HBO’s latest documentary Spielberg, directed by Susan Lacy (creator and executive producer of the American Masters docu-series), tracks the meteoric rise of celebrated filmmaker Steven Spielberg. Even if you are one of the rare few that has managed to escape the reach of his work, you have certainly been privy to the effects of his creations; his near six decades of filmography have inspired generations of filmmakers and entirely reshaped the landscape of Hollywood.
The documentary is concise, painting a clear narrative of his life and career, but it is also gentle, shaping the identity of a beloved artist in earnest. Though it brings up brief instances of controversy — financial failure, criticism, and early shame of religious affiliation — it does not revel in them or make them out to be darker than the natural flaws of a real, human person. His legacy may precede him, but his humanity is ever present.
To claim Spielberg is sentimental is a note of affirmation rather than a failing; it never seeks to be anything more. Spielberg himself is repeatedly called “emotional” and “vulnerable” in various talking heads with his crew members, friends, and creative partners. It is a quality he doesn’t shy away from and often incorporates into his films. Many of his movies feature child protagonists and tell stories through that lens, evoking an inherent innocence and feelings of exposure that mimic his own ideology.
Nevertheless, Spielberg is unequivocally a director of spectacle. For some artists this translates into bombast, insincerity, the money shots over the small human moments. But for Spielberg, this exhibitionistic style simply elevates his films and widens the eyes of its viewers. This delicate balance of humanity and wonder allows his movies to be as successful as they are. It is the difference of Transformers (2007) delivering pillars of explosions and a boy on a bicycle casting a shadow across the moon.
Spielberg notes that even with this height of success he has retained a sense of self-abasement: he still sees himself as the teen bullied in school, embarassed by his Russian grandfather calling for him with strains of “Shmuel! Shmuel!” He is the child screaming at his father to stop crying at the dinner table, and the young man who distanced himself from that same father for fifteen years with no rationale greater than his own pain. He has been doubted by his peers, pigeon-holed by producers, and consistently ran over-budget and over-schedule on projects to the point of being temporarily blacklisted. He has never allowed ego to swallow him whole, and he seems glad of it. For better or worse, he will always carry the weight of an awkward, nebbish child-of-divorce raised in Arizona suburbia. And if he ever forgot that feeling, the knowledge of what it feels to be small in the world, the power of his craft would evaporate.
Every time I start a new scene, I’m nervous. It’s like going to school and having to take a test. I’ve never heard the lines spoken before, I don’t know what I’m going to think of hearing the lines, I don’t know what I’m going to tell the actors, I don’t know where I’m gonna put the camera. And every single time it’s the same. But I tell you, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. I’ll tell you why it’s a good feeling. The more I’m feeling confident and secure about something, the less I’m gonna put out. I hate the feeling of being nervous, but I need to feel in this moment, I’m really not sure what I’m doing. And when that verges on panic, I get great ideas. – Steven Spielberg, Spielberg
Time and again, Spielberg has pushed the boundaries of expectation in the film industry and the documentary triumphs in these landmarks of innovation. He filmed Jaws(1975) on the open ocean, reckoning with a faulty shark, rocked by tides, and tortured by the uncooperative lighting of the natural world. He forged ahead with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a B-movie on a tiny budget with no thought of the franchise it would spawn. With Jurassic Park (1991), he stood at the helm of computer-generated imagery and steered it into a new frontier. With The Color Purple (1985) and Schindler’s List(1993) he defied the critics who said he could never transcend blockbuster entertainment and told stories that affected his audiences in new ways, that resonated in their bones.
This review may sound indulgent, a writer praising a film that praises the films of its star. But the filmmaking business is ultimately indulgent in and of itself. It feeds off of mass appeal and most of its players are more concerned with profit over art. It’s a medium that builds media buzz and navigates awards circuits with a calculation that rivals political campaigns. People often forget the formula for a great film is more than its money, its source material, or even its cast; it lies in a modest love for storytelling. So some will say what they will of Spielberg: he is too popular, too sentimental, not as dark as he could be. But by God, does he tell a damn good story.