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The Statesman


HBO documentary “Spielberg” offers insight on iconic filmmaker

Steven Spielberg at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con. HBO is producing a documentary of the director’s long career.  GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR VIA CC BY-SA 2.0

Looking at Steven Spielberg’s body of work, it is easy to get lost: the writer, director and producer has had his hands in the creation of many monumental projects since the 1960s, from “Indiana Jones” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” to “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” The aptly-titled documentary “Spielberg” hopes to make sense of the director’s changing style and vision, tracing his personal life and career over a whopping two and a half hours.

But if there are any directors deserving of such a long runtime, Spielberg would be among them. And considering his lengthy career — nearly 50 years of filmmaking — two and a half hours might just be as concise as you can get it.

The documentary’s director, Susan Lacy, obviously had her work cut out for her, but she does an admirable job. Lacy weaves together interviews, movie clips and behind-the-scenes footage to create a portrait of Spielberg that is largely compelling.

Lacy created “American Masters,” a PBS series that produces biographies on members of the American cultural pantheon. Few have contributed more to American culture than Spielberg.

Lacy’s storytelling is almost episodic in nature, as she tackles Spielberg’s films individually for five to 10 minutes before jumping to the next. This style makes the lengthy documentary more digestible, though the relatively brief attention given to some of the movies might leave you yearning for more.

Lacy does, however, provide great insight and depth into Speilberg’s more prominent films, including “Jaws,” “Encounters of the Third Kind” and his later dramatic work, with“Schindler’s List” taking an obvious spotlight (the film won Best Picture at the 66th Academy Awards, and Spielberg took home the trophy for Best Director as well). The Holocaust drama is perhaps the heart of the documentary, with Spielberg describing how “Schindler’s List” helped him examine and ultimately rekindle his Jewish identity.

While “Spielberg” is, of course, centered on the iconic director and his life, Lacy also uses the documentary to explore the history of modern cinema, from the emergence of the box office “blockbuster” in the late 1970s and the clash between “art” and “mass entertainment” to the special effects revolutions of the late 1990s. For any film enthusiast, “Spielberg” is a real treat.

Even if you are not a fan of Steven Spielberg, the documentary is an enjoyable watch for its treasure trove of celebrity interviews; in addition to Spielberg himself, the film features directors like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma, along with countless actors and actresses: Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Goldblum, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson and many more detail their experiences with the director. Actors like Hanks and Neeson discuss how rigorous and rewarding his directing can be and Goldblum even remarks that Spielberg “always knows exactly what he needs” when he is shooting.

DiCaprio recalls his experiences working on “Catch Me If You Can” as a young actor. Oprah Winfrey, who starred in “The Color Purple,” discusses the film’s racial themes, saying it was “a big deal” that Spielberg was willing to approach such sensitive subject matter.

If anything, “Spielberg” does not look at the filmmaker as holistically as it could; his cinematic failures – besides the comedic disaster “1941”– are glossed over or ignored entirely. Lacy seems far more concerned with conveying the magic of Spielberg without any of his inconsistencies. Still, as far as his filmography goes, the good far outweighs the bad.

Overall, “Spielberg” is a well-crafted and absorbing piece of cinematic nostalgia. The documentary airs Saturday, Oct. 7tat 8 p.m. on HBO.

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