It’s never been an all-out love-him-or-hate-him thing — though you can always find a cinephile purist or two to grouse about him, with a fervor as irrational as it is intense. That said, there’s an undeniable Beatles-person-vs.-Stones-person quality to the following debate: Either you think that Steven Spielberg is a genius, that he’s created an array of films — not just the early ones — that are suffused with a transporting vision, with a flow of feeling and a camera-eye intuition unique in the history of cinema; or you think that Spielberg is a gifted fabulist trickster with more flash than depth, the kind of brilliant but ultimately facile entertainer who deserves to be called things like “manipulative,” “sentimental,” “crowd-pleasing,” and — yes — “shallow.”
If you’re in the latter camp, then you probably won’t respond much to “Spielberg,” an unabashedly admiring two-hour-and-27-minute documentary portrait of the man and (mostly) his movies that premiered tonight at the New York Film Festival. (It was made for HBO and will debut this coming Saturday on that network.) Yet if, like me, you’re a Spielberg believer, then you’re likely to find this movie an intensely pleasurable double hit of eye candy and mind candy. The film evokes his strengths (and, on occasion, his weaknesses) as a filmmaker with 20-20 critical insight. It’s full of rare home-movie footage that captures Spielberg on the set, and his emergence from the directorial rat pack of the New Hollywood, more intimately than I’ve ever seen those things portrayed.
It’s also packed with lively, resonant anecdotes and images — from Spielberg’s memories of being bowled over to the point of exhilarated despair by seeing “Lawrence of Arabia” at 16 (“The bar was too high”) to footage of him orchestrating Henry Thomas’ minute reactions in “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial,” from his tale of the first super-rough-cut screening of “Star Wars” that George Lucas held for Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese (De Palma went apoplectic with how disorienting it was, which resulted in Lucas devising that opening crawl) to Dustin Hoffman explaining how Spielberg is able to compartmentalize and multi-task his talent (“Steven Spielberg is a guy who works for Steven Spielberg”).
Mostly, though, with its penetrating look at a career that now spans half a century, “Spielberg” enriches a series of films that you — or, at least, some of us — never get tired of thinking about. It’s like HBO’s free-flowing version of a PBS “American Masters” doc.
Spielberg has always been a voluble and articulate interview subject, if also a cagey one (he knows how to talk a blue streak and still keep his guard up). Here, looking back with the documentary’s director, Susan Lacy, he proves a singularly captivating present-tense explorer of his own life and work. Spielberg can be funny and quite candid, as when he recalls that as a teenager, he’d be out on the street with his friends, and they would hear his Russian Jewish grandfather yelling “Shmuel!” (Steven’s Hebrew name), which made him die of embarrassment. The Spielbergs were Orthodox, and Steven, the only Jewish kid in his Phoenix, Ariz., neighborhood, came to cringe at his ethnic identity. (He could never admit to his pals that he was the dreaded Shmuel.) That’s why his first 8mm movie camera was such a game-changer. It was the little machine he hid behind…out in the open.
Spielberg claims that he still gets nervous, on set, whenever he has to shoot a new scene, a confession that might make you go “Yeah, right,” until he explains that his best ideas arrive when they’re pumped by the adrenaline of anxiety. It’s a way of working that may have descended from his experience on “Jaws,” which is colored in here with a shivery sense of film history being made.
It was the first men-in-a-boat movie to be shot entirely at sea, and the insistence on that, even when it extended the shoot from 54 days to nearly half a year, became the cornerstone of Spielberg’s boy-wonder virtuosity. The constant logistical calamity (broken-down shark; weather and ocean color making it a feat to match shots) meant that Spielberg had to not just plan but improvise, inventing (for instance) much of the business with the yellow barrels when he realized that a barrel being dragged through the water by a shark worked just as well as showing the shark. The word around Hollywood was that “Jaws” was going to be a disaster, but it was Spielberg, and Spielberg alone, who had the movie in his head.
We see clips from those boyhood 8mm films, which already, in primitive form, have the quality of roving wonder that marked “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Estranged from his father after his parents’ divorce, Spielberg was a nerd who felt whole when he was behind the camera, where the simple enunciation of “Action!” and “Cut!” made it seem like he could control his destiny. There’s a legendary story — it might be apocryphal, but it could also be true — about how he didn’t just sneak onto the Universal lot as a teenager but set up an office there, complete with working phone, in a hidden attic.
He most definitely snuck onto an Alfred Hitchcock set, and when Sid Sheinberg, the Universal executive and future head of the studio, caught Spielberg’s dreamy poetic 1968 counterculture short “Amblin,” he recognized that he was seeing a once-in-a-generation voice. Spielberg admits that he fashioned the short with executives — rather than audiences — in mind, and the result is that at the age of 20, he found himself directing Joan Crawford in the TV-movie version of “Night Gallery,” having to put up with a legend who despised him for being a kid. (So he gritted his teeth and lit the episode like a master.) The clips from “Duel,” his sensation of a 1971 TV-movie, made when he was just 24, remind you that Spielberg, in that film, invented the thrillingly close-to-the-ground bumper’s-eye shot language that George Miller drew upon eight years later in “Mad Max.” That’s how amazing “Duel” was.
We think of the early Spielberg as a creator of fantasy, but that isn’t quite right. More than anyone before him, he made fantasy real — the same way that, later on, he would make war, in “Saving Private Ryan,” more real than Oliver Stone did, even though Stone was a combat veteran and Spielberg a geek who’d never been in a fistfight. Fantasy was Spielberg’s genre, but the graphic fluidity of reality was his visual language. Talking about “Close Encounters,” Spielberg says that he wanted to leave audiences with the sensation that they’d literally witnessed a UFO sighting, and damned if he didn’t bring that off. I can testify that in 1977, the movie out-awed all awesomeness — even if 40 years later its starry-eyed transcendence has faded, undeservedly, out of the culture.
You could say that every director needs to be humbled by one disaster, but in Spielberg’s case the humbling hurt him aesthetically. The disaster, of course, was “1941,” his bumptiously overscaled World War II comedy, released in 1979. Spielberg readily admits the epic scale of its failure, but at the time he may have drawn the wrong lesson from it. After becoming, with just three features, the most popular director of his time — the rare artist with a golden global touch — he was stung by the public’s rejection of him. Because he’d been so successful, the colossal dud of “1941” undercut the meaning of his brand.
In “Spielberg,” he says that what he truly wanted to do next was make a James Bond film (and just thinking about that proposition can give you a tingle). But instead, licking his wounds, he allowed George Lucas to come to his rescue by teaming up with him on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The result was an instant cliffhanger classic that lacked Spielberg’s special lyrical insolence. It was 1981, and Spielberg was back on top, but in the view of this critic he would spend the next decade in a kind of creative wilderness, culminating in the joyless stodginess of “Hook.” He was still Steven Spielberg, but the big numbers his movies were generating concealed an identity crisis.
It was personal as well as creative. Spielberg talks about his divorce, from Amy Irving, and his remarriage, to Kate Capshaw, with enough candor to let us see how this domestic convulsion paralleled and guided his rebirth as a director. With “Schindler’s List,” he looked upon the Holocaust with the cleansing force of a filmmaker who could now envision the currents of history through his mind’s eye. It was a film that transformed the verisimilitude of human darkness into something uncanny, and it redefined Spielberg as an artist not just to the world — but, more importantly, to himself.
Spielberg, throughout the documentary, speaks with a flowing exactitude that mirrors the exploratory concision of his shot language. But he’s far from the only good talker here. His old chums and colleagues, like Lucas and De Palma and Scorsese, evoke their own awe at the special innateness of Spielberg’s abilities, and the film is full of critical voices that deftly parse the Spielberg magic (they include Janet Maslin, A.O. Scott, Todd McCarthy, J. Hoberman, and a notably eloquent David Edelstein). Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler (who died in February), and his sisters sketch in their ever-so-slightly intimidated affection for him. And though the film makes no lame apologies for Spielberg’s weaker films (like “The Color Purple”), and throws some good-but-far-from-great ones (“Minority Report,” “The War of the Worlds”) into the mix without overstating their achievements, it shows, with supreme validity, how they’re all of a piece.
Spielberg says that when he looks back on his movies, he thinks the grand theme that emerges from them is separation and reconciliation, an emotional motif that applies even to “Lincoln.” It’s an echo of his own parents’ divorce, and it defines the intoxicating splendor of these films — from “Jaws” to “Saving Private Ryan,” from “Close Encounters” to “Munich” — that record the seismic spectacle of cracks in the world, but with the light, as well as the darkness, pouring through.