Peter Bart: HBO's Steven Spielberg Documentary Celebrates Film Triumphs But Downplays His Mogul Missteps
Steven Spielberg seems to be on permanent rewind. At least that’s the way he seemed at dinner Tuesday night.
To explain, it was 20 years ago that I wrote my last column about Spielberg, which opened with this observation: While Spielberg is intently expanding his activities, both as a filmmaker and as a mogul, most of the other directors who shared the ’70s spotlight with him have either passed away or moved onto other things — Bogdanovich, Lucas, Ashby, Rafelson, Coppola and Hopper, for example (Martin Scorsese is the exception). So here we are this week, two decades later, with Spielberg again stepping up his schedule, trying once more to re-invent his company and still coveting awards and plaudits as though he were an eager wannabe.
The filmmaker seemed to be all smiles and thank-yous Tuesday night as he praised Spielberg, the expansive (two hours, 40 minutes) new HBO documentary celebrating his life and honoring his achievements (directed by Susan Lacy, it leads off a new series of portraits at HBO). Relaxed and convivial at the lavish party, he did not look like a 71-year-old man confronting two imminent release dates for high-profile pictures, plus start dates for two others. Nor did he seem distracted by the fact that Amblin, the production company that he started 25 years ago, recently had announced a formidable cadre of new financial backers only to fire the man charged with running it (Michael Wright).
Indeed while Spielberg has remained surely the busiest and most durable of contemporary filmmakers, with grosses totaling $12 billion, he also has presided over the most complex and turbulent chain of corporate involvements.
At the party, Spielberg mingled with Tom Hanks, Quincy Jones and a cluster of CEOs including Jim Gianopulos, Tom Rothman and Ted Sarandos. I wondered if they, or other Spielberg associates, had any idea why the filmmaker sustains his alternative universe as a studio czar rather than simply directing movies. His present slate includes The Post, due out from Fox in December, and Ready Player One, from Warner Bros in March. Besides these distributors, his corporate backers include Universal, Participant, Reliance, e-One and Alibaba.
Amblin escaped the cudgels of Disney only last year and deposited its biggest turkey (Ghost in the Shell) at Paramount — that one also carried the DreamWorks label and, of course, DreamWorks was, at one time, Spielberg’s proudest corporate creation.
What all this proves is that Spielberg is an equal opportunity content provider who, as a corporate player, has left behind a mixed bag of successes and confusions. DreamWorks 25 years ago was intended to be a monster new major presided over by Spielberg as well as by Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, both of whom now have given up on the movie business. Some 15 movies a year were supposed to emerge from DreamWorks’ streamlined new film factories at Playa Vista. The physical studio, of course, never happened, but the production entity kept humming along, depositing an occasional Oscar winner (American Beauty) along the way. The exit of Wright after a two-year run (he formerly ran the Turner networks) followed a series of other executive exits including those of Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes, Bob Cooper and Stacey Snider. Along the way, outsiders concluded that Spielberg was not an easy person to work with on the features side (his TV operation has long been headed by Daryl Frank and Justin Falvey).
As an executive, Spielberg has manifested a variety of identities. There is the decisive Spielberg – he approved American Beauty overnight in the middle of shooting Saving Private Ryan. On the other hand, he went through at least eight scripts and three directors on The Mask of Zorro, while none of his associates could figure out why he was addicted to the property to begin with. But then a look at Spielberg’s selection of directing vehicles reflects a dizzyingly eclectic range of subject matter. “It’s wrong to intellectualize about Steven,” remarks one associate. “He’s just plain insecure. He’s certain that everything will be taken away from him.”
HBO His 40 movies range from the inspired (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, ET) to the regrettable (Hook, 1941) to the downright perplexing (War Horse, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tintin). It is this eclecticism that the HBO documentary closely scrutinizes in a tone that ranges from reverent to adulatory. Interweaving interviews with stars, critics and fellow directors, Lacy diligently makes her case that Spielberg’s themes are intensely personal, returning often to topics relating to divorce and family bonds. In candid conversations, Spielberg eloquently reviews the personal toll of his parent’s split and reflects regretfully on his own divorce from Amy Irving.
HBO Impatient with being stereotyped as a maven of blockbusters, Spielberg describes his ventures into more serious themes with The Color Purple and, of course, with the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. His cinematic skills are expressively admired by stars including Daniel Day-Lewis (“We all have a limited shelf life, but not Steven”) and Dustin Hoffman (“Steven is really not like Steven, but is more like a person working for Steven”). Spielberg’s collaborators revere his innate talents (“cinema is his native language”) but also his obsessive need to hurtle from one project to the next (“movies are my therapy,” he acknowledges).
To be sure, the HBO documentary does not deal with Spielberg’s wealth (estimated at $3.6 billion), his monumental deals (with Universal’s theme parks) or his extraordinary clout on the Hollywood power pyramid. The Spielberg who emerges from the documentary is driven but humane, a man with an urgent story to tell – no, with hundreds of stories to tell, and a compulsive need to tell them all.
New York Film Review: ‘Spielberg’ A documentary about the life and career of Steven Spielberg is made with an intelligent effusiveness that should speak to Spielberg believers.
Director: Susan Lacy Cast: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, David Edelstein, Janet Maslin, Francis Coppola, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Laura Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, David Geffen, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley. Release Date: Oct 5, 2017 Official Site: www.filmlinc.org/nyff2017/films/spielberg/ It’s never been an all-out love-him-or-hate-him thing — though you can always find a cinephile purist or two to grouse about him, with a fervor as irrational as it is intense. That said, there’s an undeniable Beatles-person-vs.-Stones-person quality to the following debate: Either you think that Steven Spielberg is a genius, that he’s created an array of films — not just the early ones — that are suffused with a transporting vision, with a flow of feeling and a camera-eye intuition unique in the history of cinema; or you think that Spielberg is a gifted fabulist trickster with more flash than depth, the kind of brilliant but ultimately facile entertainer who deserves to be called things like “manipulative,” “sentimental,” “crowd-pleasing,” and — yes — “shallow.”
If you’re in the latter camp, then you probably won’t respond much to “Spielberg,” an unabashedly admiring two-hour-and-27-minute documentary portrait of the man and (mostly) his movies that premiered tonight at the New York Film Festival. (It was made for HBO and will debut this coming Saturday on that network.) Yet if, like me, you’re a Spielberg believer, then you’re likely to find this movie an intensely pleasurable double hit of eye candy and mind candy. The film evokes his strengths (and, on occasion, his weaknesses) as a filmmaker with 20-20 critical insight. It’s full of rare home-movie footage that captures Spielberg on the set, and his emergence from the directorial rat pack of the New Hollywood, more intimately than I’ve ever seen those things portrayed.
It’s also packed with lively, resonant anecdotes and images — from Spielberg’s memories of being bowled over to the point of exhilarated despair by seeing “Lawrence of Arabia” at 16 (“The bar was too high”) to footage of him orchestrating Henry Thomas’ minute reactions in “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial,” from his tale of the first super-rough-cut screening of “Star Wars” that George Lucas held for Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese (De Palma went apoplectic with how disorienting it was, which resulted in Lucas devising that opening crawl) to Dustin Hoffman explaining how Spielberg is able to compartmentalize and multi-task his talent (“Steven Spielberg is a guy who works for Steven Spielberg”).
Mostly, though, with its penetrating look at a career that now spans half a century, “Spielberg” enriches a series of films that you — or, at least, some of us — never get tired of thinking about. It’s like HBO’s free-flowing version of a PBS “American Masters” doc.
Spielberg has always been a voluble and articulate interview subject, if also a cagey one (he knows how to talk a blue streak and still keep his guard up). Here, looking back with the documentary’s director, Susan Lacy, he proves a singularly captivating present-tense explorer of his own life and work. Spielberg can be funny and quite candid, as when he recalls that as a teenager, he’d be out on the street with his friends, and they would hear his Russian Jewish grandfather yelling “Shmuel!” (Steven’s Hebrew name), which made him die of embarrassment. The Spielbergs were Orthodox, and Steven, the only Jewish kid in his Phoenix, Ariz., neighborhood, came to cringe at his ethnic identity. (He could never admit to his pals that he was the dreaded Shmuel.) That’s why his first 8mm movie camera was such a game-changer. It was the little machine he hid behind…out in the open.
Spielberg claims that he still gets nervous, on set, whenever he has to shoot a new scene, a confession that might make you go “Yeah, right,” until he explains that his best ideas arrive when they’re pumped by the adrenaline of anxiety. It’s a way of working that may have descended from his experience on “Jaws,” which is colored in here with a shivery sense of film history being made.
It was the first men-in-a-boat movie to be shot entirely at sea, and the insistence on that, even when it extended the shoot from 54 days to nearly half a year, became the cornerstone of Spielberg’s boy-wonder virtuosity. The constant logistical calamity (broken-down shark; weather and ocean color making it a feat to match shots) meant that Spielberg had to not just plan but improvise, inventing (for instance) much of the business with the yellow barrels when he realized that a barrel being dragged through the water by a shark worked just as well as showing the shark. The word around Hollywood was that “Jaws” was going to be a disaster, but it was Spielberg, and Spielberg alone, who had the movie in his head.
We see clips from those boyhood 8mm films, which already, in primitive form, have the quality of roving wonder that marked “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Estranged from his father after his parents’ divorce, Spielberg was a nerd who felt whole when he was behind the camera, where the simple enunciation of “Action!” and “Cut!” made it seem like he could control his destiny. There’s a legendary story — it might be apocryphal, but it could also be true — about how he didn’t just sneak onto the Universal lot as a teenager but set up an office there, complete with working phone, in a hidden attic.
He most definitely snuck onto an Alfred Hitchcock set, and when Sid Sheinberg, the Universal executive and future head of the studio, caught Spielberg’s dreamy poetic 1968 counterculture short “Amblin,” he recognized that he was seeing a once-in-a-generation voice. Spielberg admits that he fashioned the short with executives — rather than audiences — in mind, and the result is that at the age of 20, he found himself directing Joan Crawford in the TV-movie version of “Night Gallery,” having to put up with a legend who despised him for being a kid. (So he gritted his teeth and lit the episode like a master.) The clips from “Duel,” his sensation of a 1971 TV-movie, made when he was just 24, remind you that Spielberg, in that film, invented the thrillingly close-to-the-ground bumper’s-eye shot language that George Miller drew upon eight years later in “Mad Max.” That’s how amazing “Duel” was.
We think of the early Spielberg as a creator of fantasy, but that isn’t quite right. More than anyone before him, he made fantasy real — the same way that, later on, he would make war, in “Saving Private Ryan,” more real than Oliver Stone did, even though Stone was a combat veteran and Spielberg a geek who’d never been in a fistfight. Fantasy was Spielberg’s genre, but the graphic fluidity of reality was his visual language. Talking about “Close Encounters,” Spielberg says that he wanted to leave audiences with the sensation that they’d literally witnessed a UFO sighting, and damned if he didn’t bring that off. I can testify that in 1977, the movie out-awed all awesomeness — even if 40 years later its starry-eyed transcendence has faded, undeservedly, out of the culture.
You could say that every director needs to be humbled by one disaster, but in Spielberg’s case the humbling hurt him aesthetically. The disaster, of course, was “1941,” his bumptiously overscaled World War II comedy, released in 1979. Spielberg readily admits the epic scale of its failure, but at the time he may have drawn the wrong lesson from it. After becoming, with just three features, the most popular director of his time — the rare artist with a golden global touch — he was stung by the public’s rejection of him. Because he’d been so successful, the colossal dud of “1941” undercut the meaning of his brand.
In “Spielberg,” he says that what he truly wanted to do next was make a James Bond film (and just thinking about that proposition can give you a tingle). But instead, licking his wounds, he allowed George Lucas to come to his rescue by teaming up with him on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The result was an instant cliffhanger classic that lacked Spielberg’s special lyrical insolence. It was 1981, and Spielberg was back on top, but in the view of this critic he would spend the next decade in a kind of creative wilderness, culminating in the joyless stodginess of “Hook.” He was still Steven Spielberg, but the big numbers his movies were generating concealed an identity crisis.
It was personal as well as creative. Spielberg talks about his divorce, from Amy Irving, and his remarriage, to Kate Capshaw, with enough candor to let us see how this domestic convulsion paralleled and guided his rebirth as a director. With “Schindler’s List,” he looked upon the Holocaust with the cleansing force of a filmmaker who could now envision the currents of history through his mind’s eye. It was a film that transformed the verisimilitude of human darkness into something uncanny, and it redefined Spielberg as an artist not just to the world — but, more importantly, to himself.
Spielberg, throughout the documentary, speaks with a flowing exactitude that mirrors the exploratory concision of his shot language. But he’s far from the only good talker here. His old chums and colleagues, like Lucas and De Palma and Scorsese, evoke their own awe at the special innateness of Spielberg’s abilities, and the film is full of critical voices that deftly parse the Spielberg magic (they include Janet Maslin, A.O. Scott, Todd McCarthy, J. Hoberman, and a notably eloquent David Edelstein). Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler (who died in February), and his sisters sketch in their ever-so-slightly intimidated affection for him. And though the film makes no lame apologies for Spielberg’s weaker films (like “The Color Purple”), and throws some good-but-far-from-great ones (“Minority Report,” “The War of the Worlds”) into the mix without overstating their achievements, it shows, with supreme validity, how they’re all of a piece.
Spielberg says that when he looks back on his movies, he thinks the grand theme that emerges from them is separation and reconciliation, an emotional motif that applies even to “Lincoln.” It’s an echo of his own parents’ divorce, and it defines the intoxicating splendor of these films — from “Jaws” to “Saving Private Ryan,” from “Close Encounters” to “Munich” — that record the seismic spectacle of cracks in the world, but with the light, as well as the darkness, pouring through.
New York Film Review: 'Spielberg'
Reviewed at New York Film Festival (Special Events), Oct. 5, 2017. Running time: 147 MIN.
PRODUCTION: An HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Production prod. Producers: Susan Lacy, Jessica Levin, Emma Pildes.
WITH: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, David Edelstein, Janet Maslin, Francis Coppola, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Laura Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, David Geffen, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley.