July 5, 2007

Reviewed by Brian Orndorf

Spielberg. The name alone is iconic, burned into Hollywood directorial royalty alongside such kings as Welles, Kubrick, Scorsese, and Kurosawa. His is the ultimate story of monumental talent triumphing in the end, creating a distinguished, celebratory, and massively successful filmography that is jaw-dropping to behold. Spielberg is also a guarded man who loves to discuss his movies, but long ago lost that uncontainable spark that once fueled his imagination, and now sits comfortably behind years of carefully practiced reflection.

“Spielberg on Spielberg” is the latest documentary from “Time” media critic Richard Schickel (you know, the guy who openly loathes online film critics), following other film commentaries from Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, and Martin Scorsese. Spielberg is his most bubbly, well-known assignment and he coaxes the filmmaker into a screening room seat at Universal Studios to look back at the motion pictures that defined his tastes, lined his bank account to the bursting point, and cemented his reputation as one of our finest cinema artists.

Giving himself only 90 minutes to sprint through 40 years of complicated directorial history, Schickel is facing impossible odds. Simply considering what Spielberg has accomplished during his reign behind the camera is worth a welcome four hours of daydreaming from me alone, so the brief time set aside for this creation seems insulting at worst, undemanding at best. Incredibly, the documentary does manage to at least get the joy of Spielberg’s career ascent and his struggle to stay relevant in the Hollywood game. It speeds through the golden years like a bullet, but the burnt-plastic fumes of genius are still a welcoming smell.

Starting with fleeting glimpses of Spielberg’s childhood directorial efforts, the documentary wastes no time getting the crafty aspiring filmmaker to the Universal lot, where the wunderkind spent his summers sneaking around the stages and making contacts, eventually finding himself with a job directing television shows surrounded by crews who detested his youthful exuberance. Soon, we’re on to the growing pains of “Duel” and “The Sugarland Express,” hearing Spielberg earnestly express his growth in confidence and stature. Once “Jaws” enters the picture, his innocence is wiped away. Dealing with both a torturous production reality and the afterglow of astounding worldwide box office success, Spielberg makes it clear that “Jaws” was the picture that solidified him as a filmmaker with a capital F and an industry force to be reckoned with.

From there, the list is astonishing: the sneak-attack brilliance of “Close Encounters,” the ego-popping misfortune and lessons learned from “1941” (Spielberg is unnervingly honest in his reappraisal of the film), his career rebirth with the flawless adventure diamond “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the cultural dominance of “E.T.,” and the coronation of Spielberg, the box office king, during his time with “Jurassic Park.” Shickel is wise to begin the program with the director’s biggest hits and misses; the movies that defined a younger Spielberg’s elasticity and played into his enthusiasm for audience-pleasing blockbusters.

What’s fascinating to see here in the first half of the commentary is Spielberg’s fervor and uncontainable joy recalling production miracles or basking in the glow of his many successes. Certainly he has an ego the size of Texas, but bring up the larger, introspective thematic scheme of “Close Encounters” or his first glimpse of CG dinosaurs, and the man is reduced to a fit of giggles and animated displays of nostalgic euphoria. It’s a treat to see the wall of pretension knocked down for a few fleeting moments.

The second act of “Spielberg” traces the rise of the director’s artistic development, where he begins to tackle challenging material such as “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” and “Schindler’s List.” This is where the empathetic and reserved Spielberg we all know today comes out; the overtly cultured film Buddha with stiff index fingers jabbed under his chin, every word selected in advance to best drink in the poignancy of his historical and dramatic efforts.

Finally, Schickel analyzes the last decade of Spielberg’s output, presenting the maturation of a filmmaker and his growing concern in locating scripts that communicate his ideals and hopes for humanity. “Saving Private Ryan” allowed the director to pay his respects to the Greatest Generation and exercise his improvisational filmmaking skill; he defends “A.I.” from the critics that foolishly suggested his thumbprint was all over the picture (in other words, you can still blame Kubrick for that mess); “Munich” was his controversial chance to address the horrific cycle of terrorism and unyielding questions of faith; “War of the Worlds” connected him to the filmmaking roots of his youth; while “Terminal” and “Amistad” are singled out as examples of Spielberg’s insatiable curiosity with the jagged fragments of interpersonal communication.

Of course, being of such short length, the film can’t be everywhere at once; Schickel’s editorial skills induce spit-take whiplash at critical junctures. The documentary also can’t possibly cover every film Spielberg has created, leaving colossal question marks like “Hook,” “Always,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Poltergeist,” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (a personal favorite, and one the maestro has always frowned upon for vague reasons) behind without a lick of comment.

“Spielberg on Spielberg” might lack polish or grandeur, but it achieves what Schickle has set out to do, and that is nudging the director to comment openly on his own body of work; to express himself without a soundbite sniper rifle pointed at his tongue or the demands of promotion censoring his thoughts. It’s not totally uncut Spielberg, but it’s a splendid look at a career that changed the industry, a filmmaker who never wastes a frame, and a collection of spellbinding movies that will outlive us all.

— A minus

“Spielberg on Spielberg” premieres July 9th on the Turner Classic Movies cable network.

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