Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spielberg **** (2017)

The HBO documentary Spielberg is an intimate and moving overview of the director's nearly fifty year career in film.  Susan Lacy, the film's director, was given access to Spielberg's archive and was granted several interviews by her Spielberg himself. Many of Spielberg's frequent collaborators also appear. Clips from his films are also prominent, sure to please cinephiles everywhere.

Spielberg begins with Jaws, the make it or break it moment of his career. His sheer skill as a filmmaker, the ability to create unrelenting suspense and foster memorable characters made the film an era defining blockbuster. For after Jaws, Spielberg earned something few directors achieve: creative control. 

The most revealing aspect of Spielberg is how personal his movies are, influenced by his lonely, exciting, and sometimes traumatic childhood.  His father, an IBM computer engineer, was rarely home and often relocated his family. Spielberg describes his mother as being more of a sister, a free spirit who encouraged all her children, Steven and his three sisters, to channel their creativity. He found an outlet in movies and television and expressed himself by telling stories through the camera, many clips of which are included in the documentary. Film gave Spielberg an identity and helped him deal with the pain of bullying, the divorce of his parents, and uneasiness about his Jewish heritage.

His movies were a way of working through these conflicts. Spielberg's early films, most notably E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, behind all the special effects and surreal sequences, deal with issues of family and abandonment. A sizable segment deals with Spielberg's reflections on the making of Schindler's List and coming to terms with his Jewish identity. Schindler's List still looks unlike anything he ever did; it was especially enlightening to hear Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley reflect on working with Spielberg.

Not without critics, Spielberg's been accused of being too much of a populist in his movies. Some critics contend Spielberg's sentimentality and childish worldview offer little way in the way of substance. Interestingly, Spielberg himself agreed with early critics such as Pauline Kael who praised his technical wizardry, but wondered if he had anything of substance to say. He took the criticism to heart.

As Spielberg matured as a person his films became more complex, especially his run of Sci-Fi films in the 21st Century, most notably A.I. and Minority Report. Even a later film like Catch Me If You Can from 2002 can be read as an autobiography of sorts, like the con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio who convinced people he was an airline pilot and doctor, Spielberg used persistence and outrageous risk to break into the film business.

Well made and comprehensive, Spielberg does increase our understanding of one of the great artists of of the past 50 years.

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