It might not take a cast of thousands — or, well, dozens — to celebrate one man's body of work, but when you're talking about the movies of Steven Spielberg, with their crowd-pleasing sweep and often groundbreaking artistic influence, a plethora of commentators makes sense.
For her engaging documentary on his half-century of filmmaking, American Masters creator Susan Lacy spoke with more than two dozen of Spielberg's famous colleagues and creative collaborators, and she and editor Deborah Peretz have incisively distilled and orchestrated their observations. But it's the nearly 30 hours of interviews that Lacy conducted with her cheerfully self-reflective subject that give Spielberg its revelatory oomph and make it so memorable.
Taking its public bow at the New York Film Festival two days before its premiere Saturday on HBO, the documentary is an intimate portrait of an exceedingly unpretentious visionary and a compelling argument for how deeply personal the most box-office-friendly filmmaking can be.
With the exception of a few sections that group together more recent films by theme, Lacy examines the storied career chronologically, beginning with the early triumph of Jaws and focusing on films that were milestones not only for Spielberg but for Hollywood. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, rereleased earlier this year for a 40th-anniversary spin and the only one of Spielberg's features that he single-handedly scripted, rightly occupies a significant portion of the doc, exemplifying the way the film interweaves artistic, technical and commercial matters with biographical insights.
Spielberg vividly recalls his introduction to the night skies by his father, Arnold, an accomplished electrical engineer. As a member of the postwar bomb-shelter generation and an often frightened — and bullied — child, he attached a particular optimism to outer space, a sense of childhood wonder that infuses some of his most beloved films. But that wonder is always tempered by pain and heroic struggle, with the subject of broken families and a self-described "father-son obsession" at the core of much of his work. E.T. was originally conceived as a divorce drama, Spielberg says. Noting that he has funneled his neuroses and "scary whispers" into his work rather than dismantling them on a therapist's couch, he speaks with exceptional candor of the blame he mistakenly placed on his father after his parents split up.
Lacy's film is dedicated to Spielberg's mother, Leah Adler, who died earlier this year. Vibrant well into her 90s, she was interviewed for the documentary along with Spielberg's father — who delivers the film's biggest punchline, an absolute beaut — and his three sisters. The Spielbergs weren't just Orthodox Jews in Gentile neighborhoods (largely in Phoenix), but they were what one sister calls "bohemians in suburbia." In a family of outsiders, Steven was always wishing to be someone else, longing for the perfect household of the American dream. It was the conversion to Judaism of his second wife, Kate Capshaw, that helped him overcome his childhood shame over being Jewish and embrace his heritage with Schindler's List, the 1993 film that expanded the definition of "Spielbergian."
There are glimpses of him at work, on the sets of Bridge of Spies and E.T., and he attributes some of his best ideas to "uncertainty verging on panic." Cinematographers Bill Butler and the late Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot Spielberg's first theatrical feature, Sugarland Express, attest to his intuitive camera sensibility, and many of the actors he's worked with over the years describe his methods — methods that could be, as Liam Neeson remembers, baffling verging on annoying, but which ultimately proved pitch-perfect. As to his hands-on exuberance, Dustin Hoffman says that "Steven's like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg."
But before he became "Steven Spielberg," with all the clout that the name implies, he was "Sheinberg's folly," mentored by Universal studio chief Sid Sheinberg and raising skeptical eyebrows as the youngest contract director on the lot. His New Hollywood compatriot George Lucas admits to being not thoroughly sold on the wunderkind's potential until 1971's Duel, a landmark in network TV movies — and, as Spielberg explains with illuminating fervor, a project with profound resonance for him. His refusal to change the ending to conform to his higher-ups' expectations is a telling example of the clarity and integrity of his artistic impulse.
But he also admits to mistakes, noting that he was "too timid" to tackle a lesbian subplot in The Color Purple. He seems still perplexed that 1941 didn't click with audiences or critics (although it has acquired a certain cult cachet over the years). Another notable miss, Hook, is never directly mentioned but appears in a summing-up montage as one of the movies that didn't work.
Among the critics who weigh in (A.O. Scott, Janet Maslin, J. Hoberman, David Edelstein and this publication's Todd McCarthy), only Edelstein offers any outright criticism. In one of the film's least smooth transitions, Lacy leaves his complaints about The Color Purple dangling rather awkwardly and then moves on to another topic. It would have been a good opportunity for a more lively interchange of ideas that could have enriched the film.
But given the daunting task at hand, Lacy succeeds at balancing an overarching view with particulars, making her film both a summing up and a starting point for the study of a singular moviemaking career. Her documentary blasts holes in the "mass entertainment vs. art" premise, and the idea that Spielberg's films, and blockbusters as a rule, can't be serious works of cinema. It isn't the sometimes defensive comments of her various talking heads that make the case for Spielberg as a personal filmmaker; it's his own self-revealing openness.
Spielberg recalls that when he first saw Lawrence of Arabia as a kid, he decided that there was no point in even attempting to make movies. Then he went back to see it, again and again, and his discouragement turned into inspiration. He still watches it yearly.
Production company: Pentimento
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
With: J.J. Abrams, Christian Bale, Drew Barrymore, Cate Blanchett, Francis Ford Coppola, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Brian de Palma, Laura Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Dreyfuss, Ralph Fiennes, Harrison Ford, David Geffen, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ben Kingsley, Kathleen Kennedy, George Lucas, Liam Neeson, Martin Scorsese, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Zemeckis
Director: Susan Lacy
Producers: Susan Lacy, Jessica Levin, Emma Pildes
Directors of photography: Eddie Marritz, Sam Painter
Editor: Deborah Peretz
Venue: New York Film Festival (Special Events)