guy’s a charmer. Michael Phillips, a producer on Close Encounters, nails the appeal of Spielberg, and of this doc: he wasn’t into sports, or popular kid things. He was and will always be a little left of center, whether teasing his sisters to make scary movies, or bugging his friends to make Ford-like war films (with real Ford footage cut in!). He really is an odd bird, a genuine article, in the kindest sense, and people just seem to love being around a guy like him. His passion is infectious, and in that vein, Spielberg makes for a great subject.
Admittedly, that’s about all you’re going to get here. If you’re looking for TMZ tales of the production problems on Hook, or something bigger on Spielberg’s absent father syndrome (his real father does appear, and says nominal words on the matter), then perhaps read a Peter Biskind book. Kate Capshaw and Amy Irving never appear on camera, but then there’s plenty on the dissolution of his first marriage in other oral histories. He’s worth over $3 billion, but you won’t find insight into that beyond praise from talking heads like producers David Geffen and Kathleen Kennedy. And you can read about how Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sucked on Twitter at appropriate lengths. Spielberg may leave a few people wanting, since it merely yields the hits and the heart. But really, that’s fine. And it has its own benefits.
A Jaws or a Raiders enthusiast – and there are many – can walk into this documentary and hear nifty things about each of those efforts. But better yet, they may just be egged on to seek out more. They’ll hear the Universal lot musings about a kid sneaking into Sid Sheinberg’s pocket, and wonder if they can find Spielberg’s episode of Columbo. They’ll take note of works like Duel or Empire of the Sun, or Bridge of Spies if they haven’t yet, and perhaps give them a shot. And it’s not like Spielberg is unconvincing in any of his remembrances. They almost feel like pitches, and great ones at that. People who wanted a Game Boy in 1985 and got The Color Purple might better appreciate the man’s willingness to expand his perspective, challenging himself to truly create through empathy. But that’s how wide Spielberg’s eyes and dreams were, and seemingly remain.
Is a documentary with the thesis of “this dude is awesome” good enough? By playing the greatest hits, and keeping true to the director’s strengths and commercial and biographical clichés, Spielberg is Spielberg, and mostly for the better. And it’s a kind reminder that something or someone’s popularity doesn’t always mean make it, or them, bad. It’s a sweeping glance, and even when the proceedings feel a little cursory, or incomplete, this is still a lovingly painted big picture. Think of this as a personal romance with the movies, through the eyes of one of its best visionaries.
Spielberg premieres on HBO on October 7.