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Review: ‘Spielberg’ Is a Close Encounter With Genius

Eventually, his parents split up. The disrupted Norman Rockwell idyll, and the theme of families dividing, would recur in his early movies: a shark disrupting an American beach summer in “Jaws,” the single-parent family in “E.T.,” the father chasing U.F.O.s in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Stream These Underrated Steven Spielberg Movies

“Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List”: The greatest films of Steven Spielberg are known by all. But the director’s other projects — and there are many — provide an equally interesting handful.

This sensibility made him mainstream, but that jeopardized his artistic cred, especially coming up in the raging-bull 1970s. Even George Lucas of “Star Wars” fancied himself a rebel. Mr. Spielberg didn’t define himself in opposition to anything. He won respect gradually, through the force of his craft.

Mr. Spielberg’s craving for assimilation extended to his Jewish heritage. He recalls being mortified as a child when his grandfather would call him by his Hebrew name — “Shmuel!” — in front of his friends. “He didn’t want to be Jewish,” his sister Anne Spielberg says, “because it made us different from everybody.” In part, “Schindler’s List” was his way of coming to terms with his identity.

Ms. Lacy created “American Masters” for PBS, and “Spielberg” is in that mold, bringing in dozens of celebrities, critics and colleagues and nearly 30 hours of interviews with Mr. Spielberg. At almost two and a half hours, it’s a vast survey, though it accelerates for the later, elder-statesman part of the director’s career. (“A.I.,” “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds” are grouped as his dystopian sci-fi trilogy; “Amistad,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies” under civic order and the rule of law.)


Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on the set of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Courtesy of HBO

“Spielberg” is laudatory but not unreservedly so. It brings up the critique that he watered down the lesbian sexual elements in his adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” — a film he made in part to prove his seriousness — and Mr. Spielberg recognizes that he was the wrong director to address those themes.

Ms. Lacy doesn’t stint on discussion of technique or clips from Mr. Spielberg’s films; a reel of them early in the documentary reminds you how many images he’s added to our visual vocabulary.

But the first movie scene you see in “Spielberg” is a stunning desert vista from “Lawrence of Arabia,” a screening of which almost drove the young Mr. Spielberg to give up directing. Before Ms. Lacy shows you Mr. Spielberg’s movies, she shows you the movies through his eyes.

For all its sweep, “Spielberg” the documentary succeeds most distinctively where Mr. Spielberg the director has: accessing the child in its subject. Talking about his penchant for suspense, Mr. Spielberg remembers how he used to trap his sisters in a closet with a skull that he’d dripped gory-looking candle wax on. It sounds like a pretty rotten trick, but talking about it now, Mr. Spielberg gets animated.

“I still think it was pretty cool!” he says. “I was going to say I hate myself for that, but I don’t hate myself for that. It was fun!”

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