Steven Spielberg (left) works with Tom Hanks on the set of “Saving Private Ryan.” | Courtesy of HBO

Thorough ‘Spielberg’ documentary covers director’s hits and his heroes

SHARE Thorough ‘Spielberg’ documentary covers director’s hits and his heroes
SHARE Thorough ‘Spielberg’ documentary covers director’s hits and his heroes

If you love movies, Steven Spielberg has given you more lasting and treasured gifts than you’ve received on all of your birthdays put together.

Think of it this way: If the credits for all of Spielberg’s films, from “Jaws” to “Close Encounters,” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “E.T.,” from “The Color Purple” to “Jurassic Park,” from “Schindler’s List” to “Saving Private Ryan,” were divided among five directors, we’d say each of those five directors had a prolific and versatile and wildly successful career.

That one man has directed more than 60 films, and about 50 of those films are either damn entertaining, great or timeless masterpieces, is a breathtaking accomplishment.

So yes, if we’re going to talk about filmmakers who deserve a two-and-half-hour documentary (and there are many), the first one that comes to mind is Steven Spielberg.

Premiering Saturday on HBO, “Spielberg” is an insightful, comprehensive, entertaining and sprawling insider’s look at the boy genius who is now 70 but has never lost his childlike sense of wonder — or his gift for storytelling.

Spielberg sat down with director Susan Lacy (creator of the legendary PBS “American Masters” series) for some 30 hours of interviews, offering warm memories from his early days as a childhood filmmaker, fascinating anecdotes about the making of so many of his memorable hits and passionate conversation about influences such as the films of Stanley Kubrick, and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The film also features interviews with Spielberg’s sisters, his parents, actor/fans such as Ralph Fiennes, Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, Sally Field and Leonardo DiCaprio — and the peers who came up with him in the 1970s and are now the old lions of Hollywood; Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas.

The young Steven Spielberg, as seen in the documentary “Spielberg.” | Courtesy of HBO

The young Steven Spielberg, as seen in the documentary “Spielberg.” | Courtesy of HBO

As you might expect, those guys shot a LOT of home movie footage back in the day. We see a snippet from the early 1970s, when Spielberg and the aforementioned are playing pool, and Spielberg is telling “George” (as in Lucas) how to frame the shot as Spielberg lines up his cue.

“Steven had the first car phone,” says Brian De Palma, and we cut to grainy footage of Spielberg in his car, wielding a phone the size of his head. As De Palma tells it, they’d call girls on the car phone and say they’d swing by — but they’d already be outside their door. Miraculous!

Lucas talks about how none of them expected to ever make any money from their movies. (Ahem.) Spielberg recalls them all seeing a print of “Star Wars” without the special effects, and a subsequent dinner in which De Palma suggested the now-famous opening crawl to Lucas. (Later, Spielberg would offer suggestions to De Palma about how to stage the famous staircase shootout in “Scarface.”)

Director Lacy sprinkles in classic clips from some of Spielberg’s most memorable films, as well as behind-the-scenes footage. Some of the stories have been told many, many time, e.g., a young Spielberg supposedly sneaking onto the lot at Universal and setting up an office for six months. (According to Spielberg, he didn’t exactly sneak onto the lot: He took a public tour bus, went to the bathroom — and stayed in the bathroom “until I could hear a pin drop.”)

Many other stories are fresh. “He would be literally running with a camera, a handheld camera, following us,” recalls Liam Neeson about the making of “Schindler’s List.”

We’re reminded of Spielberg’s incredible eye for stunning visuals, from things as monumental as the spaceship in “Close Encounters” and the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and the Omaha Beach invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” to something as small and yet equally powerful as the girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List.”

This is a fitting and thorough tribute to a director whose work has left an enormous footprint on the popular culture.


HBO Documentary Films presents a documentary directed by Susan Lacy. No MPAA rating. Running time: 147 minutes. Debuts at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

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