Since I moved out of my parents’ house and started paying my own bills — that was back in the early 2000s — I’ve managed to avoid subscribing to HBO. I realize that in the grand scheme of things, adding a channel full of critically acclaimed television shows and recent movies isn’t that much of an extra expense. I spend far more than $15 a month on junk food, so why not invest that cash in quality entertainment?
I don’t really have an answer for you. There was always some psychological block that prevented me from pulling the trigger, even though it meant missing out on fun, interesting conversations with friends and coworkers. But that all changed last weekend — I finally broke down and upgraded my cable plan to include HBO.
So, what made me do it? Was it “Game of Thrones,” one of the most popular shows in television history? Nope. What about “Veep,” the hilarious Emmy favorite starring some of the best comedic actors around? Nuh-uh. Then it had to be “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” which makes viewers laugh while also doing some truly vital longform journalism, right? Wrong again.
I stopped fighting the inevitable when “Spielberg,” director Susan Lacy’s 147-minute documentary on the world’s most famous and influential filmmaker, premiered on Saturday night. After immersing myself in the movie’s wide-ranging scope and listening to the personal recollections of a staggering number of Steven Spielberg’s family, friends and collaborators, I don’t regret my decision one bit.
While the film isn’t quite the masterpiece I hoped for, it’s still an enjoyable, frequently moving look at a man who has cemented his place in cinema history several times over. Honestly, I could’ve watched a five-hour version and still been just as transfixed.
Creator of the long-running PBS series “American Masters,” Lacy brings a similar feel to this “talking head”-style look at Spielberg’s personal and professional lives, and how the two frequently intersect. Granted, she spends most of her time covering ground that obsessives like me have already pored over countless times, but general viewers will probably learn plenty of stuff they never knew.
Spielberg’s formative childhood years are explored here, particularly how his parents’ divorce shaped his worldview and influenced his entire career. However, Lacy’s surprisingly candid interviews with the director, his sisters and his parents shed new light (at least to me) on the emotionally devastating reason his folks split up. The resulting estrangement between father and son is downright tragic in hindsight.
The film also covers the well-publicized period when a young Spielberg purportedly conned his way onto the Universal lot and set up shop in an empty office. Lacy shrewdly intersperses shots from the criminally underrated “Catch Me If You Can” (in my opinion, one of the director’s best films) to point out why a character like Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) would capture Spielberg’s interest. She also includes a brilliant moment from Spielberg’s longtime friend and producing partner David Geffen, who brushes off decades of mythmaking by referencing the classic line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (That one’s from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” directed by John Ford, one of Spielberg’s major influences.)
Unfortunately, that line hints at some of the documentary’s weak spots. Even the most pop culture-illiterate viewer has likely heard about the troubled “Jaws” production and how the young filmmaker was almost fired for going over time and over budget. There’s not really a reason to hear that story yet again when the film barely touches on some of the director’s interesting misfires, like “Hook” (which we see in a couple of brief shots), “Always” and “The Terminal” (neither of which are mentioned at all).
Still, it’s tough to fault Lacy for concentrating her energy on what works. Even watching brief, out-of-context clips of Spielberg’s most iconic films demonstrates the emotional power they contain. For instance, I found myself weeping as I watched a heartbroken Elliot say goodbye to his alien friend, and when Oskar Schindler realizes the ultimate fate of the little girl in the red coat.
I also appreciated the time she spends on one of Spielberg’s darker periods, which began with “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (which he made as a tribute to/favor for the late Stanley Kubrick) and “Minority Report,” then — following a brief tangent with “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Terminal” — concluded with “War of the Worlds” and “Munich.”
I would’ve liked to see Lacy devote more time to Spielberg’s most recent films (including “War Horse,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies”), which I think get overlooked because we’ve taken the director’s greatness for granted, but I get why she’d want to stick to the greatest hits. It seems ludicrous to call the most famous filmmaker in the world “underrated,” but I truly think he is.
He’s also insanely prolific. With two new films scheduled for release in the coming months (“The Post” and “Ready Player One”) and two more in the planning stages (“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” and yet another “Indiana Jones” adventure), I wouldn’t mind at all if Lacy decides to do a sequel in a few years. There are still plenty of interesting stories to be mined from such a massive career.
“Spielberg” is rated TV-MA for adult content, adult language, brief nudity and violence.