A new wave of cinephile documentaries have cropped up in recent years – celebrations of maverick filmmakers who made their mark on cinema history, mostly during the New Hollywood era of the American 70s. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma (’15) is the current pinnacle for these profiles: a candid conversation that runs down the entirety of the auteur’s filmography, allowing him to comment on his numerous fascinating successes, as well as the disappointing failures. Recent Fantastic Fest favorite King Cohen (’17) is another great example of this budding non-fiction subgenre, shedding light on the NYC wild man’s numerous contributions to the realms of horror and exploitation. They’re both works of true belief, looking to educate others on filmmakers who may be underappreciated in certain circles.
Which is why Susan Lacy’s Spielberg – a two-and-a-half hour retrospective regarding the man some deem our greatest living American filmmaker – is such a crushing disappointment. Lovingly detailed, and filled with sweeping John Williams cues that remind us of the awe-inspiring populist spectacle Steven Spielberg is so adept at crafting, Lacy’s HBO documentary still feels like light entry level reading, as opposed to the tell-all deep dive its running time ostensibly promises. To be honest, 150 minutes is a lot for even the most devoted fan of the director’s work (whom one would assume Spielberg is squarely aimed at), so the fact that it only glosses over movies like A.I. (’01) – which has a production history warranting its own stand-alone BTS piece – is all the more suspect. Why would anyone (especially a filmmaker of Lacy's talents) bother making such a lengthy piece of surface level fan service, again telling us how hard Jaws (’75) was to film?
That’s not to say Lacy's Spielberg – which is comprised of multiple intercut interviews with The Beard and his associates waxing nostalgic about his storied career, as well as home movies and clips from his pictures – isn’t completely devoid of simple pleasures. The section on the New Hollywood “movie brat” gang (which consisted of Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, and more) play like a guy looking at photos from his high school yearbook and remembering how wild and crazy they all were during their best years. A story Spielberg relays about how he and De Palma watched a rough, SFX-free cut of Star Wars (’77) and then offered feedback to Lucas is particularly hilarious, and comes complete with The Beard’s BDP impersonation, as he recalls the suspense maestro going off on George, saying nobody was going to understand the movie without an opening crawl.
Unfortunately, the rest of Spielberg really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the man or his movies, outside of the fact that his body of work is so goddamn big. Yet this could also be a problem with the subject, as much as its a comment on Lacy’s reluctance to pose tough questions to either Spielberg or the numerous luminaries (which range from early mentor Sid Sheinberg to modern "Spielbergian" maestro, JJ Abrams) gathered around this celluloid campfire. Let’s face it, Spielberg makes big, sweeping spectacle, for the most part. His cinema is one that’s instinctual and earnest – smothered in trademark sentimentality aimed straight at your heartstrings. Even darker works like War of the Worlds (’05) are painted with broad, strong strokes. Sure, E.T. (’82), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (’77), and Catch Me If You Can (’02) are all influenced by Spielberg’s troubled, introverted childhood and relationship to an absent father, but you can tell that simply by watching the movies themselves. Furthermore, Spielberg’s pictures have always been love letters to the craft, so hearing him relay his affection for Lawrence of Arabia (’62) isn’t going to come as a surprise, as much as it lands with a hard thud of obviousness.
Perhaps another fatal flaw is in the chosen format, as Lacy’s Spielberg closely mirrors the design for her PBS series American Masters, where we’re treated to an unprecedented level of journalistic access in hopes of discovering what truly makes each subject’s clock of greatness tick. Had Spielberg run five hours long and been cut up into individual parts, allowing each title to be explored in more detail, and for Lacy to investigate the filmmaker’s close personal and professional relationships with many of the individuals asked to comment on his career (not to mention his Orthodox religious practices), a definitive dossier could've been compiled. Nevertheless, Lacy’s film also highlights an inherent problem in crafting one of these fan-targeted portraits: how does a documentarian approach their audience when presenting such a work? Do they assume the viewer’s only watched the most popular titles, treating the rest as a sort of visual “required reading” list? Or do they instead accept that anyone willing to commit to these types of viewing experiences has already consumed most of the movies their subject’s made (and maybe even read a book or two on them)? Discovering that middle ground between introductory hagiography and deep cut dissection is tricky, but it appears Lacy leaned toward the former, hoping pure love (over curiosity) would carry watchers over her distant finish line.