Spielberg HBO Documentary – Review

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Spielberg HBO Documentary

Director: Susan Lacy. Cast: Steven SpielbergMartin ScorseseFrancis Ford CoppolaGeorge LucasBrian De Palma ,Tom HanksLeonardo DiCaprio

rating 6.0/10

Let me come out clean right from the start: I’m a Spielberg mega-fan. In fact so much so that the word mega-fan doesn’t even come close to what I think about Steven Spielberg… Maybe a should say a Spielberg-Maniac…

Basically, he single-handledly made me the person I am today. I know.. A big bold statement, but ever so true. He’s the reason why I work in the film  industry today.  He’s the one who really made me fall in love with movies at an age when I didn’t even know what movies were.

So it won’t come as a surprise to anyone when I say that I’d been waiting for a proper and insightful documentary on him for a long time. When I learnt that HBO was producing this film, I was in heaven.

Obviously, the moment I started watching it, I realised this was only going to scratch the surface. Of course, how could it possibly go deep into a career spanning 5 decades? But I can’t really blame it for that. How many bio-documentaries are out there about famous personalities? How can you squeeze a life into a little bit more than 2 hours?

I was bound to get a bit disappointed.

I do not question so much the stuff that’s been omitted, however I do wonder what the intents of the film-maker were when she set out to make this film. Who is this film for? Clearly very few people would actually sit down and watch 147 minutes on a movie director unless of course they were interested in the man himself… And I have to say, if you are interested in the man himself then most of what the film covers is stuff that you should know already.

But the main question is what is this going to be? Is it “Steven Spielberg in his own words”? Is it “Spielberg told by the people who knew him”? Or is it a Spielberg history by film critics and journalists?Is it a celebration? A critical look at his work? An masterclass?

Well, it’s a bit of all of the above: a mish-mash of styles (if we can call them such) which moves back and forth in time quite randomly,  sometimes feeling like it’s even repeating certain subjects and even certain film clips (in fact the film is quite badly constructed and clumsily edited).

Basically, it’s just another biographical documentary with a bigger budget (to get all those film rights and the chance to use John Williams score, as your score) and great access to pretty much every single person you’d want (except wives and children… and that’s a clue of the type of control that Spielberg must have had over this).

The film is incredibly reverential towards the man… And fair enough. We are talking about Spielberg here. I mean, he is a genius! He has changed the face of cinema forever and he should be treated as royalty, but let’s all be honest here: he also did make some bad movies. In his huge filmography, there are indeed some big turkeys especially in the latter part of his career (I’m the first one to admit that): and the film-maker knows that, so much so that the film flies through some of the more recent times, trying to brush it all under the carpet.

Also some films are barely even get mentioned. For example I could not see a single shot from  The TerminalThe Lost WorldTwilight Zone, and most crucially Always, a film which Spielberg himself loves dearly. That was odd.

It would have been interesting to explore some of those failures, both from his point of view and from those people who worked with him.

But the film-maker is so afraid to piss off the main star that she misses too many opportunities to actually go a little bit deeper and make a documentary which is not just a bit more edgy but also just different and actually more interesting.

She should have tried to question the director’s approach to film-making maybe. She should have confronted those critics. He would have come out a winner anyway.

The segment about the failure of  1941 is all too well documented, so she could not avoid talking about it (Also I guess it’s easier since it was such a long time ago), but we know there’s a lot more than that.

For example Hook gets no mentioned and there are probably 2 shots of it in the whole film. That’s the one he’s most ashamed of. It would have been interesting to talk about that. How we wanted to make a musical but never had the guts to do it.

How about  Tintin? His first foray into animation? Even more than that: the first of a trilogy! Well, that didn’t quite go as planned. Again, no mention: just one brief shot.

Let me give you another example: The Color Purple is talked about briefly as a failure, claiming that Spielberg sanitised the story (but that’s really not the reason why it got slated).  Also there’s no mention of the fact that it got 11 nomination except the one for directing and ended up not winning a single one. That would have been a great excuse to talk about his relationship with the rest of Hollywood and the Oscars themselves (up until Schindler’s List he was never nominated: there is great footage of him reacting live to not getting the nomination for Jaws for example).

Yes, at some point they say that “some director” thought he was making Hollywood a worse place (I’m paraphrasing), well, let’s hear some of these people. Let’s hear some of the harsh critics, let’s see them attacking his sentimentality, his ending of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan or any other film in the last 15 years (let’s be honest, Steven Spielberg has had a problem with ending his films in the last few years).

Instead the film reverts to using terribly banal soundbites from some random film critics. That’s bad film-making in my opinion, especially when you set up to make a film which tries to be personal, as some of it is. In fact some of the most successful segments are the ones where Spielberg opens up a bit more, whether about his own divorce or the one of his parents, or being bullied as a kid. That’s when you start getting glimpse of the real man behind the beard… And then just when you think she can do it, they cut to yet again another film critic telling you how great he is, or explaining how his films all are about the lack of a father and so on…

It should all have really come from people in his films, who worked with him. From his friends or people who knew him well . It would have made it a lot more personal.

Obviously there’s a lot missing too.

The Poltergeist controversy could have been confronted once for all with the man at the centre of it.

And what about all the amazing work he did in the 80s as a producer: Gremlins , The Goonies , Back to the FutureRoger Rabbit, just to mention a few? And his work on TV both on TV series and and Animation? Amazing Stories”Tiny ToonAnimaniacs” and all the more recent one, from Band of Brothers”, to Taken, all the way to Falling Skies. Nothing. And talking about animation: all his work from  An American Tail to TinTin, once again? Nothing.

What about question his role as an executive producer in lesser products like Transformers for example? I know,  that would have been a different type of film probably. But I think it has to do with his brand as well. The Spielberg brand is now something that can sell an entire TV series. I’m surprised none of that got a mention.

But crucially  I get very little insight about his film-making process. Very little of him actually on the sets of his films, overcoming problems, coming up with solutions, or simply talking to his actors (that moment where Liam Neeson question his directing was gold but never gets picked up again: another missed opportunity), working with his crew. How does he work with his Director of Photography, his editor, his composer. All they’re telling me is that he likes to work with the same people. Well, thanks I can see that from imdb: what does it actually mean practically? Show me.

For a documentary about a film director, there is surprisingly little directing going on.

The only surprise came from the interviews with his family and by the fact that today his parents are back together again.. So just like a Spielberg movie, there’s a happy ending here too.

I could have watched 20 more hours, even in this slightly diluted, bland and biased form.

I won’t deny that I have enjoyed it and that there are some lovely moments here and there, but given the access they had, the contacts and the freedom to use pretty much everything at her disposal, this is a very light documentary that reveals pretty much nothing new and gives me no more inside into the mind of the greatest director on earth today.

 

 

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