The Steven Spielberg portrayed in Susan Lacy’s satisfyingly comprehensive 2½ -hour HBO documentary “Spielberg” is a wide-open book. It’s all so clearly been about a lonely suburban boy who found solace in filmmaking and grew up to envision and direct an unforgettable list of movies about lonely boys (sometimes girls) who find cathartic resolution amid middle-American angst, war, political chaos, futuristic ennui and supernatural phenomena. Beginning, essentially, with a shark.
“He certainly likes torturing the audience,” observes one of the film’s many sources, film critic J. Hoberman, on the subject of Spielberg’s breakout hit, 1975’s “ Jaws.” “Has he ever been in analysis?”
No need! Turns out that nearly everything you’d want to know about Spielberg is front-and-center in his blockbusters, broken down for us here in the simplest exercise of auteur theory: Lacy (who created PBS’s “American Masters” series) gets Spielberg to talk about personal baggage and how it surfaces on-screen. Childhood fears (“Jaws”), ostracization and parental divorce (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”); his disavowal and later acceptance of being Jewish (“Schindler’s List”), his reconciliation with his father (“Saving Private Ryan”), his reactions to 9/11 (“Munich,” “War of the Worlds”).
“Steven doesn’t want to make little, personal movies,” says actor Bob Balaban. “He wants to make big personal movies.”
“Spielberg” (airing Saturday) has the feel of official business, with the man himself happily participating in long conversations about his creative process, while dozens of other sources — his 100-year-old father, Arnold, and his mother, Leah, who died at 97 in February; his siblings, peers, longtime collaborators, actors, film critics and historians — supply their own observations and asides. It also features a thrilling, chronological examination of his movies (the best of them, along with some flops such as “1941” and “Hook”) that gives shape and depth to the definition of the Spielbergian style.
Describing “Spielberg” makes it sound like an exercise in fawning, and it is indeed gentle and reverent. But it does include a note or two of well-aired criticism: In a clip from an old “60 Minutes” interview with the late Ed Bradley, a younger Spielberg is confronted with the opinion that his films were big but hollow — “Not art,” Bradley suggests. Like his pal George Lucas, Spielberg testily rejects what he calls a “pretentious” notion that art must be serious and not move the viewer in an emotional way.
A sequence about his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” suggests that Spielberg’s vision for the movie hasn’t held up (critic David Edelstein says “There’s something so false, so Disney-storyboard about that movie”). “He could never go where Alice [Walker] went with that book,” offers producer Kathleen Kennedy, a longtime collaborator. “I just wasn’t the right guy to do that,” Spielberg says.
Perhaps Lacy brings Spielberg low at this point to prepare the viewer for the exultant second half of her documentary, which sticks to a theme of ascent and maturity. Spielberg’s workaholism costs him personally (it’s strange that, of the dozens of people who are interviewed in the film, we hear nothing from his wife, Kate Capshaw, or any of his seven children), but it paid off extraordinarily. In 1993, he once again conquered the summer box-office with “Jurassic Park,” fully unleashing the age of computer-generated effects and then, only months later, he released his personal masterpiece, “Schindler’s List,” which cleaned up at the Academy Awards.
From there, “Spielberg” coasts mainly on afterglow and continued output, providing example after example of its subject’s many contributions to the art of filmmaking. And it offers the pleasant reassurance that, at 70, Spielberg considers his work far from finished.
Spielberg (150 minutes) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.