It’s fitting that one of the most iconic monster-movie directors of all time now has a goliath of a documentary out about him and his work. HBO’s Spielberg, rolling out at a whopping two-and-a-half-hour runtime, is probably longer than the majority of the titular filmmaker’s movies. Though it may be a bit pedantic at times and is rather choosy about the films that it wants to discuss, Spielberg is worth the long-haul to anyone that wants to know more about the man working behind the camera on such classics as Jaws, Schindler’s List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Lincoln. Spielberg does a good job of weaving the director’s personal narrative in with the discussions about Spielberg’s movies and it effectively shows how events in Spielberg’s life directly influenced the themes that Spielberg has explored throughout his career. This is what holds the documentary up through its entirety.
At first, one might be a bit skeptical about where Spielberg is going. Spielberg opens with the director talking about his experience of seeing Lawrence of Arabia in the ’60s and how he felt a bit downtrodden after seeing the timeless epic.
“And when the film was over, I didn’t want to be a director anymore,” Spielberg reflects. “The bar was too high.”
This is a great opener. It shows the path that we have to take and said path actually looks interesting enough. We’re going to see how this megastar of the last few decades grew from being a nervous film junkie to being one of the most recognized names in show business. Fair enough.
Then you hear those two alternating notes. Jaws is closing in and it’s closing in fast.
After the opening credits, we’re thrown right into the timeless tale of the horror show that was the making of Jaws. If there’s one behind-the-scenes story that is the most memorable and talked about in movie history, it’s probably a toss-up between the Jaws and Apocalypse Now stories. Everything you hear in this 15-minute segment of Spielberg is something that you could easily find on any DVD commentary of Jaws. That’s one of this documentary’s pitfalls, at least at certain points. As far as the movies go, it doesn’t have a whole lot of new stuff to talk about.
Spielberg focuses a lot on the movies. Again, that’s fair enough—to an extent. It’s about a filmmaker and so it makes sense that it wants to talk about his movies. That isn’t where Spielberg thrives, however. Spielberg really gets off the ground when it’s talking about Spielberg and about the people in his life.
The best bits of the whole documentary are where you get the actual Spielbergs telling their family story. Aside from Steven himself, there are interviews with Steven’s two sisters and his parents. Through these interviews, we get a glimpse of the nerdy little boy who grew up making 8mm films out in the Arizona desert. We see how his parents’ kookiness inspired an untamable creativity in the young director. That’s where the heart of Spielberg lies—in seeing how the man behind the camera and his movies are shaped by his upbringing and specific events in his life. The Spielbergs talk about how Steven channeled his emotions about his parents’ dissolving relationship and eventual divorce in movies like Close Encounters and E.T. These are the stories that are new and interesting—not the ones about how the shark in Jaws wouldn’t work and about how revolutionary Jurassic Park was. Most people sitting down for Steven Spielberg documentary would already know these things. We want to know about the man Steven Spielberg, not the myth.
There are a lot of times when Spielberg gives us this more personal portrait and that’s what makes it good. Whether we’re hearing about Spielberg’s escapades sneaking onto the backlot of Universal Studios out in Hollywood or how Spielberg became friends with people like George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, these are the stories that people, especially fans of Spielberg, want to hear. Even when Spielberg goes on to discuss some of Spielberg’s not-so-successful movies (i.e. A.I. and War of the Worlds), the parts of these segments that are worth attention are when Spielberg discusses his inspiration for these films, not when various commentators and associates discuss how they pulled off this or that shot or how the script changed. For being a documentary about a man who is so concerned with personal relationships, one would think Spielberg would want to focus more on Spielberg personally and less on his work. It doesn’t want to at times though.
For anyone that is interested in learning more about Spielberg, HBO’s documentary has a lot to say that is insightful and intriguing. One will, on the other hand, have to wade through a lot of dull behind-the-scenes commentary to get at the rich story found throughout Spielberg.
Featured Image by HBO