Spielberg Can’t See Beyond the Director’s Greatness

HBO’s new documentary on the legendary filmmaker does a good job recapping his many successes—but largely skirts over some of his most interesting movies.

A young Steven Spielberg

The myth of Steven Spielberg is the canonical tale of success in the New Hollywood era—a time when a wave of exciting young American filmmakers emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the old studio system became more freewheeling and director-driven. An admirer of the widescreen epics of yesteryear, Spielberg was compelled to make movies from an early age; he made countless amateur films on Super 8 cameras and honed his craft as a teenager. He edged his way into Hollywood through sheer perseverance, hanging out on the Universal Studios lot and even camping out in an empty office before finally talking his way into a job making TV shows.

This is the narrative that’s front and center in Susan Lacy’s documentary about the director’s career, Spielberg, which aired Saturday on HBO. Spielberg is such a standard-bearer of the movie industry’s last 40 years that it’s hard to think of him outside of his successes. Lacy’s film, which features an unprecedented amount of interview footage with Spielberg, dives right in with the surprise hit that practically invented the modern blockbuster, 1975’s Jaws. The first 20 minutes of this two-hour, 28-minute documentary touch on topics that are probably familiar to even the most casual fan: the importance of John Williams’s score, the troubled production with a failing mechanical shark, the word-of-mouth praise that turned Spielberg into a legend at the age of 29.

“The success of [Jaws] changed my life,” Spielberg says in the film. “It gave me the chance to pick and choose the movies I directed from then on. So Jaws was a free pass into my future.” He used that “free pass” to make more unambiguous triumphs like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones movies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park, and Lacy dutifully digs into those hits with Spielberg and the actors, producers, writers, and industry folk who worked around him over the years.

What’s disappointing about Spielberg is that it does far less digging into the intriguing later acts of his career; it doesn’t strive to move past the mythos and into the mind of an iconic artist who continues to make bold, challenging work. Spielberg isn’t quite a hagiography, nor does it completely lack insight into the man who became such an unstoppable pop-cultural force in the 1970s. But it does feel like a story many cineastes will have heard before, with just a little more detail shaded in.

After Jaws, Lacy pulls back and looks at Spielberg’s early short films and his rise at Universal. She offers context by turning to his contemporaries—directors like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma, then dubbed the “movie brats” of New Hollywood. Then it’s on to Close Encounters, then E.T., then Raiders of the Lost Ark (after a brief, but welcome interlude about the failure of his epic comedy 1941). Spielberg’s weighty mid-’80s dramas The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun lead to his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (which, unsurprisingly, a good chunk of the documentary is devoted to). Finally, there’s Jurassic Park, with which Spielberg re-invented the blockbuster genre again.

After all these films, the documentary has only about half an hour to spend on the rest of Spielberg’s career, after he co-founded the studio DreamWorks and made 15 more movies. Much of this remaining time goes to his most prestigious, Oscar-favorite material: Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln. I can’t fault Lacy for dwelling on Spielberg’s biggest films, since he’s made so many of them. The documentary is in some ways a victim of its subject’s popularity and prolificness; it would be hard for Lacy to breeze over the broad appeal of Indiana Jones or roaring CGI dinosaurs.

But Spielberg long ago became the kind of filmmaker who used his massive platform to investigate more complex themes without sacrificing the popcorn presentation of his storytelling. With DreamWorks, he created a studio of his own and used it to release movies on much darker topics. A.I. Artificial Intelligence repurposes his tropes of childhood wonder and familial bonds for a bleak tale about the burden of consciousness, adapting a treatment originally written by Stanley Kubrick (to whom the film was made in homage). The movie generally left critics baffled. It was crammed with more eerie imagery than usual for Spielberg, but was built around the more treacly parent-child dynamic his works often explore.

Spielberg’s collaborations with Tom Cruise—Minority Report and War of the Worlds—are haunted stories of police surveillance and citywide destruction in a post-9/11 age. Bridge of Spies is a weary examination of the ease with which America sees fit to ignore the U.S. Constitution, dressed up as an inspiring Tom Hanks docu-drama. Even Spielberg’s revisiting of Indiana Jones, in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, seemed to be weighed down by a growing generation gap between subject and audience. In fact, all of Spielberg’s more old-fashioned crowd-pleasers, like The Terminal and War Horse, have failed to linger in the zeitgeist as his earlier blockbusters did. Many of these films were creative successes, and most enjoyed the kind of box-office numbers other directors can only dream of—but by Spielberg’s yardstick, they’re minor key, and so the documentary mostly glides past them.

It’s a shame Lacy didn’t adopt a more interrogative format that would have kept those later films in the spotlight. In 2015, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow made a documentary about another titan of New Hollywood—De Palma, whose penchant for voyeurism and Alfred Hitchcock homages made him one of the most recognizable auteurs of the era. In De Palma, Baumbach and Paltrow go through every one of the director’s films, in chronological order, and have him narrate his recollections of them—what he was trying to accomplish, the reaction at the time, and what he thinks of them now. The approach gets compelling tidbits out of De Palma, and also prompts him to consider his failures (both artistic and commercial) and his less well-remembered projects.

It would have been fascinating to see Spielberg do the same, to devote as much time to reflecting on A.I. as E.T., for example. Lacy’s film includes plenty of fond remembrances from the director but feels like the first installment in a series that’s waiting to be completed. It sums up Spielberg’s impressive impact on Hollywood without really reckoning with the second half of his career, or what he sees in the future of the medium. Though Spielberg could do with a sequel, for now it’s a useful retrospective of a filmmaker whose influence on cinema cannot be overstated.