DVD: Spielberg (2017)

December 3, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: n/a

Label:  HBO

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  April 17, 2018

Genre:  Documentary

Synopsis: Feature-length documentary on one of modern film’s most iconic filmmakers, told through self-reflective interviews and archival materials.

Special Features:  (none)




Distilling the career, the creative and industry accomplishments of Steven Spielberg into a 147 mins. doc is quite a chore, but like her subsequent portrait Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018), director Susan Lacy lets her subject (literally) do the talking, drawing from candid on-camera self-assessments and a huge archive of home movies, behind-the-scenes footage, stills, and interpolated interviews with peers, colleagues, creative collaborators, and family members.

Spielberg was the ultimate film nerd, a child obsessed with making movies using an 8mm camera, with his sisters and friends cast in genre outings, including WWII actioners and sci-fi thrillers. His innate knack for picking the right angles, camera movements, and assembling his primordial visions into a narrative still impress, given his reference points were theatrical screenings and TV airings in an era that predated home video by more than a decade. Translation: he had to develop his cinema vocabulary from memory.

Spielberg’s self-confidence as a filmmaker climaxed during the brazen stunt in which he snuck into Universal Studios after hiding during a pit stop during the visitors tour. After impersonating a staffer, he soon acquired his own office, and eventually impressed studio producer Sid Sheinberg to gamble by letting him direct a series of TV movies.

Duel (1971) proved the young filmmaker’s gift in staging tension and drama in the supernatural highway battle between a possibly possessed fuel truck and a wiry driver, and within 4 years he helmed one of the first modern blockbusters, Jaws (1975).

Lacy emphasizes her subject’s personal narrative through words and recollections, adding specific making-of details only when necessary – the home video editions for Jaws, 1941, and other films already offer full chronologies – and she emphasizes the camaraderie among peers like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, as Spielberg was absorbed into their network and subsequently fostered uniquely competitive and supportive relationships, such as George Lucas producing the inimitable Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with Spielberg in mind.

If Spielberg’s career was propelled by blockbuster concepts, his ingenuity helped mature nascent technology, especially in digital visual effects, but he also recognized a need to extend himself beyond killer sharks, aliens, and genre homages. Critical assessments of his steps towards serious dramas – The Color Purple (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Munich (2005) – are subjugated in favour of tracing his maturation from nerd to wunderkind, and pied piper of populist cinema to a man delivering messages and moral lessons, such as the historical drama Schindler’s List (1993), and the Shoah Project which followed.

The deeper aspects in the doc’s second half include Spielberg’s drift from and return to his identity as a Jewish American, the respect he commands within the industry as a filmmaker whose alliances have enabled producing other filmmakers’ work, co-founding Dreamworks SKG, and the filmmaker who still leaves room for directorial improvisation, deciding on shot lists after assessing locations and sets.

While a smidge long, Lacy frequently contrasts the icon with the image of a dynamic, imagination-fueled brother via his sisters; a son through his parents; and a colleague via the myriad actors, cinematographers, producers, writers, longtime composer John Williams, and peers with whom he’s worked and / or whose careers he impacted. The comments rarely veer into fawning odes, and the archival material somewhat makes up for the handful of biographical gaps, such as any commentary from prior partner Amy Irving. The ‘Who Really Directed Poltergeist’ controversy is ignored, and any hint of his on set direction is tied to the first killer tree sequence, which harkens back to Spielberg’s own childhood terrors.

Perhaps the doc’s main draw is in hearing the then 72 year old filmmaker reflecting with hindsight on his life and career. His navigation between historical and literary, effects-laden and successful franchises and remakes isn’t perfect, but he’s still propelled by a youthful energy which keeps him among a substantive body of working veteran filmmakers who have no desire nor need to retire or scale back activities; when curiosity and outright pleasure never ebb, why stop?

HBO’s DVD-R is a bare bones release and features a clean transfer with a very subtle 5.1 surround sound mix. Susan Lacy’s other portraits include episodes of PBS’ American Masters (Rod Serling, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland), and Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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