“Spielberg”: Reviewing the HBO Documentary

Posted: October 9th, 2017 | Filed under: Cinema, Film Reviews Podcast | No Comments »

This is a take on the fascinating HBO documentary about the life and output of Steven Spielberg, a movie director heralded for his technique but oft criticized through the decades for various reasons, some legit, some not.

But I’m going to start with a basketball analogy.

Stick with me, we’ll get to the film about a filmmaking savant soon enough.

University of Louisville basketball’s biggest two stars in the early 2000s were Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean. Garcia was the more complete player, and moved on to the NBA before his Cardinal eligibility ran out.

During one of his games while still here, I was fortunate to be sitting next to New York Knicks scout Dick McGuire in town to evaluate Francisco. While chatting about other Cardinals besides Garcia, I kept praising Dean.

“He plays full out every second.”

“He’s made more big shots than any Cardinal ever.”

McGuire nodded, but didn’t really respond.

Garcia left early. The next campaign it was Dean’s team. Soon enough, the flaws in Taquan’s game became manifest. A guard, he wasn’t the best of ball handlers. Nor was he comfortable driving the ball to the hoop. Not really a leader, he was more comfortable as second banana.

He could make big shots, coming off a screen, when he didn’t have to create his own space off the dribble.

That was his forte. He was marvelous at that particular skill. Not so good at some of the other facets of the game.

 * * * * *

Steven Spielberg makes big films. That’s his forte.

Even his creations with personal even intimate themes are expansive in purview. It is easy to understand, as explained in this introspective documentary, how and why David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” is the most influential film in his life, the movie he watches once a year every year that set him on his path.

Though there are moments of humor in his work, Spielberg doesn’t make comedies. (I reiterate my long standing belief that, flawed as it might be, “1941,” for which the director was excoriated, is inaccurately maligned. The swing dance scene and brawl is one of the best choreographed sequences ever filmed.)

Spielberg doesn’t make romances.

Spielberg doesn’t do small and intimate.

But what he does — his is a vast and at times overwhelming scope of vision — he does as well as any director ever. And, later in his career as he matured as an auteur, he elegantly crafted takes on weightier subject matter.

“Spielberg” provides insight into the origins of the thematic elements that run through the director’s movies. His upbringing in a broken home. His religion. His fascination with making movies from any early age.

There are the usual talking head interviews, fellow directors, critics who weigh in on Spielberg’s talents. There are moments when the director explains his technique with specific sequences from his movies.

 * * * * *

I recall a conversation years ago, maybe around the time of “Empire of the Sun,” with a professor who was teaching film at St. John’s in New York.

We agreed that too often Spielberg’s screen was simply too pretty. Too well composed. Too geometric. Too. Too.

With his later, grittier work — “Schindler’s List,” “Munich,” “Saving Private Ryan” — he proved that propensity of his for perfect composition isn’t really a flaw.

There are types of films that Spielberg has never attempted to make. But, for the most part, the ones he has are as well crafted as any.

Long at 147 minutes, “Spielberg” is a cinephile’s delight, observing the director, the director’s influences and the director’s incredible resumé of films.

— c d kaplan


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