In his latest documentary for Turner Classic Movies, film historian (and Time critic) Richard Schickel is content to let Steven Spielberg spin the same old tales. Save a few clips from his 8mm childhood efforts (including an early alien-invasion tale) and an insightful section in which the world’s most successful filmmaker expounds on his films’ shared theme of communication, there’s little here that was previously unknown. Despite his unobtrusive, off-camera presence, Schickel is clearly a company man in blind awe of his subject. All the approved works get an extended discussion (1941 is the accepted flop, The Color Purple is Spielberg’s first “adult” production and Schindler’s List his most “important” film), while others are glossed over or entirely ignored (wherefore Something Evil, his 1972 made-for-TV horror movie?). Schickel’s methods are unpretentious, but his refusal to probe deeper into Spielberg’s art is unacceptable.
That Spielberg no doubt cultivates this unapproachable aura only complicates matters; he’s a great artist, in the guise of a benevolent capitalist, who diminishes himself by so often trying to be all things to all people. Yet his movies, always in part if rarely in full, betray his grating public persona. Look closer at works like the recent, masterful Munich or the unheralded Night Gallery episode “Make Me Laugh” (the one not starring Joan Crawford—that was “Eyes”) and witness Spielberg’s deep affinity for outsiders, not to mention his trenchant, often-revolutionary understanding of race, gender and class dynamics. It’s entirely possible that Spielberg is unable to speak to this side of his work, but Schickel doesn’t even make the effort. Until someone is willing to ask Spielberg anything beyond the approved and expected questions, we’re likely to get more of the same.