I suppose that the first film of his I ever saw was Jurassic Park. Even then, at an age when the idea that individual personalities were in charge of films was alien to me, I knew that I was watching something very special, from people who were very good at what they did. My actual knowledge, and appreciation, of this director would come later, but like so many others, from the moment I first watched one of his films, I have had a great deal of time for him. I’ve gone through the back catalogue and I’ve followed his new projects. In that regard, I’ve seen gigantic triumphs like Lincoln, over-rated mediocrities like Bridge Of Spies and dramatic mis-steps like War Horse. But I’ve always been watching. Hell, his next film, Ready Player One, is adapted from a book I actively despise, but I’ll still probably see it, just to see what he is going to do with it.
That’s the power of the man, the director who revolutionised the idea of film as a combination of creative and commercial entity, who has had more influence and more reach than any other film-maker in history. So, what better focus for a documentary study like this? Susan Lacy is behind the camera: Steven Spielberg is in front of it.
What we have here is, essentially, a chance for Spielberg and his collaborators to talk about him, his life and his greatest hits, in a very loose chronological fashion. And while there are insights aplenty and getting this kind of exposure to this kind of genius is nothing to be sniffed at – the film being a fairly gargantuan 144 long, meant to be enjoyed with ad breaks – Spielberg will still end up leaving you a little cold, due to the fact that it is no way critical enough of its subject. That isn’t the object of the exercise and it reduces any impact it could make.
Spielberg unfolds around a selection of Spielberg’s more notable films – Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park all get prominent time – and some of less notable – Empire Of The Sun and Munich for examples – in a bid to understand where he came from and what he’s been trying to say. The unfolding picture is of a young man, then later an older man, desperate to prove himself in a cutthroat business, but always willing to take risks with what he was creating. The very first scene involves Spielberg outlining that a teenaged viewing of Lawrence Of Arabia nearly ended his film career there and then, as “the bar was too high”, but it was that sense of goiNg for broke that made Spielberg the success he was.
Being Hollywood’s golden boy, following those first few huge successes, had its downsides. He felt he can go for it and try and craft a comedy, ending up with the forgettable 1941, his first encounter with failure post-Jaws. But then again, sometimes the risks pay off: this is the guy who made Schindler’s List, and then turned around and made Jurassic Park, all in the same 12-month period. One, a searingly evocative Holocaust piece that cuts to the very core of Spielberg’s background, the other a Hail Mary pass relying on computer technology that had only just been created. And both were gigantic commercial and critical successes.
It’s stuff like that which makes Spielberg such a fascinating artist, but there’s only so much praise you can take before you start to wonder if that’s all this is. The moments of true introspection are rare: the controversy over deleted material for The Colour Purple for example, is passed over quickly in a dismissive way and even the aforementioned 1941 is treated as just a small blip on the radar. Spielberg is more interested in talking about what drives him, and none of the other talking heads are willing to be critical.
A lot talking heads too. Spielberg’s family, his directorial friends, actors he’s worked with, producers, composers, it goes on and on. Very famous people – Oprah Winfrey, Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise, John Williams, Christian Bale, Ralph Fiennes, George Lucas – have maybe a few seconds here and there to essentially butt in, before they are squeezed out by everyone else. I wonder how much footage for this was cut? It could have been a TV show.
And that quantity of talking heads all tripping over themselves to prise Spielberg is part of why there is little genuine reflection. And there is stuff to criticise, or at least debate here. Has Spielberg been responsible for a generally quaint-tification of American cinema? Is his cinema too hopeful in tone across the board? Does he sometimes cover up bland characterisation with visual spectacle? Does he stutter when it comes to tackling the truly big issues, as critics of Schlinder’s List and Munich would attest? What of his TV work, and other non-film projects? And what was up with casting Kate Capshaw in Temple Of Doom?
I bring that last part up because the documentary stays fairly invested in Spielberg’s family life, both with his own parents and with his own wives and many children. Spielberg is a child of divorce with a distant father he didn’t get on with for long periods and a mother who seems fairly manic and not exactly an authority figure; perhaps more relevantly, Spielberg has been divorced himself. It is little wonder then that every other film he has made includes some sort of “lost child” theme, or have adult male antagonist that are forced into making difficult personal decisions. This speaks to that tortured relationship with his own father, that’s punctuated by some very surprisingly revealing interviews with Arnold and Edith Spielberg.
The other insights are fascinating, if a little well-worn. Spielberg’s talent at directing children comes through in off-camera clips of E.T, (but nothing on his comparative failure at it for The BFG). Saving Private Ryan production members discuss how little Spielberg told them about the famous D-Day assault sequence, so they would have as natural reactions as possible, with camera personnel becoming impromptu war documentarians. And as far back as Jaws, we see a director willing to not just go the extra mile, but an extra twenty, in the pursuit of authenticity and the framing of the moment just right, showcasing endurance in a hectic schedule, and ingenuity in making perfection out of disaster (when the robotic shark broke, they went with the dragged barrels, and the change has become iconic).
The other stuff isn’t so good. Spielberg is influenced by a strong idealist streak. Hardly a big surprise. Spielberg’s Judaism and connection to Israel is apparent in his films. You don’t say. He grew up in the suburbs and started his film career with a Super 8 and his friends. Colour me stunned. With a 144 minutes to fill, you’d think Spielberg wouldn’t fall back on old chestnuts like these to fill its time.
Even allowing for the occasional mis-steps, Spielberg is still the man who made a nightmarish monster out of a malfunctioning shark robot; who achieved a confluence of visuals, music and acting to surpass nearly all others in E.T.; who used black-and-white to startling effect in one story, then turned around and gave birth to the new digital age of blockbusters straight after; and who continues to push boundaries and exhibit that same risk-taking ethos that served him well in the past, albeit he has less to lose now. I can’t be too critical of the guy who turned a vibrating glass of water into an iconic visual element, or who produced the Animaniacs. This documentary is a victory lap of sorts, and not one that will stick with you, but hell, Steven Spielberg has earned it. Him I recommend. This, not as much.
(All images are copyright of HBO).