Movies

In Focus

‘Spielberg’ celebrates and scrutinizes the world’s most successful filmmaker

HBO’s documentary “Spielberg” includes this image of Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks on the set of “Saving Private Ryan.”
HBO
HBO’s documentary “Spielberg” includes this image of Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks on the set of “Saving Private Ryan.”

The movies changed forever in 1975, when “Jaws” broke box office records and Hollywood decided that the future lay in blockbusters. The movies changed again in 1993, when “Jurassic Park” dazzled audiences with CGI, which would become a staple in nearly every blockbuster to come.

With these two films, among others, director Steven Spielberg transformed the movie industry.

But did he reinvent cinema or ruin it? Is he an artist or an entertainer or both? Susan Lacy’s insightful and engrossing documentary “Spielberg,” airing Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO, poses those questions as it delves into the life and career of the best-known filmmaker in the world.

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Lacy begins with the familiar story of Spielberg’s origins as a kid growing up in Phoenix, where he dealt with feelings of isolation and low self-esteem by making increasingly sophisticated home movies. After his idyllic family life was shattered by divorce when he was teenager, his feelings of loss, separation, and the need for reconciliation would also be incorporated into his work.

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Not that he deliberately introduces these themes into his movies. As Spielberg points out to Lacy, he is an intuitive artist, not given to abstraction or intellectualizing. Unlike Woody Allen, he has never been one for psychiatric analysis. Instead, he says, making movies is his therapy because they arise from his subconscious.

The key to his success, the documentary suggests, is that Spielberg’s subconscious aligns very closely with that of everybody else. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and the four Indiana Jones movies made with George Lucas between 1981 and 2008 not only thrilled viewers (albeit a bit formulaically by the last installment) but tapped into psyches.

That wasn’t enough for Spielberg, who wanted to be regarded as an artist as well as a consummate showman. His first appeal for respect, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (1985), drew mixed critical response. His adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s memoir “Empire of the Sun” (1987) fared better, but even the film’s screenwriter Tom Stoppard (one of more than 80 subjects Lacy interviewed) laments in “Spielberg” that “it shaded into an unnecessary softness and sentimentality.”

Few would make that observation about Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece “Schindler’s List” (1993), winner of seven Academy Awards including best picture and best director. Or his eloquent, graphically brutal story about D-Day, “Saving Private Ryan” (1999), winner of five Oscars including director.

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It’s impossible to do justice to a genius who has made more than 30 features over four decades, but Lacy covers a lot in 150 minutes. In addition to the interviews, she presents an illuminating assortment of clips ranging from Spielberg’s impressive juvenilia to his most recent works, including the dark and nightmarishly relevant sci-fi films “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), “Minority Report” (2002), and “War of the Worlds” (2005). She succeeds at providing an in-depth look at a master filmmaker and an insight into how movies got to be what they are today.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.