Steven Spielberg says the first memory he has is that of a red ner tamid (eternal flame) in a synagogue. He was raised in a deeply religious family, denied his faith, then ultimately became one of its most important chroniclers thanks to the love of an outsider. Sounds like something out of the movies? Well, it is, and it’s one of the many fascinating narrative threads in HBO’s October 7 (lengthy) portrait, “Spielberg.”
Director Susan Lacy (an executive behind 80+ PBS “American Masters” specials) frames her film with a quote from Spielberg about his life-altering screening of “Lawrence of Arabia” as a young man. He recognized that movies weren’t just about story, they were about themes. This revelation allows Lacy room to use interview footage and clips to riff on recurring topics. It doesn’t lead to any grand epiphany, but there are enough “ah, would you look at that” moments to keep things interesting.
There were a number of “big years” for Spielberg.
There was 1969, when he was the youngest director to get a long-term contract for television work based on the strength of a short film.
At age 21 he directed 71-year-old Joan Crawford for an episode of “Night Gallery.”
After a nigh catastrophic shoot (the shark didn’t work!) his masterpiece “Jaws” radically changed the business side of the movie business in 1975.
He revolutionized special effects with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977 and in 1982 created a new sort of kids’ film with “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.”
There was also that “lower-budget, B-movie” with his buddy George Lucas, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in 1981.
These movies (and others) represented a string of popular successes that had never been matched, and perhaps never will be. But some critics suggested that Spielberg was a whiz with “film grammar” (a snooty phrase meaning “where to put the camera” and “when to cut”) but dealt only in surface and sentimentality.
Spielberg’s career was building to 1993. That summer he released “Jurassic Park,” which some consider as good as “Jaws.” (I don’t, but it’s close. I mean, Richard Dreyfus vs. Jeff Goldblum is pretty evenly matched.) It was a major success but also a step forward in the use of digital technology. “Jurassic Park” represented advances in Spielberg’s popcorn side, but that December — building on some of his more serious work like “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun” — he released “Schindler’s List.”
Spielberg had the rights to Thomas Keneally’s book “Schindler’s Ark” for a decade, knowing that at some point he’d get to it. He wanted, he said, to “grow up first.”
That road included reconciling with his father (and, oy, that’s a whole Spielbergian feel-good story in itself) and falling in love with his second wife Kate Capshaw. Capshaw converted to Judaism, and in so doing brought Steven more in touch with his own heritage.
In “Spielberg,” the director (and his sisters) explain how he was ashamed of being in the only Jewish family in their Phoenix, Arizona, suburb. It wasn’t part of the American Dream vision he had of himself. He recalls when his Russian-Jewish grandfather shouted for him across the street using his Hebrew name Shmuel, and how the other kids teased him. It was after his marriage to Capshaw that he decided to finally make “Schindler’s List” and that experience made him, as he puts it, “so proud to be a Jew.”
Actor Liam Neeson describes the near manic drive Spielberg had on that set. He did not work from storyboards and oftentimes hand-held the camera himself. (Most movie directors don’t do this.) Spielberg, who had so defined himself with clever shots and studio trickery threw all those techniques away and shot many sequences in the film as if it were a documentary.
“He had the entire weight of his tribe on him,” Neeson recalls.
Spielberg refused a salary for “Schindler’s List” and diverted those funds into the Shoah Foundation, the largest archive of Holocaust testimony. It has since expanded to become an audio-visual resource not only about Jews surviving Nazis, but additional genocides and instances of mass violence.
In 2005 Spielberg and Jewish-American writer Tony Kushner collaborated on “Munich,” which is half action-adventure film, half essay about the futility of vengeance. Its subject is the aftermath of the 1972 terrorist attack against the Israeli Olympic team by the Palestinian group Black September. In “Spielberg,” this notch on the director’s resume gets significant attention for its brilliant use of blocking, editing and tension, but also points to an increasing ambivalence Spielberg had about the post-9/11 War on Terror. (You can examine that further in 2002’s “Minority Report,” 2005’s “War of the Worlds” and even 2015’s “Bridge of Spies.”)
Many Israelis complained that “Munich” inappropriately put the Palestinian terrorists and Israeli Mossad agents on the “same moral plane.” Spielberg even hired the services of an Israeli advisor to try and turn Israeli opinion on the film. I personally recall staying up late into the night at a bar arguing about this masterpiece with people who were both more right-wing and left-wing than I. (Consider me the Ralph Bunche of film critics that year.) None of this is mentioned in the new documentary.
But you can’t put everything about a man’s 45-year career into one movie. (Some of that’s a good thing. There’s no mention of the dreadful “Hook.”) One thing that’s evident is that Steven Spielberg didn’t get where he is by luck. His career is driven by talent, determination and maybe even a little divine inspiration.