Is it possible that Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful filmmakers in cinema history, is underrated? That’s not the question at the center of Susan Lacy’s HBO doc Spielberg, which premieres Saturday night on HBO. Still, the question plagued me throughout the doc’s intensive and expert dissection of many of his films and of his personal life.
Jaws. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. AI: Artificial Intelligence. Lincoln.
These are all films I personally love for various reasons. Yet, Steven Spielberg never floats to the top of my list of two or three favorite directors. Is this a personal affliction? Likely so. Most everyone seems to have a personal favorite film, much as you would a personal favorite Monet or Renoir.
Yet, being a child of the 1970s, Spielberg’s films have always been there in my burgeoning cinematic life. I remember shopping with my mother at Nichols’ Department Store clutching a Close Encounters coloring book. My great aunt Florence (yes, I had an Aunt Florence) took a cousin to Raiders of the Lost Ark but left me at home. I was pissed. I was also pissed when I failed to win a stuffed E.T. doll at a school fall festival. The winning kid casually tossed the little plush toy to other friends like a football. I told my mother he didn’t deserve to win it through a veil of childish tears. Tears similar to those that fell like rain onto my dad’s lap when he first took me to see the film. Well, tears and maniacal screams, greatly embarrassing him naturally.
I remember seeing Jurassic Park for the first time just after graduating high school. I’d never seen anything like it before. That first shot of the brontosaurus lifting up to grab a leaf from a nearby tree took my breath away. Twenty years later, I took my son to see it at our local IMAX. He loved it, but the reaction wasn’t the same. He’d been raised on a steady diet of brilliant Pixar animation. Of course dinosaurs could be real. I, on the other hand, sobbed when I saw that first brontosaurus again at the age of 37. The passage of time – twenty years gone like that – felt like a rock in my gut. And yet, here I was sharing the moment with my son. Through a veil of childish tears.
Lacy’s Spielberg serves up the sentiment and near-haigiographic appreciation of the great director. If you’re not at least in appreciation of the man, then you won’t like the documentary. It sings his praises loudly to the cheap seats in the back. It soars through the greats like Jaws, Sugarland Express, Close Encounters, Schindler’s List, and many more. Perhaps to its fault, it only explores one of his accepted failures, 1941. But Martin Scorsese, David Edelstein, Liam Neeson among many others come to praise Steven Spielberg, not to bury him.
The doc explores his childhood, and most importantly, the divorce that crushed him emotionally. He wrestled with that for decades through his films. He also wrestled with his Jewish heritage, a struggle that second wife Kate Capshaw and Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List helped to resolve. No matter your opinion of the man’s films, and nearly everyone has one, you do leave the documentary with an astoundingly broad view of his lifetime contributions to cinema.
Ultimately, the documentary seems to ask the question “Is it better to entertain with great cinema or to elevate with great cinema?” The film sets up his early work as great entertainments that perhaps, to some, lack in substance. Spielberg himself considers his later work – Lincoln, Munich, Bridge of Spies, Saving Private Ryan – more mature films. This conversation is really the only portion of the overall very fascinating documentary at which I somewhat bristled. Heavy subjects, in my opinion, don’t necessary make more mature films.
To me, Spielberg’s earlier Close Encounters and E.T. in their own way deal with as heavy subject matter than anything he’s directed over the last five years. They’re just draped in a childlike wonder that accompanies the more serious subjects. Sure, Richard Dreyfus steps onto the UFO at the end of Close Encounters, but he did that after completely abandoning his own family. And the goodbye sequence in E.T. is as emotionally harrowing as anything you’ll see in Saving Private Ryan. I’m not saying one set of films is better than the other. I’m just saying the film and Spielberg himself should not downplay the intelligent and seriousness of his early work simply because they deal with fantastic subjects.
Spielberg, clocking in at 2.5 hours, flies through his oeuvre and, as I’ve mention, hits the major milestone films. I’d love to explore his failures with the same awe as we dig into Schindler’s List. Still, the film manages to solidify the case that, in my mind, I’ve underrated Steven Spielberg as an important and great director. I suspect fellow Scorcese or Hitchcock devotees have done the same. And that’s to own our massive discredit.
Spielberg goes a long way toward underscoring his unequivocal greatness.
Spielberg airs Saturday night on HBO at 8pm ET.