“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.