The HBO documentary “Spielberg” is a lot like some of the legendary director’s films: it’s well-made, thoughtful, emotional and maybe a little long.
“Spielberg” chronologically steps through the director’s long filmography in a way that should deepen your appreciation for many of these beloved films, even if it sometimes overstates Spielberg’s brilliance. That’s not to say Steven Spielberg isn’t a genius or one of our great directors. But any documentary focused on being a single, comprehensive overview of one artist’s body of work is bound to be hyperbolic.
Director Susan Lacy cobbles together a star-studded group of talking heads to heap praise on Spielberg, as well as a little gentle criticism (much of it at the expense of “1941” and “The Color Purple”). They intelligently and lovingly touch on why Spielberg’s films succeed, why he’s a wonder to work with and how great of a person he is. But two-and-a-half hours of adulation can be tiring.
Critics like A.O. Scott, David Edelstein and Janet Maslin line up to explain sometimes obvious things. (Have you heard that “Jaws”works because we see the shark so little, or that John Williams’s score gets louder as the shark gets closer?) Even casual movie fans probably know that “Jurassic Park” was digitally innovative, and why the pummeling, disorienting opening to “Saving Private Ryan” is so unforgettable.
We hear that Spielberg is a great artist as well as a great commercial director. We know.
The behind-the-scenes moments of watching Spielberg in action are more interesting than the montages of his movies. He doesn’t look like an intense taskmaster on set, and in his younger years is adorably nerdy and humble. We see how his imagination works in the 8mm films he made as a kid, when he kicked up seesaws of dirt to create DIY special effects.
We also see an early look at his dynamic with George Lucas. At the time of Spielberg’s first TV movie, “Duel,” Lucas was the film school student gearing up to make his mark, while Spielberg was the boy wonder who had lucked into a good gig. Lucas decided he’d watch a few minutes of “Duel” just to see what the new kid on the block was up to, only to be dazzled by what he saw.
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Then there’s the meticulous direction Spielberg gives to his actors. Jeff Goldblum explains how Spielberg taught him to look astonished at the sight of dinosaurs, and Liam Neeson says Spielberg coached him on how to smoke a cigarette. Daniel Craig praised Spielberg’s “Munich” (an underrated, late career masterpiece) because “life isn’t a James Bond movie.” And Daniel Day-Lewis closes out the film with a line that says more about Day-Lewis’s own retirement than about Spielberg.
“How can we take you seriously as an artist?” is a question that dogged Spielberg throughout his career, but no longer.
The question now is, what’s left for “Spielberg” to say?