True passion can be infectious even in a crowd of cynics, and so despite the tendency by naysayers to view one of Hollywood’s all-time filmmakers as more of a skilled craftsman than a thoughtful artist, the worship of movies can unite the two in the church of cinema, if only for a documentary. Susan Lacy’s Spielberg doesn’t exactly set out to take a hard look at its legendary subject, but through the rose-tinted lens it’s nevertheless easy to see the pure adoration and excitement a man who has created some of the most glorious moments ever put on screen still feels for his medium after so many years and blockbusters — and the celebration is engaging.
I’ll admit that I’ve long had a soft spot for Steven Spielberg, even if in recent years his offerings haven’t elicited much (if any) of my interest. I skipped The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Bridge of Spies, and The BFG, and I’m sure those won’t be the last. His renowned sappiness — though often exaggerated — is sometimes overpowering to my ‘grownup’ sensibilities, as age and wisdom have resulted in the increased appeal of pessimistic perspectives that now seem to feel more realistic. Yet thoughts of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, and others on an absurdly long list of superb works ultimately overpower those disappointments. My current state of mind aside, these movies made me want to make movies, and his fairy tale outlook to storytelling is part of the reason why. Perhaps most adults lose touch with that side of them that thinks everything will turn out okay in the end, but Hollywood’s Lost Boy seems to have clung to optimism, even when he attempts moral complexity, and by the end of Spielberg I had a fresh reminder of why that can be so captivating.
Very few in cinema history have been able to manipulate an audience as well as Spielberg, and though that ambition is often looked upon as low-hanging fruit, if it were easy then he wouldn’t have earned his own adjective. Watching that résumé fly by over the course of two hours is being subjected to a series of visual triggers, powerful moments that could only come from the deft hand of deeply imaginative talent — and they still work. As a spectator alone the films shown are a fun trip down memory lane, but made especially so when commented on by someone who can’t seem to contain his exuberance in making them. Spielberg talks movies like a kid still in film school (but without the need to prove himself), sometimes bubbling over with an antsy energy that suggests he’d love to get behind the camera of his own documentary. His description of the circumstances, the reasons he makes certain choices, and the general vibe of coming up with such luminaries as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma offers a fascinating look at a unique period in film culture, when the industry was changed by a tight-knit group of young studs.
Anyone who appreciates film can listen to these titans talk all day, and though they’re full of little but praise for their fellow, some interesting tidbits do come out that hint at rivalries and differences. Scorsese of course gushes in his usual excited way, full of love for filmmaking, but subtle references, such as Spielberg being the “most commercial” one of their group by Francis Ford Coppola could be seen as digs. Nevertheless, there is admiration all around, respect from peers who understand what it takes to perform at such a high level with such consistency. There is also acknowledgment that he has tried to push his own limits, not content to merely tread water and churn out fantasy after fantasy, even if those “serious” attempts don’t always work. When they do, however…
It might have been nice to take a closer look at some of the director’s stinkers, but Spielberg takes a shorter path to the present, highlighting almost exclusively critical successes and attempts to expand range. Examination of the process is light and breezy as well; this is essentially a high-class fluff piece, following the standard talking heads-mixed-with-clips route. The man himself waxes occasionally about difficulties during this or that shoot, but those looking for an inside on-set scoop may have already known most of what’s dished. Much of his personal life is discussed in an attempt to tie certain themes of his work together, but while this works fairly well on a surface level, it’s never truly enlightening.
Spielberg may not be an artist full of depth and perspective on human nature and the world in general, but his imagery is interwoven in the childhood memories of so many, reflecting and enhancing the magic of nostalgia, and his development as a filmmaker has been fascinating to watch as I myself have grown older. Spielberg recognizes the filmmaker’s ability to convey basic emotions to cinema form better than almost any other in the history of the medium. The result is a celebration of that accomplishment, and a love letter to the magic of the movies.