After more than fifty years of exemplary film criticism for Life and Time Magazines, and directing biographies on such iconic filmmakers are Eastwood and Scorsese, Richard Schickel casts his gaze on the most famous movie director of all time, who rarely interviews or gives commentaries on their DVDs. Given the rare opportunity to hear him talk about his life and achievements, why does this feel so flat and lifeless?
Maybe it’s because Schickel only focuses on Speilberg as director, and then only on some of the projects he actually made. Maybe it’s because what Schickel gleans from Speilberg has been so oft-told, by Spielberg and others, very little new or revelatory comes to light. And at a scant eighty-six minutes, one must wonder what was left of the proverbial cutting room floor. Did Spielberg spend any time talking about the projects he once planned to make, such as “Big” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” but ended up letting go of for various reasons? Did he talk about his mentoring the likes of Robert Zemeckis, or the dozens of projects like “Goonies” and “Gremlins” and “Back to the Future” and “American Tail?” Did he talk about the projects that he supervised but ended up taking his name off of, like “Fandango” and “Three O’Clock High,” for various reasons? Did he talk about what really happened with “Poltergeist?” Did he talk about his TV projects, from “Amazing Stories” and “Animaniacs” to “Band of Brothers” and “Taken?” Did he talk about working with other iconoclastic filmmakers, like Eastwood and Scorsese, or what went into the creation of DreamWorks? Did he talk about his plans for the future?
What we do get is mostly the type of five-cent sound byte perfected over thirty years of the kind of junketeer queries that sadly passes for modern journalism. We may not, and should not, expect an inquisition, but when you have someone like Richard Schickel creating the retrospect, we can expect a better insight into the man and his work than we would get from the local morning news. When Spielberg does open up about his non-filmmaking life, it is only on the most basic terms. Much has been written about how seemingly drastic his parent’s divorce has permeated his work, yet Spielberg makes no mention of how this event informed his storytelling. When he talks about his children, it is only how the ending of “Close Encounters” would have been different if he had made it today, being a father with a lifetime of experience versus a younger single man with little responsibilities.
The first third of the show features a rote timeline of his early days, starting with the mythical stories of his days as a teenager wandering the Universal Studios lot, trying to look like he belonged, through his early career directing television episodes and the occasional made for TV movie. We are treated to some professionally-drawn storyboards to accentuate his stories of how he only had a few days to shoot the seventy-something page script for “Duel,” and how he was able to shave days of his shooting schedule by having five camera crews rolling during many of the truck chase sequences. If only there were more nuggets of unlearned information like this. We zip through “Jaws” and “Close Encounters” in quick succession, learn his humility from the “1941” debacle and how his friendship with George Lucas, who quickly put him on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” after his first professional misstep, saved his from despair. After some backstory into “E.T.,” the narration strangely jumps a decade to “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” and then spends the remaining time bouncing from project to project, with little rhyme or reason or timeframe reference, until we end with his most project “Munich.” Even more strangely, Schickel omits any reference to the “Indiana Jones” or “Jurassic Park” sequels, his part of “The Twilight Zone” movie, “Always,” “Hook” and the more recent “Catch Me If You Can,” which garned some of the best reviews of his career.
Considering the golden opportunity Schickel had to get him to really get in depth about his projects, and the brevity of this one, “Spielberg on Spielberg” can only be seen as a colossal let-down.Rating: C-