Book Review: Understanding Steven Spielberg

Much has been written about Steven Spielberg. He is, after all, the highest-grossing director of all time, and has managed to imprint himself on multiple cultural zeitgeists.

Spielberg is as famous for his sober ruminations on history as he is for his grandly entertaining action set pieces—both of which often share the same cinematic space. Now, Understanding Steven Spielberg, from Beatriz Peña-Acuña, a professor from Saint Anthony University in Murcia, Spain, offers an academic dissection of the famed director’s filmography and exemplary workmanship.

Much of Understanding Steven Spielberg analyzes the formal aspects of Spielberg’s oeuvre, from visual design to sonic landscape and screenplays to his unique ability to direct actors. Peña-Acuña breaks down these elements of Spielberg’s repertoire to construct an operative idea of the man: his humanistic storytelling, the breadcrumbs of his childhood sprinkled throughout his narratives, his “ethical awareness” of his role as a Jewish-American moviemaker. Though the idea of “Spielberg” is something of a myth, Peña-Acuña’s attempt to “understand” him is an act of defining in clear terms the creative, entrepreneurial, and personal facets of a complex-yet-relatable figure. 

The final stretch of Understanding Steven Spielberg focuses on distilling the formula that Spielberg has developed and used throughout his career to achieve economic success. According to Peña-Acuña, such a formula consists of his maintaining of optimism and desire for professional improvement, control over his productions, and ability to visually express history. On the technical side, she observes the ways in which he has managed to surround himself with a familiar, reliable team of professionals and, most importantly, always take his audience into account.

The Takeaway

At 145-pages in a prose style alternately brisk and dense, Understanding Steven Spielberg is aimed primarily at the seasoned Spielberg fan, rarely pausing to remind readers of the broader contexts of his films before diving into details. With this theoretical approach, Peña-Acuña limits herself to a more narrow audience than could be reached. For some, this might be a problem, but as the book’s unusually hefty $120 price point suggests, if you’re willing to spend the money on Understanding Steven Spielberg, you’re most likely its target audience. For such fans, this is a well-researched academic treatise on one of the most popular moviemakers of all time. MM

Understanding Steven Spielberg was released by Cambridge Scholars Publishing on May 1, 2018. This article appeared in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issue.

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