Steven Spielberg is the Stephen King of movies. He’s one of the best pure storytellers in his medium, but his immense success has earned him a raft of detractors. Constantly challenged by his inner need for achievement, he escapes a creative pigeonhole again and again and continues to produce unexpected work that comes from an unfamiliar place. His legion of fans connect to him on a visceral basis, which makes others in his field envious. His first name is Steve.
I hope they never make a 2:30 documentary about the career of Stephen King, because a writer’s life ain’t too visual, and on most of the occasions King’s made it to the big screen, the results have been varying shades of regrettable. But HBO has done just that for Spielberg, and the entertaining career retrospective is not only fun but also eye-opening.
Spielberg has been around since before the dawn of the summer blockbuster (as has King), which is generally thought to have commenced with the release of his picture JAWS in 1975. He was just a kid but he already had lots of experience shooting tv for Universal under the tutelage of executive Sidney Sheinberg. Legend has it that young master Spielberg sneaked onto the lot and commandeered an empty office for months. I don’t believe that, and neither does David Geffen, who refers us to the famous LIBERTY VALANCE line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I do believe Spielberg himself when he says he ducked off the studio-tour tram at a bathroom break and stuck around for the rest of the day, maybe even more than once. Spielberg had been shooting his own 8mm movies since adolescence, learning by doing. He saw the world during his awkward years through the lens of a movie camera. His short film AMBLIN’ was good enough to impress Sheinberg, and that’s how he really got on the lot. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school, so Universal became his film school. He soaked it all up like a sponge.
Spielberg was part of that Seventies group of young turks who threatened to take over the movie business, then wound up doing exactly that. Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma – each of them is among the talking heads in the HBO doc. Think about the mind-blowing movies that came from that group alone, yet Spielberg towers over them all. He could always out-nerd every single movie nerd in the whole posse. In the fullness of time he’s become the world’s most famous working film director. His name on a picture alone makes you perk up and pay attention.
How do you follow a sensation like JAWS? For this whiz kid, with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. He didn’t really have to deal with abject failure until he made 1941, a low comedy which I find underrated but which was widely reviled — and, more important to Hollywood, lost money after blowing a huge budget. It was hubris that did Spielberg in: he says at that point he thought he could do anything.
He licked his wounds for a year or so until his old friend George Lucas “came to the rescue,” as Spielberg puts it. Every studio wanted the proposed Lucasfilm archaeologist character, but nobody wanted Spielberg to direct because he was already notorious for trashing schedules and budgets. Now he had something to prove — and a compadre to prove it to. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a delight from beginning to end, largely because its audience didn’t grow up with Republic serials — “every reel was a cliffhanger,” says Spielberg of the first Indiana Jones movie — so everything old was again a surprise.
After achieving great success, Stephen King seemed to need to self-test his creative chops. He had demonstrated that he could do sprawling epics like THE STAND. How about telescoping down to two characters? MISERY. One? GERALD’S GAME. Similarly, Spielberg ventured out from his fantasy wheelhouse into significant forays like THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER’S LIST. By the time of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was able to employ both sides of his brain at once. The opening and closing scenes are probably the best cinematic depiction of WWII-era battle you can find on the screen, but in Spielbergian fashion they’re hyper-realistic, more real than reality. Then MUNICH, LINCOLN, BRIDGE OF SPIES: “serious” films by Steven Spielberg. Now people don’t bat an eye whenever he veers from the fantastic.
He tells us in the doc that he only has a vague idea of what’s going to happen when he arrives on set every morning. He’s the anti-Hitchcock. He thinks that frisson of everyday terror keeps him sharp (although one of the best pieces of advice he ever got was, never let the crew think you’re not in control: they’ll lose all respect for you). This sounds true to me: nearly every writer I’ve ever had the privilege of editing suffers to one degree or another from impostor syndrome.
I think Spielberg may have to wait for posterity to receive his proper due, like John Ford or Howard Hawks. But if you don’t already think you’re living through the career of one pure-dee historically significant filmmaker, watch this doc and think again.
12/19/17: THE POST is one of those great bits of drama where you know how it’s going to turn out but you still want to watch everybody sweat. All filmmaking elements are superb. Spielberg led the whole production while he was waiting for the VFX guys to finish their work on READY PLAYER ONE.