Spielberg, HBO’s documentary about one of the greatest and most important filmmakers of all time, inevitably covers plenty of familiar ground for cinephiles, partially because at this point Steven Spielberg has already told the story behind the making of his most famous movies multiple times through interviews, TV specials, DVD special features and other documentaries. So, Spielberg dutifully recounts old standards like how the mechanical shark on Jaws never really worked or how Jurassic Park represented a quantum leap forward in special effects, and it does so because those are too important to the overall story of Spielberg’s career and life to be left out.
However, what the documentary offers, what makes it something more than a repackaging of familiar old tales of filmmaking glory is a surprisingly intimate examination of the ongoing influence of Spielberg’s home and family life on his work. It does so through interviews with Spielberg’s sisters and parents as well as interviews with the oft be-scarfed director himself, all of which combine to paint a picture of a self-hating, bullied child of divorce who threw himself into fantasy and, sometimes without realizing it, used his movies to work through his issues. As he acknowledges at one point, “Family is a big element in my life, which is why so many of my stories are about separation and then reunification. Even Lincoln is about separation and reunification. I’ve made lots of movies about a family disintegrating, and then a family finding common ground to reunite.”
It’s a theme he constantly revisits because it’s one which has defined his own family life.
Born to two loving parents, one of them a computer genius at GE, the other a concert pianist, Spielberg primarily grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, where he bought into the idealized notion of a Father Knows Best-style integrated family. When his parents divorced, then, he blamed his father, Arnold, and cut him out of his life for 15 years, only later learning it was his mother who wanted the divorce because she had fallen in love with someone else. To make matters worse, that someone else was Arnold’s best friend. Spielberg and his sisters were allowed to think the worst of their father because he still loved their mother and didn’t want them to hate her. That didn’t make it easy on Arnold, though, to watch his son’s meteoric rise through the film industry and notice just how many of his movies seemed to be about divorce and/or absentee fathers/parents (e.g., E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook).
One of the documentaries most effective moments comes when Spielberg recalls yelling “Cry baby! Cry baby! Cry baby!” at his father the first time he saw him cry and then cuts to a scene in Close Encounters featuring one of Richard Dreyfuss’s kids hurling that same accusation at him for the same reason. It’s as obvious an indication as you can get of the direct influence of Spielberg’s home life on his work, and it’s complemented by a brief moment from Arnold reflecting on the conflicted feelings of being proud of his son’s work but also slightly hurt by it.
Spielberg reunited with his father in time to make Saving Private Ryan in tribute to him since Arnold had served in WWII, albeit not in the European theater depicted in the film. However, that hasn’t stopped Spielberg in the nearly two decades since then from returning to his old ideas about fractured families, partially because reconciling with his father couldn’t completely erase old wounds nor cover the new wounds he created when he divorced Amy Irving and married Kate Capshaw. Thus, the idea of family looms large over A.I., Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, Lincoln, and even last year’s The BFG.
This is not lost on Spielberg, which speaks to this through talking head segments from film critics like Janet Maslin, A.O. Scott and David Edelstein as well as various Spielberg collaborators and friends like Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Daniel Day Lewis, Kathleen Kennedy, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, etc. There are even interviews with people who have since passed away, such as Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, thus giving some insight into just how long HBO took making this documentary.
Of course, Spielberg’s career and influence is too massive and varied to simply summarize as all coming down to a sad, overgrown kid using his work as therapy. Spielberg doesn’t do that. As much as my own personal reaction to this documentary is of appreciating the insight it offers into Spielberg as a person, there’s a lot more to it than just that.
Just about everything you could want to talk about with Spielberg – his humble beginnings as an 8MM devotee, the films that most influenced him growing him, how exactly he got his foot into Hollywood, his time as the most commercial member of the “film brats” club (Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma, etc.), how important the failure of 1941 was to his career, whether or not his run of blockbuster success was actually good for the film industry, how in the world does he manage to direct, produce AND act as a studio head, what he’s like when he’s on set directing, why has his post-9/11 output taken a turn toward darker themes – is all here in one form or another. It’s not always addressed in as much detail as it should nor is it always arranged in an entirely logical order, but Spielberg does a respectable job of covering everything important, good or bad.
And even if some of the BTS stories are well-known I never tire of hearing Spielberg talk about film, be they his own or someone else’s. He always sounds like the best film professor whose class you never managed to get into, which makes any moment of him discussing the greatness of Lawrence of Arabia or importance of geography to aid an audience’s understanding of story and action (as illustrated in Munich) especially rewarding. Thankfully, Spielberg has plenty of that, perhaps most notably and effectively in a prolonged segment covering the making of Schindler’s List. Spielberg admits it took him a decade to work up the courage to finally make that movie as well as come to terms with his own then-lapsed Judaism, and offers an analysis/explanation of the infamous scene of Oscar Schindler observing a girl with a red coat (in a sea of black and white) that has the effect of reminding you what you love about film and its grand potential.
Thank you, Steven Spielberg, for a lifetime of cherished movie memories, and thank you, Spielberg, for being a documentary worthy of the man.
Spielberg is currently available to stream on HBO Now.