Rajeev Masand

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A life in pictures



Few filmmakers have married artistic ambition with commercial success in the way that Steven Spielberg has. He is both an Oscar-winning director, and the man credited with inventing the modern blockbuster. He has given us beautiful, deeply affecting tales about the innocence of childhood, and handled stories about serious world events with equal ease. Such is the influence he wields on the cinematic landscape that the words, “a Steven Spielberg film” have come to represent a genre unto itself.

Titled, quite simply, Spielberg, this 2017 HBO documentary directed by Susan Lacy is as much a celebration of the filmmaker’s career as it is an intensely personal portrait of the man. There are interviews with his colleagues, his family, and critics that help understand how he’s gone on to leave such an enormous footprint on popular culture. But it’s the refreshingly candid conversations with Spielberg himself that are key to recognizing how much of his childhood and early life he poured into his movies.

From channeling his memories of being bullied on the schoolyard into his first TV movie Duel, to drawing on his feelings towards his parents’ messy divorce for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg is surprisingly forthcoming on private matters. He admits he was a scared child, but also shares the memory of trapping his sisters in a closet with a fake skull and chuckling as they begged to be let out.

For the cinephiles it’s a virtual trip down memory lane as Spielberg identifies Lawrence of Arabia as one of the earliest films that stoked his love for the movies, then discusses in some detail the experience of making his initial films…including the troubled production of Jaws, navigating nascent special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the devastating failure of 1941.

If you’re s Spielberg nut, you already know some of these stories but there’s a thrill in listening to him tell them. He admits he just didn’t have what it needed to deep-dive into the lesbian relationship in The Color Purple, and discusses why Schindler’s List meant so much to him, before ruminating on themes of democracy and moral integrity that drove his desire to make Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the documentary begins to drag a little as it hits the halfway mark, and some of Spielberg’s later films become the casualty as a result. I know I’d have loved to hear more about some of his lesser films and the criticism they received, but there’s not a lot of that to be found here.

Nevertheless there’s a lot to take in, but with Spielberg continuing to make movies, the documentary does feel a tad incomplete. (Naturally there’s no mention of The Post, which came out after the documentary had been produced.) Still it’s a very worthy reference guide for fans of American cinema as it attempts to unravel the mind and the heart of one of its most popular filmmakers.

(Spielberg is currently available to stream on Hotstar)



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