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D: Susan Lacy / 147m

With: Steven Spielberg, Leah Adler, Francis Ford Coppola, Daniel Day-Lewis, Brian De Palma, Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Dreyfuss, Sally Field, Tom Hanks, Michael Kahn, Janusz Kaminski, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Janet Maslin, Dennis Muren, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Anne Spielberg, Arnold Spielberg, Nancy Spielberg, Sue Spielberg, John Williams, Vilmos Zsigmond

Spielberg opens with a confession from the man himself: that when he saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for the first time, it made him realise he couldn’t be a director. The scope and the depth of David Lean’s extraordinary movie was so far beyond Spielberg’s own capabilities as a budding movie maker that it was overwhelming. But not even Lean’s masterpiece could deter him completely. The next week he saw it again, and again the week after that, and the week after that… Awake to the possibilities that cinema could offer and provide, Spielberg continued to make short movies of his own, including Amblin’ (1968). This brought him to the attention of Sid Sheinberg, then president of Universal, who took a chance on him. A short stint in television led to his first feature, Duel (1971), and just four years later, he changed the face of cinema forever by making the first summer blockbuster, Jaws (1975). The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Susan Lacy’s celebratory documentary focuses on the various highs of Spielberg’s career, while studiously ignoring the lows. This is to be expected perhaps, but while the likes of Jaws, E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), and Lincoln (2012) are studied in some detail, once 1941 (1979) is dealt with (“Why couldn’t I make a comedy?”), the focus settles on establishing Spielberg as a predominantly serious movie maker, and not the populist movie maker who, at his best, can still inspire the kinds of awe and wonder that other directors can only dream of. Lacy looks to how Spielberg has grown as a director, and how he’s used each new experience behind the camera as a way of augmenting and perfecting his craft. Even now, after more than fifty years as a director, Spielberg comes across as someone who’s still learning, and is eager to do so. It doesn’t hurt that he’s an engaging and often self-deprecating interviewee, and throughout he makes references to growing up and being a child of divorce, something that has infused much of his work since.

His recollections and reminiscences are supported by a range of collaborators and interested parties, but none are as interesting as those supplied by his family, from his mother Leah, father Arnold, and sisters Anne, Nancy and Sue. Their memories of his childhood, coupled with his feelings about being Jewish, help broaden our understanding of Spielberg the person, and what has driven him in his work over the years. But while he’s open and honest about his parents’ divorce and the effect it had on him, and the importance of his own family now, the absence of Kate Capshaw is curious (and unexplained). That aside, and though the movie overall is a fascinating endorsement of his career and achievements, it’s perhaps a little too safe in its approach. Though a plethora of behind the scenes footage, and photographs from his childhood and early career is welcome, and Spielberg is a worthy subject, there’s a sense that his observations about those movies which weren’t so successful – Hook (1991), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), or The BFG (2016) – would have been equally welcome. Lacy correctly focuses on Spielberg’s strengths as a director and the high regard he has amongst his peers, but even that brings up another issue: with Spielberg having had a considerable influence on a range of movie makers over the last forty-plus years, why are their contributions as noticeably absent as Capshaw’s?

Rating: 7/10 – a documentary that isn’t as wide-ranging as it could have been (and despite its running time), Spielberg is still an entertaining journey through the director’s life and career that is informative and convivial; having Spielberg revisit many of his movies is illuminating, and there’s enough here that’s new or previously unrevealed to make this – for now – the place to go to find out how and why he makes the movies he does.

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